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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How we tested

My current configuration is wireless and uses a pair of Netgear WNHDE111 5-GHz wireless adapters as an access point (upstairs) and a bridge (downstairs). For testing purposes, I also used a Linksys WRT600n Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router and a Linksys EG008W Gigabit 8-Port Workgroup Switch.

I decided to test the power-line devices and the 802.11n and wired networks starting with a clean file transfer of 4,661 files and folders (8.05GB) from a computer downstairs to a computer upstairs. Nothing else would be happening on the network while this transfer was in progress. Then, I repeated that file transfer five more times, each time adding a video stream from a MicroNet MaxNAS RAID with SCSI, which I was using as a media server upstairs, to one of five additional PCs downstairs. That indicated how well each method handled file transfers under load and no-load conditions.

As expected, wired was the fastest across all testing. The clean file transfer needed a meager 6.6 minutes to complete, and that time varied by only an infinitesimal 0.05 minutes for all iterations of streaming video.

Wireless was a bit slower and a bit more varied. It took almost 15 minutes to complete the clean file transfer to the upstairs computer. Each time a video stream was added to the network, that number climbed slightly until it finally reached 16 minutes and 50 seconds when five videos were playing simultaneously. On average, each video stream added about a third of a minute to the final time. The streaming quality of the videos remained the same whether it was one or five playing simultaneously.

In testing the power-line devices, I started with a room-to-room test where I plugged one of the modules into a relatively new (five-year-old) electrical outlet downstairs and the other module into one of the house's original (over 40-year-old) electrical outlets upstairs. In theory, this is the typical home scenario -- for that reason, no attempt was made to discover if the two outlets were or weren't on the same phase leg, since it is unlikely that the typical home owner would know.

I also set up the power-line equipment using a 90-foot extension cord into which one of the modules was connected downstairs; that extension cord was then plugged into the same outlet upstairs as the second module. Basically, this represented a connection through a length of electrical wire in which there were no phase leg, aging or wire condition problems. In a new home, or if you had an electrician run two outlets from your breaker box, you would probably find transmission times similar to these. (This was the setup I used when testing the power-line devices with video streams.)

Finally, I plugged the two modules into the same outlet. In theory, with little to no electrical wire between them, this would be the fastest they could communicate with each other under any network load condition, offering performance under what would pass for ideal conditions.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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