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The essential guide to buying a HomePlug Ethernet adapter (including 6 hands-on reviews)

Yardena Arar | Jan. 16, 2015
Wi-Fi may be the most popular networking technology, but sometimes even the fastest wireless connection just doesn't hack it. Perhaps the signal can't get to the farthest reaches of your home or office, or maybe there are so many wireless networks competing for limited bandwidth that the Netflix movie you're streaming keeps freezing or stuttering.

HomePlug AV, announced in 2005, supports theoretical speeds of up to 200 Mbps, but most current HomePlug AV products feature proprietary enhancements that raise the theoretical speed to 500 or 600 Mbps. HomePlug AV2, ratified in early 2012, supports speeds ranging from 500 Mbps to 1200 Mbps; but the faster speeds are offered only by products equipped with optional enhancements in the AV2 spec.

The even faster version of AV2 is called HomePlug AV2 MIMO (Multiple Input/Multiple Output). It uses all three wires in an electrical circuit: Hot, neutral, and ground. It necessarily requires power cords ending in three prongs and AC outlets that can accommodate them. Many older homes (in the U.S., those built before 1962) don't have ground wires in their walls and won't benefit from this standard.

The products we tested are based on the HomePlug AV 500, AV2 and AV2 MIMO standards. In our tests, there wasn't much difference in performance between the AV 500 and AV2 products, but the lone AV2 MIMO kit (provided by ZyXEL) proved almost twice as fast as the others. It was also more than twice as expensive as any of the other kits.

Note that the HomePlug Alliance does not certify so-called HomePlug AV 500 or AV 600 products for interoperability. If you use HomePlug AV adapters from different vendors, you're only assured basic HomePlug AV speeds of up to 200 Mbps.

With HomePlug AV2, however, the Alliance is certifying both the basic 600 Mbps version and the 1200 Mbps MIMO version. Obviously there's potential for confusion over the basic and enhanced AV2 specs, not to mention the HomePlug AV 500/600 products in the market. If you only pay attention to the claimed performance, it's almost impossible to tell whether you are getting an enhanced HomePlug AV product or a basic HomePlug AV2 product, since you'll see both numbers (500 Mbps and 600 Mbps) on both types of adapters.

Most vendors put a HomePlug logo on their packaging, but that generic logo doesn't indicate the version of the technology inside. The HomePlug Alliance could learn some lessons about branding from the Wi-Fi Alliance, which has clear markings for the old 802.11b through the latest 802.11ac standards. And since some of the enhanced HomePlug AV products were actually faster than the AV2 products, figuring out which you have won't matter so long as you stick with products from the same vendor.

Setting up a HomePlug network

Because most people contemplating a wired home network already have a Wi-Fi network, vendors have made it easy to create hybrid Wi-Fi/HomePlug networks using your existing router by offering starter kits with two adapters. (All of the products in this review were such kits.)

 

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