Sunday, July 27, 2008

Netgear HDX101 Powerline Ethernet Adapter Review

Last year I moved into a very large house. It's a great house, but internet access has been an issue for some parts of it. The house was built in two phases, and despite the fact the second part of the house was built just a few years ago, the previous owner neglected to put in Ethernet cabling. I do have a wireless router, but the signal from it is too weak provide reliable wireless coverage for my Xbox 360 and Mac Cube in the new part of the house. For this reason, I had been toying with the idea of setting up a WDS network using multiple pieces Apple Airport hardware.

I purchased an Airport Express for testing, only to discover that Leopard's Airport Utility doesn't consistently detect the unit on the network. After much strugging to get it set up right, I decided that Apple's implementation of its wireless access points and associated software leaves much to be desired. (Much to my surprise, the 802.11n Airport Express unit I got won't see my wireless network with hidden SSID, despite the fact that all of my many Macs and even my iPhone connect to it just fine.)

That's when I decided to try out powerline networking. There are multiple standards, but I chose to try Netgear's HDX101 Powerline HD Ethernet Adapter hardware. This adapter is not compatible with the HomePlug standard, but I don't care, because I don't own any HomePlug hardware. Plus, to get two refurbished HDX101 adapters only cost me just under $90 including shipping, so it wasn't a big chunk of change I was risking. The documentation claims up to 200 Mbps speeds, but as we all know, that's theoretical speed, and real world speeds are always going to be much lower.

However, I was very, very pleasantly surprised. The equipment was truly plug and play. I plugged the two units into the wall and attached Ethernet cables to them, one connected to my DSL router, and one connected to my Mac. In less than 30 seconds I had my very first powerline network, and it was fast. Mind you, that was on the same electrical circuit in the same room, but what really surprised me was when I went to the other side of the house.

From the opposite side of the house, a file transfer of one Toast disk image from my iMac to my MacBook moved 680 MB (over 713000000 bytes) in less than 186 seconds. That's roughly 30 Mbps, for a signal that had to go through two separate fuse boxes. (When the second part of the house was built, it got its own electrical panel, separate from the one that my home office is on.) That's Category 5 speed, without any need to lay any new network cable at all, and without the finickiness of wireless. I even got good speeds using the power outlet in the shed in the backyard. Truly impressive.

What's the catch? There are a few problems, none of which are huge problems in my case:

1) Cost. I got refurbished units so they were relatively cheap, but usually the price of new ones is about twice as much or more.

2) Configuration of the units on a Mac. They all come with the same default encryption password, so if a neighbour got the same adapter he might be able to access your network through the power lines if you don't change the password. (As I said, I had full access to my network from my backyard garden shed.) The software they provide to configure the units is much more reliable than Airport Utility with the Airport Express, but the problem is it only runs on Windows and would not work with my Parallels Windows XP installation. Fortunately, I have a backup XP box which I pull out of the closet for emergencies like this. An Apple Boot Camp installation should also work fine.

3) Quality of the electrical system. When I put the adapter on the same pair of outlets as where all my home theatre equipment resides, I got fairly slow speeds. I then moved the adapter to another plug in the same room which I know to be on a separate circuit breaker, and suddenly my speeds increased dramatically. It was on this plug where I got the 30 Mbps performance. (One should also avoid putting the units on power bars, as they are known to reduce performance.)

4) Heat. These run quite warm, but don't seem to be suffering for it. However, I don't know if the heat may affect the life of the product.

In summary, if you're in need of networking support to the far corners of your house, and you dread the idea of pulling Cat 5e cable or setting up a wireless network with multiple base stations, then give powerline networking a shot. I'm glad I did, and will be purchasing two more adapters to add to my network.