Review: 4 powerline kits

Review: 4 powerline kits step in when Wi-Fi fails

If you have Wi-Fi dead zones in your home or office, one of these powerline kits could solve the problem.

Review

4 powerline kits

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Trendnet Powerline 1200 AV2 Adapter Kit (TPL-420E2K)

Trendnet's Powerline 1200 AV2 Adapter Kit (TPL-420E2K) blows away the field with the best price, longest range and fastest throughput at long distances.

The Trendnet kit comes with a pair of powerline units that, at 1.5 x 2.3 x 3.1 in., are midrange in size. They don't obstruct adjacent outlets, but they do stick out the furthest from the outlet.

Trendnet powerline Trendnet

Trendnet Powerline 1200 AV2 Adapter Kit (model TPL-420E2K)

Each unit's white plastic case has a grounded power plug and three rectangular LEDs that are vertically arranged on the right side to show that the device is turned on, has an Ethernet link and has linked with another powerline device. On the bottom are the expected Ethernet port, a recessed reset button and a Sync button for getting the powerline devices to connect.

Like the powerline devices from ZyXel and Netgear, the Trendnet uses Qualcomm's QCA 7500 chipset and has a maximum theoretical throughput of 1.2Gbps. It can work with several streams at once and link up with as many as eight individual powerline adapters.

The Trendnet kit comes with a pair of Ethernet cables and a CD that includes the manual as well as a handy utility for finding the powerline devices on your network. You don't need to use it, but it's nice to have for troubleshooting or figuring out what's connected.

As with the others, to get the Trendnet working, you plug in one device near the router and the other where you want the client set up. Unlike the other kits in this roundup, however, the Trendnet can only connect using an encrypted stream of data, which means that the setup is a little more involved.

Once you've connected both units, you have to press the Sync button for 15 seconds on the device near the server to generate a new encryption key, and then press it again for about two seconds to distribute the key. You then press the Sync button on the other device for two seconds so that the pair will link using 128-bit AES encryption. During my tests, it took 30 seconds to complete the link-up versus less than 10 seconds for the others.

Test results

It's worth the wait, though -- the Trendnet had the longest range of the kits I tested: 595 feet, 60 feet farther than the ZyXel and D-Link, and 95 feet farther than the Netgear.

Although the Trendnet's throughput at 50 feet was a mediocre 179.5Mbps, at longer distances -- where the system is likely to be used -- it led the pack. At 250 feet it delivered 127.3Mbps, while at 450 feet, it pumped out 76.4Mbps, more than twice as fast as the D-Link, its closest competitor.

The Trendnet didn't use much power, either. The system consumed 3.3 watts when active and 0.4 watts when idle. This adds up to an annual cost of $2.20 for the pair of devices, assuming it's used for 10 hours every weekday and idle the rest of the time.

I set the Trendnet up in my office and used it for several days as my primary Internet connection. The device showed three green lights and passed through 47.9Mbps of data from my 50Mbps broadband line. It was great for viewing HD and 4K videos as well as general work (like email and Web browsing) and videoconferencing.

Bottom line

At a cost of about $80 through online retailers, the Trendnet kit is the bargain of the group; you can also buy individual adapters for about $43 each. It not only delivers the best range and throughput where it counts the most, but is economical to get and use.

ZyXel 1200 Mbps Powerline Gigabit Ethernet Network Adapter (PLA5405)

Small and unobtrusive, ZyXel's 1200 Mbps Powerline Gigabit Ethernet Network Adapter (PLA5405) kit is able to connect with more units than the others reviewed here -- although most people won't need to add the number of devices it can support.

At 1.1 x 2.5 x 3.6 in., each white plastic ZyXel is one-third smaller than the D-Link adapters and leaves more than enough room to be able to use the AC outlets above, below and on either side.

ZyXel powerline ZyXel

ZyXel 1200 Mbps Powerline Gigabit Ethernet Network Adapter (model PLA5405)

It has a three-prong grounded power plug as well as three LEDs that show it's turned on, has found another powerline device and is connected to the network. There's an Ethernet port and a single button underneath that can encrypt the data flow with 128-bit AES coding or reset the system to its default settings.

The timing can be tricky, however, because the button performs different tasks depending on how long you hold it down. If you hold it down for up to three seconds, you'll encrypt the data stream; if you hold it for five to eight seconds, you'll wipe any network-related configuration data from it. Hold the button for 10 to 15 seconds and the unit is reset to its factory configuration. So you have to pay attention to your stopwatch.

The ZyXel adapter is powered by Qualcomm's QCA 7500 chipset, which hits a theoretical ceiling at 1.2Gbps. With the latest firmware, it can hit a theoretical maximum throughput of 1.3Gbps and can link up to 64 powerline devices at once. ZyXel engineers, however, recommend limiting a network to 16 units.

Like the others, the ZyXel kit comes with a pair of short Ethernet cables. It also has a CD that contains PDFs of the data sheet, quick start guide and manual.

I plugged both devices in and after 10 seconds of startup time, all three lights were glowing and I was connected and online. Despite a good start, hitting 188.4Mbps at 50 feet, its throughput had fallen to 55.8Mbps at 250 feet, barely half what the others were delivering. Its available bandwidth was just 12.3Mbps at 450 feet, one-sixth the level that the TrendNet system delivered.

Its 535-foot range matched that of the D-Link kit, but was short of the 595-foot range that the Trendnet system was capable of.

Test results

After I set the ZyXel up in my office, its HomePlug light glowed red, indicating that it was nearly out of range. Still, it sent through 35.9Mbps of throughput from my 50Mbps broadband connection. While it handled HD video and videoconferencing OK, it balked on 4K videos served up from my RAID storage device. The streams frequently stopped and faltered. (In other tests, though, the ZyXel delivered high-quality video at 350 and 400 feet, but at 450 -feet it was dropping frames.)

The device made up for its data-handling shortcomings with extremely low power consumption. While on, the two adapters used 3.2 watts, which dropped to 0.4 watts when idle. If it's used for 10 hours a day during the week and off the rest of the time, it should cost an estimated $2.20 to operate over a year, assuming that electricity costs the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour.

If you want single units, you can find them for about $80 (although at that price, you're probably better off getting the two-device kit, which you can also find for about $80).

Bottom line

The ZyXel kit doesn't cost much to operate and can support more adapters than its competition. However, not many users will need 64 (or even 16) adapters, and its throughput could be better.

Conclusions

Whether it's to plug a hole in a Wi-Fi network, extend the reach of a LAN or get a networked printer connected, range and throughput count for everything with powerline devices.

Although I really liked the size and economy of the ZyXel 1200, its mediocre range and subpar throughput were disappointing. While it does well with the sender and receiver close to each other, as soon as they are 200 feet apart, its performance drops off.

The same goes for Netgear's PL1200, which had the shortest range of the four. With estimated operating expenses of just $1.80 a year, however, it is the cheapest to use.

The only one of the four with a 2Gbps powerline chip, D-Link's Powerline AV2 2000 starts off very strong and moves over 200Mbps at short distances. However, at about 250 feet its throughput falls off quickly. It also uses a lot of power compared to the others, although at an estimated $7.60 a year in electricity costs, it won't be a major burden.

Of the four kits I looked at, one stood out head and shoulders above the rest: the Trendnet Powerline 1200. Despite its slow setup procedure, it dominated the competition when the two devices were 250 feet apart or more. In other words, it excelled where it would be most useful; it also had the farthest range of the group at 595 feet.

Inexpensive to get and use, the Trendnet can take networking to new places -- such as any nearby AC outlet.

How I tested

To see how these powerline kits stack up, I tested each of them for speed and range using my office's Gigabit Ethernet network.

I started by plugging each powerline adapter into an AC outlet near my router (and the building's circuit breaker panel). Then I used the included Ethernet cable to connect the adapter to my router.

I used two test computers: a Surface 3 tablet (I used the Ethernet port on its docking station) and an Acer Revo One with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 2.25GB of storage

To test the speed of the connection, I used the PassMark PerformanceTest networking suite of tasks. I used PassMark's variable block size that ranged from 1KB to 16KB in a 60-second test run, and also ran Ookla's SpeedTest.net to check on its Internet connection.

With the bandwidth baseline established, I turned to gauging the range of these kits. I repeated the tests in an adjacent room that has about 50 feet of hidden cabling behind the building's walls. I started adding long extension cords to the outlet to simulate behind-the-walls wiring. After three individual 100-foot cords, I added three 50-foot cords and then a 25-foot and a 10-foot cable. After each cord was connected, I repeated the benchmark tests and noted the total length of cabling.

When each system lost its network connection, I removed the last extension cord and added a smaller one and retested to get close to the actual range of the equipment. Its range was the last point at which it remained connected to the network.

powerline performance screen

A comparison of the throughput of the four reviewed powerline kits as their range increased. Tested using PassMark's PerformanceTest networking suite.

I also measured how much power these devices consume while being used and while idle. This allowed me to calculate the estimated cost per year if the powerline equipment gets used for 10 hours a day during weekdays and is idle the rest. I used the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour for the price of power and multiplied the results by two for the pair of devices needed.

Finally, I set each adapter up in my office and used it as my primary Internet connection for a day or two. The office is on the opposite side of the building and up one floor from the router; it has about 400 feet of in-wall cabling (however, that is just an estimate). During that time, I used the powerline connection to watch HD and 4K videos from online sources and a local RAID server. Then I interacted with websites, sent and received emails and ran videoconferences.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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