If you’re using a mixture of computer and other devices that only connect to your network via Ethernet cables, and you don’t want to run metres of cable around your home, then you’re going to need an alternative: powerline adapters. Cabling up your devices and computers to your router is by far the fastest connection you’re going to be able to make – providing your router has a gigabit switch built into it. Use a multitude of other gigabit switches for those hard to reach computers and devices, and you’ve effectively got a network that’s passing data to and from each device at 1Gb/s; which is pretty quick. The speed of this network is great for streaming media stored on another computer, or Network Attached Storage, and gaming. However, there will inevitably be some computers that won’t be anywhere near the router, or anywhere near where you’re able to run a cable – the garage, for example. So what to do? You could opt for wireless for those computers and devices, but thankfully there’s a solution at hand that’s both quick and convenient, and it won’t affect the overall speed of your network too much either. The powerline adapter.
What is it?
A powerline adapter is simply a unit that offers one or more Ethernet port, and plugs directly into an electrical wall socket. They come in pairs, so one will be plugged in near a connection to the router, such as a switch or the router itself, so that an Ethernet cable can be used to join the existing network, and the other will be plugged into an electrical wall socket near the device or computer that needs connecting to the network.
Once both sides have their Ethernet cables connected, and are powered on, they will communicate with each other and start to use your home’s electrical wiring to transmit and receive the network data.
A powerline adapter works by carrying data on a conductor that’s also used for AC. Called Powerline Communication (PLC), the powerline adapter can be used for many different scenarios, such as the aforementioned connecting hard to reach devices to the existing network, or for more exotic duties like home automation or security. Wherever they plug in, they’ll be able to supply the devices on the other end a feed directly to the network. While one end may plug straight into the router, the other end can be plugged into a switch, which will offer even more connectivity depending on the number of ports it has available.
Most modern powerline adapters come with a pass-through feature, which means they come with a plug socket on the faceplate of the unit – so you don’t lose a plug socket when you plug one in. There’s also a security feature, usually in the form of a button on both adapters that when pressed will encrypt the data being sent through each of the adapters. They also come in a variety of different bandwidth speeds. Typically, you see anything from 600Mb/s through to an impressive 2Gb/s.
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However, while good, the speed they advertise isn’t necessarily going to be the speed at which they will work in your home. One of the biggest issues with powerline adapters is the fact they can be very picky about the electrical wiring they’re being plugged into. 2Gb/s is great, but in realistic terms you may only see half, or even less than half, that speed when being used in a typical home.
Most older homes naturally have older wiring – unless they’ve been upgraded, of course – and as such the wiring isn’t as effective at transmitting the data at the bandwidth the adapters is rated at. Modern homes have better luck, since the wiring has been done to a certain standard and is far more efficient. But there are times when the roles are reversed.
For example, in our experience we’ve seen houses that over a hundred years old, with quite shoddy electrical wiring, work really well with a powerline adapter. There were no dips in the connectivity, the backbone network whizzed along at the adapter’s advertised 600Mb/s, and they worked flawlessly. The same adapters in a home that was less than five years old, on the other hand, had a plethora of problems: dropped network connections, poor quality speeds, and so on.
There was also a networking job we once worked on, in brand new housing estate, where the powerline adapter setup in one house was able to pick up the home network of a neighbour two streets away.
One of the best ways to ensure a powerline adapter will work to its maximum potential is to ensure that you plug the adapter into its own socket on the wall. Don’t be tempted to plug the adapter into a power gang strip, and if you can, don’t plug a power gang strip into the pass-through port of a powerline adapter. Again, powerline adapters are great, but they are affected by other things plugged into the circuit.
That said, despite the few drawbacks, a powerline adapter pair is a fantastic way to extend and increase your local network. They’re quick, stable, and work out of the box without the need for any complicated setup and configuration.
If you’re stuck for running cables, and don’t want to drop the backbone speed of your network by using WiFi, then a powerline adapter is the perfect solution; and they’re reasonably priced too.