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Wireless networking has made connecting computers and other technology devices around the house relatively quick and painless. However, in those cases when wireless isn't an option for connecting certain devices, (usually due to interference or excessive distance) HomePlug products, which transmit data using AC wiring, are a logical alternative.
The first generation of HomePlug products claimed performance of 14 Mbps, with real-world performance of slightly less than half that good enough for basic stuff like browsing and e-mail but not nearly enough for many bandwidth hungry-tasks such as moving large files or streaming high-quality video around the home. Enter Netgear's XE104, which is based on an update of the HomePlug networking specification and boasts that it can pump 85 Mbps through your home's electrical system.
For the XE104, Netgear went with the familiar wall-wart design that plugs directly into an electrical outlet. The unit itself is about the size of the outlet, and since it doesn't use keyed prongs (where one is larger than the other) it will fit equally well in a top or bottom outlet without blocking the other one.
While most previous-generation HomePlug adapters including Netgear's own XE102 are bridge units designed to connect a single Ethernet device, the XE104 is an actual switch with four RJ-45 LAN ports (two on each side of the unit). A trio of status lights on the front of the XE104 indicate when the unit is connected to power, an Ethernet device and other HomePlug adapters via AC wiring.
Getting the XE104 up and running is only slightly more involved than getting the product of the box. The unit is essentially plug and play plug it into the wall outlet, plug the included Ethernet cable into a device, and then wait a few seconds for an IP address to be assigned (or do so manually if you're not using DHCP [define]).
The XE104 secures all transmissions by default using 56-bit DES [define], but it's best to change the default security password to something other than "HomePlug" to preclude the possibility of other nearby HomePlug devices from joining your network. (HomePlug transmissions traverse the circuit breaker and don't stop until they reach the transformer, which in most cases powers the electrical systems of more than one structure.) Changing the password requires entering a unique 16-character code, found on the underside of each unit, into a Windows-based utility. You need to enter the security codes only once, and you can apply changes to all the devices on the network simultaneously.
To measure the XE104's performance, we took a pair of the devices and tested them using two Windows XP systems, a desktop and a notebook. To set up our HomePlug network, we connected one device to each of the system's built-in 100 Mbps Ethernet port (to minimize the number of performance-affecting variables, we didn't connect either of the systems to a router). While keeping the desktop in a fixed location in the home office, we moved the notebook between various rooms. In each room we measured the throughput across the network using Ixia's Qcheck utility, and ran the test a half-dozen times over a one-minute period in each location to make sure the results were consistent.
Given that the same company, Intellon, makes the underlying hardware found in all HomePlug devices, we expected the XE104's performance would mimic the disappointing performance of the SMC SMCHT-ETH 85 Mbps HomePlug we recently reviewed. And while the performance numbers turned in by the two devices weren't exactly identical, they were very similar.
We started in the dining room, which is adjacent to the home office. Here the XE 104's performance was pretty dismal, managing a mere 3 to 4 Mbps of throughput. When we moved a bit farther away to the kitchen, things got a lot better as throughput improved to 13-14 Mbps. Then we moved further away from the office in the opposite direction to a back bedroom, where the performance took a hit, dropping down to 5-6 Mbps. Only when both XE104's were plugged into outlets on adjacent walls in the same room did we get anything resembling respectable performance in this case throughput was solidly in the 24-27 Mbps range. Of course, it's pretty pointless to network devices in the very same room via HomePlug when a 25 foot CAT5 cable will do the trick.
Although the XE104's best effort of 24-27 Mbps was still less than 1/3 of the claimed performance, that's about what you'd get from a good 802.11g connection, so we'd have been more satisfied if the Netgear had turned in those kind of numbers all around the house. So how then to account for the XE104's middling performance?
Explanations are hard to come by. The performance of HomePlug devices is well-known to be sensitive to the age of a house (or more specifically, it's electrical wiring), but our test location was a house barely three years old. Distance between outlets can often be a factor in large and/or multi-story structures, but the aforementioned house was a single-level dwelling and a relatively small one at that, where the distance between outlets was measured in 25 feet or less. It's strongly recommended that you not plug any HomePlug device into any kind of surge suppressor or UPS [define], but both of ours were plugged directly into wall outlets. (We also verified that there was no house-wide surge supression system in use.)
So what conclusion can we come to based on our experience with the Netgear XE 104? Most everyone knows to take the manufacturer performance claims of wireless products with a grain of salt, but the 85 Mbps speed claims of the Netgear XE104 and other latest generation HomePlug products would seem to require more salt than most.
But while the XE104's real-world performance is but just a modest fraction of the number on the box (and perhaps 50-100 percent better than earlier HomePlug products), it's still good enough for basic tasks like sharing an Internet connection or networking devices that aren't particularly bandwidth hungry, such as a printer or a game console. There are also other reasons to consider it, including its easy setup and the fact that it can accommodate four Ethernet devices rather than just one making it ideal for situations where you need to connect more than one device in the same location say, a game console and a TiVo, (or in the case of this writer, an Xbox and Xbox 360). Just don't expect to be transferring your recorded TiVo programming between your DVR and your notebook in less time than it takes to watch the show in the first place.
Price: $99.99 (MSRP)
Pros: extremely easy set up; can connect four Ethernet devices to a single unit
Joseph Moran is a frequent contributor to PracticallyNetworked.