Author: Joe Moran
Review Date: 4/28/2005


Price: $129.99 (includes two adapters)

Pros: easy setup and configuration

Cons: performance only comparable to 802.11b WLAN


Whether you’re setting up a home network for the first time or expanding an existing one, inexpensive and ubiquitous 802.11-based WLAN equipment is a logical choice. Therefore, at first glance it might be hard to see why a product like the Actiontec 14Mbps HomePlug Ethernet Adapter — which transmits data via existing electrical wiring — might be of any interest.

But in spite of 802.11’s undeniable appeal, there may often be instances where 802.11 might need a little help. If the area you’re trying to network is exceedingly large, contains a large number of physical barriers, or significant sources of RF interference, some parts of your home or property may be unable to receive reliable wireless signals. You can often overcome this with stronger radios or high-gain or directional antennas, but this can result in a lot of extra expense and tweaking to keep the amplified signal within a desired footprint).

For situations where an area can’t easily receive good quality wireless signals, Actiontec’s $129.99 HomePlug Ethernet Adapter may prove a useful alternative since it lets you extend an existing Ethernet network using the power outlets found on virtually every wall of your home.

The Basics
Like all products based on the HomePlug specification, the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet Adapter is advertised to provide 14Mbps of throughput. Of course, you won’t see that level of performance any more than you would see 11 Mbps from 802.11b or 54Mbps from 802.11g. Like those wireless technologies, the best possible throughput from HomePlug will typically amount to roughly half of that theoretical maximum splashed on the box.

Actiontec’s kit actually consists of two adapters- one to connect to your existing router, and one for the device you want to network. Each adapter is a “wall-wart” type device that plugs directly into an AC outlet, and the adapters are two-pronged devices so they don’t need to be plugged into grounded outlets.

Since the adapters connect to the Ethernet port on a router or PC’s Ethernet port, they don’t require any drivers. Each adapter has two status lights- one for power and one for link- though chances are you won’t be consulting them often, especially since the adapters are likely to be plugged in low near the floor or behind a desk.

Setup Is a Snap
In large part due to this lack of drivers, getting the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet Adapter kit up and running out of the box was both quick and easy. I began by plugging an adapter into a power outlet and connecting it to my router via CAT5 cables (which are included), and within a few moments the adapter had obtained a DHCP address. After repeating the process with the second adapter and an Ethernet-equipped PC, IP communication between the two adapters was established and the PC had Internet access.

After getting a HomePlug network up and running with such ease, one might be tempted to celebrate a job well done and start using the network. But as with wireless networks, there are some performance and security matters to consider, and these can be configured using an included utility.

Security Is a Concern
Just like the air in a wireless network, it turns out that electrical wiring is a shared medium, which makes security an important consideration when using the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet Adapter. This is because the data signal doesn’t stop at your circuit breaker- rather, it terminates only when it reaches the nearest transformer. As such, there’s a good chance your data signal will travel to one or more nearby homes, (this is virtually guaranteed in an apartment building), and thus anyone similarly equipped with HomePlug devices could access your network.

To guard against this, you can create a password which will be used to encrypt (with 56-bit DES) communication between all the HomePlug devices you specify. You can choose which devices to include by entering its unique 16 character alphanumeric ID (separate from its MAC address) into the configuration utility.

Actual Performance May Vary
Although perhaps not as erratic as wireless signals can sometimes be, HomePlug performance can be affected by the underlying quality of the electrical wiring as well as EMI (electromagnetic interference) generated by devices that are either plugged into an outlet or directly wired into a circuit. For starters, plugging into a surge suppressor or UPS is not recommended as such power conditioning may limit performance or prevent connectivity altogether.

Therefore, actual throughput will likely vary depending on what outlet the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet adapter is plugged in to. When you launch Actiontec’s configuration utility, a status bar appears to help you gauge network performance. Thelength and color of the bars are meant to convey the quality of the link — green, yellow and red for excellent, fair and poor, respectively). The utility will also report a data rate analogous to that of a wireless connection (i.e., 14 Mbps when signal is at full strength and quality).

In my time with the product, I did see some performance variations as I moved the Actiontec HomePlug Adapter between a half-dozen locations around my house. Using Ixia’s QCheck utility to measure throughput, my best performance was about 5.5 Mbps (reflecting a 12.95 Mbps data rate). Conversely, my worst performance, which was obtained in a room that was an add-on with an extension of an existing electrical circuit, was about 1 Mbps (reflecting a 2.95 Mbps data rate).

Suitable for All But The Most Demanding Tasks
With its extreme ease of setup, the Actiontec HomePlug Ethernet adapter may be a good option for networking devices when a wireless connection isn’t possible or desirable. Due to best-case performance roughly comparable to 802.11b, it won’t be suitable for some bandwidth-intensive tasks like streaming video within a home network, and of course it can’t compete with today’s 802.11g WLANs. Nevertheless, most users will probably find it suitable for typical PC tasks like browsing and e-mail, as well as for devices like printers or game consoles.