Tech Review: Powerline Networking with TP-Link

While at work on Cyber Monday, I took some time to scan through the Newegg deals to see if anything caught my eye. As a serious fan of the ‘egg, I naturally had to fight the urge to order half the deals listed while further battling temptations to start projects I really do not need (I am looking at you, home theater PC). While browsing through page after page of server-busting deals, I came across several powerline networking kits at what I would consider to be ridiculously appealing prices. After a quick scan over the reviews, I decided to take a leap of faith and order the TP-Link TL-PA4010KIT 500Mbps powerline starter kit. The kit can be found here: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16833704181

Before

Before digging into the meat of this review, we need to take a step back and see why the powerline kit makes sense for me. After graduating and moving to Ohio, my wife and I have been living in a townhome for the past several months. Having come from living in single-family homes, the quirks of apartment living have taken some getting used to, especially for someone like me who likes to tweak everything to my liking. Now most might assume that the primary concern with having neighbors close by would be the potential for noise to travel through walls and floors, but in our case I found another aggravating issue that is often never seen or heard: wireless network interference.

As horrific as it sounds on paper, wireless interference is at least 87 times more frustrating in practice. Want to watch your favorite YouTube video? Nope that’s going to need to buffer. Planning to watch your favorite hockey team tonight? You better like your frames more frozen than the ice surface. Simply put, we could not get online video to play, despite paying for more-than-good-enough 22 Mbps service. Often, our download speeds would drop well below 2 Mbps and upload speeds would follow suit, taking dives below 1 Mbps.

After multiple calls to my ISP’s customer service line yielded no joy, I decided to use my IT experience to take the investigation into my own hands. Since my speeds were fine when plugged directly into my wireless router, I knew something had to be wrong with my wireless connection. I adjusted my wireless settings numerous times, trying several channels and experimenting with Quality of Service (QOS) to absolutely no avail. In a last ditch effort, I decided to download InSSIDer to see what the wireless landscape around me looked like. The results surprised me. The wireless bandwidth in my area was completely saturated with as many as 20 networks fighting over just a few channels.

I had to find a way to overcome the intense wireless interference that I undoubtedly was fighting. The only question was how. Given that we are in a rental, there was no way I could run Cat-6 cable throughout the entire home. Fortunately, I was familiar enough with powerline networking to give it some consideration.

After

Installing the TP-Link kit (as with other powerline kits) is literally child’s play, aside from it being generally a bad idea for kids to be sticking things in outlets. Simply connect one of the included nodes to a port on your router/switch and then plug it into a nearby outlet. The second node can be placed in any outlet in your house and connected to any Ethernet-capable device. Moving nodes around is as simple as unplugging from one outlet and plugging into another. Since all outlets will be “live”, it is a good idea to add a password to your wired network via the router’s configuration page prior to using the powerline kit. Amateur radio operators will also need to take note that powerline networking can introduce significant radio interference as it essentially turns all power lines in the house into antennas.

After a few days with the kit, I can say that I am incredibly pleased with the purchase. Sitting a floor below my router, I am able to consistently hold download speeds of 19 to 22 Mbps and upload speeds of 2+ Mbps. I have only had the nodes drop connection one time and that was shortly after the initial install. The kit allowed me to watch my beloved Saint Louis Blues pummel the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday in 720p high definition with no significant buffering. To me, that was a win in more ways than one. My only complaint is that the kit takes up the outlet and does not have a pass-through. Admittedly, I am not sure how such an option would affect performance.

Conclusion

After using the TP-Link kit for about a week now, I have to admit that I am very impressed with its performance and reliability. As I previously mentioned, I have been very disappointed with the internet speeds we have been getting and before I discovered the interference issue, I was ready to string out my ISP. Now, I am easily achieving and maintaining the 22 Mbps that I am paying for. Those of you who live near other people and are not getting the speeds you expect should take the time to download InSSIDer and see whether or not the 2.4 GHz band (assuming you are using wireless-N) is saturated in your area. If channels 1, 6, and 11 all have more than a couple of networks on them, you may be experiencing substantial wireless interference and might benefit from powerline networking.

One thing to keep in mind when shopping for these is that while they are advertised as being capable of 500 Mbps over LAN, This is a bit misleading. 500 Mbps is the maximum bandwidth of the technology, but the ports on the adapters themselves are only capable of 100 Mbps. Also, speeds are dependent on distance so as you space the nodes farther apart, speeds will suffer. Still, it is likely that most users will get better speed over powerline than over wireless, especially in saturated zones such as mine.

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