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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Zyxel Powerline Ethernet Multiplug Center (PLA491)

Zyxel Powerline Ethernet Adapter (PLA401 v2)

Zyxel's two-part solution to power-line networking includes its Ethernet Multiplug Center (PLA491) and an Ethernet Adapter (PLA401 v2). While the adapter end of the business is pretty much the standard power-brick design, the Multiplug Center has quite a bit going for it: four RJ45 connectors, four 3-prong AC outlets that provide power conditioning (reducing power spikes caused by atmospheric static or even lightning that can travel down the power lines and possibly damage sensitive electrical equipment), two rocker switches to control the On/Off function for the AC lines and the LAN lines, and a security button so you can synchronize the security parameters (128-bit AES) between the two devices.

Zyxel Powerline Ethernet Multiplug Center

Except for the security buttons, there's no setup. A trio of green lights on the Adapter module tells you when the unit is plugged in, connected to another device, and communicating on your network. There are three additional LEDs on the Multiplug Center that indicate when devices are plugged into the extra RJ45 ports.

Testing the Zyxel's modules provided a mixed bag of results. Connected to the same outlet, where everyone else zipped along, the PLA491 and PLA401 dragged their respective feet to the tune of 37.2 minutes. That was just a bit more than 6 minutes slower than the rest on average. On the room-to-room test, where almost everyone else lagged, Zyxel sprinted ahead, finishing in 50.16 minutes, a half minute faster than Linksys and more than 8 minutes faster than Belkin.

Zyxel also completed the 90-foot clean file transfer at the head of the pack -- at 30.96 minutes, it was nearly a minute faster than its closest competitor, Linksys. When I added the video streaming to the mix, the times increased by 1.8 minutes per stream on average. Unfortunately, that incremental increased pushed the overall time for a transfer during five streaming videos to 39.96 minutes for an overall second-place finish behind Netgear.

In a lightly loaded network environment, Zyxel would be my choice. Keep in mind that you can save a chunk of change if you buy just two power-line adapters and forego the Multiplug Center.


If you looked at our performance numbers, it is pretty obvious that the best thing you can do, by the numbers, is to wire your home. It's labor-intensive, but it's fast -- and as soon as this review is done, I'm plugging the cable back in.

Wi-Fi is a shoe-in for second place. Incidentally, I really would recommend that you upgrade to 5-GHz gear if you're streaming media. It moves everything out of the clutter you'll find in the normal 2.5-GHz Wi-Fi band. (For more tips on getting the most out of your Wi-Fi connection, see "Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks.")

If you can't shoulder the costs or hassles of hardwiring and have Wi-Fi dead spots lurking about your home, power-line is a natural. Of the five units tested, I'd have to give the nod to Zyxel for its performance under lightweight loads as well as its AC line-conditioning capability. The drawback is that the price of the products I tested is a little steep compared to the rest. Linksys is the obvious alternative. Overall, however, I'm staring down the middle of the road at Netgear both for its low entry price and overall performance under load.

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