Review: 5 power-line devices that take you online where Ethernet or Wi-Fi can't

Power-line devices can use existing electrical wiring to connect you to your router -- and therefore to the Internet. But what kind of performance will you get?

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Linksys by Cisco Powerline AV Network Kit (PLK-300)

Cisco-Linksys LLC's kit gets the nod for looks among these five devices. The PLK-300 shares the same piano black styling with blue status LEDs as Belkin's devices but is just a little bit sexier.

The modules use detachable power cords to connect to outlets; one of them has four RJ45 connectors so you can attach multiple devices. As with the other devices, there's no installation to speak of, although there is a Quick Start guide and an electronic version of the user manual on disc.

In most testing cases, the PLK-300 ended as the bridesmaid rather than the bride. It took 50.86 minutes to complete the room-to-room clean transfer; only the Zyxel Communications device, at 50.16 minutes, was quicker.

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Linksys by Cisco Powerline AV Network Kit

Connected to the same outlet, Linksys' time to complete a clean transfer plummeted to a much better 29.27 minutes, giving it a second place finish between a faster Belkin and barely slower Netgear Inc. device. The 90-foot test also saw Linksys in second place at 31.94 minutes, this time slightly trailing Zyxel and just barely ahead of Netgear.

Unfortunately, each time a video stream was added to the 90-foot file-transfer scenario, the PLK-300 added 3.28 minutes on average to the completion time. At five streams, the transfer time had risen to 48.35 minutes -- faster than Belkin and D-Link but trailing Zyxel and Netgear significantly. At no time did any of the videos themselves show evidence of stuttering or hiccups, but these results don't bode well for networks that are under a heavy load of mixed media and data.

For lightweight network loads, Linksys is the budget choice here, beating out Zyxel in this category solely on a dollar basis.

Netgear Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter Kit (XAVB101)

The gray and off-gray nodules that make up Netgear's Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter Kit will never grace a display case in the Museum of Modern Art, but who really cares? As with all the products here, installation was basically plug and play. There's only a single RJ45 in each module, and you can only connect one network device to each. The plugs aren't polarized, and you can stand them up or hang them down in your AC outlet so they don't block the remaining outlet at the same time.

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Netgear Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter Kit

There are security buttons on each module that, when pressed sequentially, will set up 128-bit AES encryption between the two devices in case someone is trying to tap into your network. And the three LEDs keep you informed about whether the devices are plugged in, connected to each other and communicating.

As far as performance was concerned, Netgear didn't distinguish itself. The device scored a 56.04-minute completion time for the room-to-room test, putting it in the middle of the pack, behind Zyxel and Linksys but ahead of Belkin and D-Link. the Netgear was also third in the same outlet testing, although -- except for Zyxel -- only tenths of minutes separated the pack in general.

It was the same with the 90-foot testing except when adding video streams. Each stream added 0.98 minutes to the timing on average -- almost half the time it took Netgear's closest competitor, Zyxel. When the dust settled, Netgear actually sported the lowest overall time, 37.76 minutes, when transferring the test packet and streaming five videos.

Performing in the middle actually gave Netgear an advantage: With everyone else taking turns darting above and below its performance level across the various tests, the XAVB101 ended up being the most reliable of the five. Being among the least expensive solutions didn't hurt either.

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