First a bit of background on IP networks (101 level).
Ethernet “structured” wiring is used to carry an IP based network – you can share resources on the network like other computers or distribute internet access from your router. Speeds generally range from 100Mbits/s (called 100BASE-TX using Cat5 rated cables) or up to 1,000Mbps (1000BASE-TX or Gigabit using Cat6 rated cables). Maximum length is 100m but low cost repeaters can extend this. To “post-wire” a home generally costs around $100-$150 per point and sometimes it is hard to get cabling from where the ADSL/Cable/Router is to bedrooms, lounge, kitchen and the shed. If you have a shed a licensed cabling contractor would have to run Ethernet cable from the router in a conduit (as it would be outdoors) so expect the cost to be a few hundred dollars – but it is ultimately doable and you get decent speed at the end. In summary it is the best, fastest, most reliable and most expensive way to distribute IP and Internet.
Wi-Fi routers can be used to transmit IP signals (wireless access point or hotspot) using 802.11 protocol (called A, B, G, N etc). N150 routers are cheap (from well under $100) but the better ones will be two to three times that and have speeds like N300, N600, N750 and lately AC1200 dual band using MIMO (multiple send and receive antennas) and have an effective in-home range of up to 60 metres (typically 20-30m is effective without too much signal drop out). Wi-Fi is convenient but not always reliable. Wi-Fi adaptors are built in to net/notebooks and can be added by USB to most PC’s and some more modern TV’s and AV Amplifiers. If you have a shed the chances are that Wi-Fi won’t work through the tin walls or roof so to get internet there you could (a) set up a separate hotspot as close as you can at the house and use an access point as repeater in the shed or (b) buy a separate 3/4G USB dongle or Wireless/Wi-Fi Router but that will only give you internet access – not home network access to all the devices in the home (and remember we want to stream AV).
Ethernet over power cables (Powerline AV or sometimes called HomePlug) is another way to distribute IP using the 240 GPO (general power outlet) in your home. The remainder of this review concentrates on that technology. For this test we have used Belkin’s Powerline AV500 which has theoretical speeds of up to 500Mbps and can run up to 300m (as long as power comes into the house on the same master switchboard). You need a minimum of two units (the dual pack F5D4085au has an RRP of $169.95) – one connected to your router to get the IP signal into the power lines and then place one (or up to 16) wherever you want to get the IP signal out using the supplied Ethernet RJ45 patch cable. Installation is simple - plug it into a GPO and if it works three lights will show green, amber or red… (and if it does not work repack and return to the retailer).
The Belkin units are smaller than past iterations (I have been using their PowerlineAV units since the first 10Mbps versions came out in 2000 but it was not until around 2006 when the 200Mbps units were released that this technology really became viable in the home for AV media streaming) but they still take up just a little too much width on most GPO’s. Belkin suggest that you don’t plug these into power boards but in testing I found no difference.
Now to real world tests conducted with PassMark’s (Click here) Performance Test software (a world leader in test software and Aussie company to boot). Powerline speeds are impacted by three main things.
1. The quality and age of the GPO and wiring can make a difference. I tested this in an apartment built circa 2005 and on a hobby farm with a pre WW2 home and a post WW2 shed about 70 metres from the home. Note that there appeared to be no real speed difference between newer and older wiring.
2. The number of circuits it has to pass through. Most apartments and homes have 3 to 5 power circuits off the same switchboard so it is not an issue. Three phase is not generally an issue but sub-main boards can slow transmission speeds
3. And sometimes interference from other devices (creating line noise – old fridges or spar motors etc)
Results (figures in brackets are equivalent N 300 class Wi-Fi from the same locations)
1) Same circuit i.e. typically in the same room. 250Mbps (80Mbps)
2) Different circuit about 10 metres from access point 120Mbps (60 Mbps)
3) Different circuit about 20 metres from access point 90 Mbps (30Mbps)
4) Different circuit about 50 metres from access point Varied from 50-60Mbps (~20Mbps)
5) Different sub-switch board in shed 70 metres away Varied from 25-40Mbps (~10 Mbps)
These results were very good – compared to an older 200Mbps set which gave 100Mbps in Test 1 and 20Mbps in Test 3.
More importantly I was able to stream video from a Microsoft Windows Media Centre server on all tests without jitter.
Business uses for Powerline
Powerline is increasingly being used:
• As an easy way to hook up a network enabled local printer when you run out of Ethernet points. Transmission speed it not very important (by the time the printer rasterises the page to print data will have long been sent to it).
• To hook up PC based signage, security cameras, IP TV or to stream media.
• In heritage listed buildings where Wi-Fi is not as effective due to thick brick walls and tin roofs and Cat6 cable is hard to lay without damage to the heritage materials.
• For placing VoIP/network phones in areas where there is no structured cabling ie. Reception foyers and kitchens • And temporary offices where structured cabling would not be economic.
Summary: I was a little sceptical given my decade of experience with prior products from many makers (Netcomm, NetGear and D-Link to name a few) but the review units from Belkin certainly satisfied me that PowerlineAV had come of age.