Answer to networking hassles at home

By Peter Griffin, Reviewed by Peter Griffin

Thank God for the humble copper wire. We constantly grumble about how hopeless it is for delivering high-speed internet and how every other civilised country has fancy fibre-optic cables instead.

Well, not only do copper wires send the internet to my house, they now deliver the internet throughout my house. That's because I'm using the power cables in the walls and room of my home to supply internet as well.

So-called power-line communication has been around for years, but has never really taken off.

In theory it makes great sense: use a cable network already in place to avoid having to lay new fibre cables.

But traditionally it has proven to be unreliable technology, its effectiveness dependent on the quality of your electricity wiring and often causing interference on TV and radio.

You won't get as fast data transfer using a fibre network, but you get the convenience of having broadband on tap at every power outlet in the house.

Netcomm's HomePlug consists of two chunky power plugs with green LED lights on them.

After installing the driver on your computer, you connect the plug to your ADSL router via an Ethernet cable and plug the device into the power outlet.

You then plug its twin into an outlet somewhere else in the house and, using the second supplied Ethernet cable, plug in your computer.

Soon the green lights start blinking - that's a good sign, meaning they're communicating over your power lines.

The HomePlug claims a maximum data throughput of 85Mbps (megabits a second). I've consistently been getting 30-40Mbps. That's about on par with what I get when using my 802.11g wireless router, which beams a signal that can be picked up by the three wi-fi-enabled laptops in my house.

The HomePlug delivered similar performance in internet access, but it holds a couple of key advantages for me over my wireless set-up.

Living in the central city, I'm in the midst of at least 30 wireless networks and we're all competing for the same spectrum. The congestion means I'm regularly kicked off my network.

Changing radio channels on my router helps, but I still go offline several times a day. The thick walls and lift shaft separating my laptop from my wireless router don't help.

With the HomePlug, I need to be tethered to the wall, removing the main advantage of wireless, but at least I can get a constant, reliable connection in every room of my house.

The other big advantage of the HomePlug is that it extends Ethernet access to the lounge. The domain of games consoles, stereos, media centre PCs and TVs is increasingly sporting Ethernet connections. The HomePlug allows me to connect my Xbox to the internet for online gaming without it having to be close to my ADSL router.

In my bedroom, the HomePlug delivers a steady stream of music from the remarkable web radio station www.pandora.com, and news from the www.bbc.com.

After a shaky start during which the HomePlug delivered dismal data throughput, it is now a steady performer. Netcomm recommends you insert it directly into the wall socket to get the best results.

There are flaws. The plugs are so bulky they will eat up the space of two plug points on power boards, and may even obscure the pins on twin-socket wall outlets. This isn't convenient when plug space is at a premium.

While up to 15 Homeplugs can be supported on one network, adding several plugs will turn out to be a costly way of networking your home. If you are looking for a way to simply share an internet connection with computers and printers, wireless may still be a cheaper alternative.

The HomePlug will, however, give you peace of mind when it comes to security. It's a lot harder for outsiders to access your power cables than your wireless network. The HomePlug has simple password protection and that's pretty much all you'll need.

All up, the HomePlug is a powerful answer to home networking hassles.


* Pros: Easy set-up, on par with wireless performance

* Cons: Bulky power units, manual on disk only

* Price: $226 (additional HomePlugs $119 each)

* Herald Rating: 7/10

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