Author: Joseph Moran
Review Date: 8/23/2007
When you need network connectivity for a device that lives out of the range of your wireless LAN, possible solutions include things like installing a wireless repeater, adding another access point, or replacing your existing equipment with higher-performance gear such as the newest 802.11n products.
As long as your new device doesn’t need to be mobile, a simpler approach is to put your home’s AC wiring on double-duty by employing a powerline networking device like those in Actiontec’s MegaPlug AV 200 Mbps Ethernet Adapter Kit. After all, your electrical wiring is already delivering power throughout the house, so why not have it carry some data along the way?
The Set Up
The $169.99 Actiontec kit consists of a pair of Ethernet adapters based on the latest HomePlug powerline networking standard, HomePlug AV. The adapters use a wall-wart physical design so they plug directly into an outlet rather than plugging in via a power cord. While they’re a bit chunkier than most (jutting out well over two inches from the wall) this design does offer the advantage of not consuming precious real estate on a desk or other horizontal surface.
Getting a device connected with the MegaPlug AV kit can be as easy as 1-2-3, or more accurately, 1-2. You need only connect one of the MegaPlug adapters to the Ethernet port on the device you want to network, and then connect the other to a free port on your Ethernet switch (Actiontec includes a pair of 6-foot Cat 5 cables, so you don’t have to dig up your own.) The MegaPlug adapters find each other within seconds of being plugged in to AC power (status lights on each device indicate a successful link), and once the respective Ethernet cables are connected, your newly networked device will be able to request an IP address from your network’s DHCP server.
For best results (and sometimes for any results at all), you do need to plug the MegaPlug adapters directly into a wall outlet or a plain-vanilla power strip, since surge suppressors and uninterruptable power supplies perform line conditioning that can interfere with or block the data signal. If your electrical wiring dates back to the 1950s or earlier, you may also have problems.
Securing the Connection
Simply making the physical connections is enough to establish a usable link between HomePlug devices, but if you want a secure connection, you need to take some additional steps. Most people will want to secure their connection, because since the MegaPlug’s data signals can travel through circuit breakers (they stop only when they reach a transformer), an unsecured powerline network can easily become coupled with another one running in the apartment across the hall or the house next door.
To keep a MegaPlug network secure, Actiontec includes a utility to encrypt communication between adapters. The adapters use 128-bit AES encryption — which is a step up from the 56-bit DES variety used by prior generations of HomePlug devices — and you turn it on by configuring each adapter with a common password.
Setting up encryption could be a bit of a chore with earlier HomePlug products, as you were required you to enter in unwieldy 20-character ID strings unique to each device you wanted to encrypt. The process has been greatly simplified with the MegaPlug adapters (as with all HomePlug AV-based products), so enabling encryption on a directly-attached MegaPlug adapter requires entering only your chosen password into the utility. But since the adapter must be directly attached to be configured for encryption, one intended for connection to a switch will need to first be set up via a PC.
What’s That Term?
Not sure what a particular term means? Check out the searchable PracticallyNetworked Glossary.
The MegaPlug AV adapter (as well as the HomePlug AV specification) is nominally rated for 200 Mbps of throughput, up from earlier HomePlug iterations. (HomePlug 1.0 and 1.0 Turbo were rated for 14 and 85 Mbps respectively) But just like every other wired or wireless networking technology, HomePlug’s real-world performance falls considerably short of the number plastered all over the box. We consistently got between 32 and 37 Mbps of throughput between the adapters, as measured by Ixia’s Qcheck performance measurement utility.
Unlike other HomePlug produts we’ve looked at in the past, Actiontec’s utility can’t provide any information about the strength and quality of the connection. But whereas the performance of previous HomePlug products varied depending on the outlets used, the performance of the MegaPlug adapters was very consistent from location to location.
As you might have inferred from the product’s name, an important raison d’etre of the MegaPlug AV is to provide enough bandwidth for audio-visual content, specifically HD-quality video. We streamed several such clips (in 1280-by-720 and 1440-by-1080 resolution) between PCs and from an XP Media Center PC to an Xbox 360 across the MegaPlug adapters, and the playback was always solid.
Although the MegaPlug AV adapters aren’t backwards compatible with earlier HomePlug products, they can co-exist with them on the same wiring without ill effects. So while you can’t mix and match different generations of devices on the same HomePlug network, if you already have older products on your network you don’t necessarily need to replace them. (Our MegaPlug AVs played nice with a couple of pre-existing 85 Mbps devices from another vendor.)
Depending on your situation, the Actiontec MegaAV 200 Mbps Ethernet Adapter may or may not be the least expensive way to get a network connection where you need it. But in many cases it will likely be the quickest and easiest to set up, and that may be reason enough to give it look.
Pros: simple setup; provides enough bandwidth to stream HD-quality video
Cons: pricey relative to wireless network adapters