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When using technology to solve problems, it’s always good to have choices. The advent of Wi-Fi gave those looking to network household devices a choice other than wiring with Ethernet. Later on, powerline networking technologies like HomePlug offered an alternative to Wi-Fi in cases where excessive distance or interference made wireless communication impractical.
Now there’s yet another option available for home networking. While powerline technology links devices by using a home’s electrical wiring as the network conduit, MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) leverages a different but almost as ubiquitous form of wiring—the coaxial cable that brings cable television to the various rooms of your home.
Enter Netgear’s $190 MoCA Coax-Ethernet Adapter Kit MCAB1001, which essentially converts coaxial cable TV connectors in your wall into Ethernet jacks. In so doing, it allows you to join entertainment devices-- a set top box, DVR, game console, or Blu-ray disc player-- to your home network.
The MCAB1001 kit consists of a pair of MCA1001 adapters—one to connect to your intended device, and one that completes the link by connecting to your broadband router. The MCA1001 adapters are relatively small in size—they measure 1 x 6.8 x 4.4 (H x W x D) and have Netgear’s familiar rectangle-with-rounded-edges design. They run a touch warm, but not hot, so they shouldn’t be a major heat contributor if you set them up in enclosed AV furniture.
The MCA1001’s wall-wart style AC adapters are slim and plug into an outlet horizontally; the design is ideal if you’re using a wall outlet directly but it can block one or maybe even two extra outlets when plugged into a power strip. (Unlike powerline network adapters, Multimedia over Coax adapters are quite content to be plugged into surge suppressors.)
Getting the MCA1001 adapters talking to each other is simple enough that the hardest part of the setup process is likely to be getting access to that coax jack on the wall. The first step is to connect the MCA1001’s Coax In connector to the wall jack. If the jack was previously occupied by a television set, cable box, or cable modem, you can connect those devices to the MCA1001’s via its Coax Out connector. (Not so satellite receivers like those from DirecTV or Dish Network however—they use different frequencies than cable hardware.)
After the two MCA1001 adapters are connected via coax, you can plug in your router and other device to each via Ethernet and power up the adapters. There’s only one Ethernet port per adapter, but you can accommodate additional devices by adding an inexpensive Ethernet switch.
Within less than a minute of connecting and powering up our test units, they were reporting a successful link, and the Xbox 360 we connected at the far end had received an DHCP IP address from our router. (LEDs on the front of the MCA1001 indicate connection status, but if you’re not into ghostly blue light, a button on the back lets you turn them off.)
Configuration and Privacy Options
Getting to the MCA1001’s security and other settings is a bit cumbersome, so it’s fortunate that you won’t likely need to do it often, if ever. To access the MCA1001’s relatively Spartan set of configurable options, you must install a special Netgear configuration utility on an XP/Vista PC and directly connect the computer to the MCA1001 device via Ethernet cable (not through a indirect connection via a switch or router). Before the utility will find the MCAB1001, however, you also need to press a button on the rear of the device to switch it from “normal” to “config” mode (and remember to switch it back again when finished so the unit will be able to transmit data again).
As they come out of the box, the MCA1001 adapters don’t have any privacy features turned on. Although this makes for easier setup, it theoretically allows someone to add nodes to your MoCA network by plugging in their own MoCA Coax to Ethernet adapter.
To make your MoCA network private, you can create a numeric passcode of at least 12 digits (but no more than 17) and apply it to both devices individually. This doesn’t encrypt the network traffic; it simply instructs adapters to only communicate with those others that have the same passcode.
Unlike powerline networking, where the data signals can leave the confines of your home along electrical wiring (and enter an adjacent one through a shared transformer), that’s unlikely with MoCA networks given the way most coaxial cable is wired. (It’s not out of the question, though—especially in an apartment building or other multiple unit dwelling.)
If the presence of the MCA1001 is degrading the quality of your cable TV signal-a condition we did not experience in our testing-- you can select from among the 8 frequencies the device will use. (It will automatically choose its own by default.)
The MCA1001 includes QoS support to prioritize different types of network traffic, like video and gaming over e-mail or file downloads-- but there aren’t any user- configurable QoS options available.
Every networking product makes much of what we’ll call the “box number”, that lofty performance figure that nobody ever gets and is in fact impossible to achieve. The MCA1001’s box number is 270 Mbps, within a stone’s throw of 802.11n Wi-Fi’s equally fanciful 300 Mbps. MoCA claims the actual real-world maximum is closer to about 175 Mbps. When we used iPerf to measure the data transfer rate between a pair of Vista PCs connected by MCA1001s, we recorded an average throughput of 90 Mbps-- nothing to sneeze at and more than sufficient for delivering bandwidth intensive media like high-definition video.
To test the real-world performance of the MCAB1001 kit, we streamed various forms of high-definition video to a connected device both from the local network and from the Internet. This included watching HD video from Netflix on both a TiVo and Xbox 360 and the latter as a Media Center Extender to stream HD video stored on a networked PC. In all cases, the video and audio quality delivered was excellent, with only the occasional momentary hiccup (which is virtually inevitable no matter what kind of networking technology you use).
To gauge how well the MCAB1001 could keep the video rolling when there was other network traffic to contend with, we set up a 1 GB+ Xbox game demo to download in the background while we streamed video to the device—the video displayed with no apparent reduction in frame rate or visual quality. The same was true when we watched HD Netflix video on the TiVo while the hefty game downloads were in progress on the Xbox.
Back to the subject of choices, why would you opt for the MCAB1001 if its $190 price tag represents about a 50% premium over most 200 Mpbs HomePlug AV powerline networking kits (including Netgear’s own XAVB101)? One reason might be MoCA’s potential to deliver higher and more reliable data transfer rates, given that it’s less susceptible to interference than powerline adapters (which can experience degraded performance with older wiring or when used on circuits with appliances that draw a lot of power.)
For situations where Wi-Fi or powerline networking won’t cut the mustard, chances are the Netgear MoCA Coax-Ethernet Adapter kit will.
Price (MSRP) $190
to set up; good performance
Cons: pricey compared to powerline or wireless networking options; accessing configuration
options is cumbersome