Posted by Deliverator on September 14th, 2006
I have not been entirely happy with the reliability of my wireless link to my media center box off the kitchen. My house has aluminum siding and combined with some persistent noise sources does not make for the best WiFi environment. I decided to try out some of the new high speed power-line networking gear that has recently come onto the market.
I have been pretty pleased with the reliability and consistency of Netgear’s powerline to ethernet bridges (the ones that look like little silver wall warts), which I have used on a number of occasions in WiFi challenging scenarios. The major sticking point with these devices has been their speed. While most offer speeds faster than a typical DSL line, they don’t come close to rivaling the speed that can be achieved with wired ethernet or even 802.11g wireless gear. Where power-line gear has shined is its simplicity and consistency of use. In my experience, so long as you plug them directly into a wall outlet (and not into a power strip or UPS) they just work. For most people’s uses, these devices offer a quick and dirty way to get a computer or other device only with a minimum of fuss. In my situation, though, I needed a solution capable of streaming bandwidth video from my file server to my media center. Several manufacturers have released a new generation of power-line networking gear, often including the “HD” moniker in the product name.
I took a trip to Frys and was disappointed to see that they only had a single Netgear HD adapter on the shelves. They did however have copious quantities of Panasonic branded HD power-line adapters, sold as a two adapter kit (model BLPA100KTA) for almost $50 cheaper than a pair of the Netgear HD adapters. I purchased the Panasonic Kit and took it home. Here is where the frustration begins.
I unwrapped the Panasonic adapters and read the included documentation. The kit adapters come pre-paired with encryption. If you purchase additional adapters beyond the two in the kit, you have to press a button on the “master” adapter and the new adapter within about 3 seconds to add the new adapter to the network. I plugged my two adapters into the same outlet and the PLC lights on both units lit up indicating a connection. I plugged the units directly into the wall outlet in different rooms and began to have problems. In some cases I could get a connection and in others I couldn’t. I went back to the manual and read up on their long list of potential interference sources. In some cases unplugging a cell phone charger on the same breaker circuit was enough to establish a connection. In other cases, unplugging every other device on a particular breaker wasn’t enough to get a connection established, even with both adapters on the same physical circuit separated by no more than 50-100 wire feet. Needless to say, I was unimpressed.
I tried the adapter upstairs next to my media center and was thankful when I got the PLC lights to light up…for about 30 seconds. If I plugged the adapter in again, I could get it to light up once again, but only for a short period of time. I looked at what else was on the two breakers and unplugged everything I possibly could live without, short of the two computers themselves. I managed to get the PLC lights to stay solid. I then ran a short ethernet cable (not included in the packaging, unlike EVERY other power line adapter I have used) from a switch next to my media center into the Panasonic adapter. When I plugged the cable in, the PLC light immediately went off. I tried different cables and met with the same result. If I disconnected the ethernet cable, the PLC light would come back on. I tried plugging the ethernet cable directly into my media center and the PLC light went off. About a minute later, while I was trying to decide on what to try next, my media center shut off suddenly and would not come back on. I disassembled the media center and tested the power supply with my nifty new Coolmax LCD power supply tester, which revealed no signs of life from the power supply. On closer examination, I found that one of the capacitors had “bloomed.” I connected up a very good desktop supply and my media center powered right up. So, at the moment my mini-media center is powered by a power supply almost as big as itself. After five hours of troubleshooting and repair of my media center, I was pretty pissed off. I returned the adapters to Frys. Supposedly the Netgear HD adapters are designed around a different standard, and my past positive experiences with their previous generation of power-line products makes me more inclined to trust them not to kill my gear.