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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.

The adapters are typically no larger than a small night light. Again, they plug directly into any available wall outlet, but some of the larger ones block the second outlet. Each adapter has one gigabit Ethernet port so you can connect it via Etherent cable to your router or switch at one end, and to a client device or switch at the other end.

Whatever you do, don't plug HomePlug adapters into power strips that have built-in surge suppressors. The surge suppression will effectively filter out the signals carrying your data, rendering the adapter slow or completely non-functional.

HomePlug networks require no setup. When you plug in the network device, it should be connected within moments. Also, most current products have built-in encryption so that your network signal can't be detected by someone else on the same power grid. You might, however, need to provide a password (using a utility on a PC) to add additional adapters, especially if you're mixing adapters from different manufacturers.

While HomePlug products should work in most locations, you might run into problems in buildings with very old wiring. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance has also found some rare instances of incompatibility with AFCI (arc-fault circuit interrupters) circuit breakers. The national electrical code requires AFCI breakers to service the AC outlets in the bedrooms of newer homes.

How we tested HomePlug adapters

To evaluate the performance of the HomePlug starter kits reviewed here, I measured TCP throughput and streamed a high-definition movie. For the TCP measurements, I connected each HomePlug adapter to a free LAN port on my router in the living room area of my loft, and I connected a Windows 8 notebook to another free LAN port to function as a server. I then connected a second Windows 8 notebook to a second HomePlug adapter plugged into a wall outlet in the mezzanine of our loft. I installed JPerf (a Java-based user front end for IPerf) on both notebooks.

I also streamed a high-def movie from the downstairs (server) notebook to the upstairs notebook using iTunes' home sharing feature. While this test is anecdotal at best, it confirmed that each of the kits tested was capable of streaming high-def video.

The bottom line

All of the HomePlug AV 500/600 products and the non-MIMO HomePlug AV2 kits delivered throughput ranging from 60- to 75 Mbps. The Alliance says non-MIMO AV2 gear should be slightly faster than even enhanced HomePlug AV, but that didn't prove true in my tests. TP-Link's HomePlug AV kit consistently outperformed the other non-AV2 MIMO products (but not by much). But ZyXEL's AV2 MIMO product blew everything else away with consistent throughput of 115 Mbps.


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