One of the generally undiscovered treats of connecting all the devices in your home is powerline networking. Most Canadians rely primarily on Wi-Fi to connect devices such as game consoles to their home networks. With a quality router you can happily stream HD-quality movies from the office PC to the Xbox 360 connected to the TV or to another PC on the second floor. Wireless networking has become a relatively simple and efficient way to build a home network and most of us use that method to beam content from room to room.
However, some devices such as the Slingbox Pro HD and HD HomeRun cannot connect to your home network wirelessly. They need to be plugged into a router or a switch, which proved logistically impossible in my case. My living room and office are on opposite ends of the house, and there was no way I was going to string Ethernet cords through the front hallway, around the dining room and into the den. But a powerline Ethernet device – essentially using my home's electrical wiring to convey data to and from my router and living room devices – would do the trick.
Off the shelf, a powerline networking device comes with two adapters. You connect one unit to your router with an Ethernet cord and then plug it into an electrical outlet nearby. The second unit plugs into an outlet near the TV and then to one or more of your networked devices. Some powerline products allow you to connect as many as four devices at once, others just one. And just like the different flavours of Wi-Fi (802.11 a, b, g and n), powerline networking devices are rated by a trade group called the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. Products are rated as HomePlug 1.0, HomePlug AV1 and HomePlug AV2 and transfer speeds of various devices range from 85 megabits per second to 500 Mbps.
Sling Media sent their SlingLink Turbo powerline adapter ($89.99) along with the Slingbox Pro HD and though setup was effortless, neither the Slingbox nor the HD HomeRun could connect to the network. The HomePlug 1.0 device has a top data transfer speed of 85 Mbps – too slow for my setup. Even making sure that both ends of the powerline device were plugged directly into wall sockets – power bars are not recommended – didn't ensure a strong enough connection to sling HD video.
As a test, I plugged the little Asus EeeBox into the SlingTurbo, disconnected the PC from my wireless network and then navigated to a broadband speed test website. Normally when i check internet speed on my main PC, I hit between 25 Mbps or 30 Mbps, which corresponds to my internet package. Running the test on the Asus showed a transfer speed of 5 Mbps. While that isn't exactly an accurate reflection of network speed, by comparison a Netgear Powerline device supplied by Best Buy returned speeds of 25 Mbps.
Yet even the Netgear HomePlug AV2 device ($129.99), which has data transfer speeds of up to 200 Mbps, was not fast enough to stream HD video from the TV. While the HD HomeRun could stream standard definition content, HD programming froze up. The Slingbox setup detected the antenna but got stuck in an endless loop in the middle of the configuration process.
There are two likely explanations for this: The Netgear HomePlug is a four-port device, meaning you can connect four separate devices to it. While you can designate which devices should get priority on the network, the more devices I connected seemed to dilute the connection. Also, powerline devices work best if the wall sockets between TV and router are connected with the same wire. The further you separate them, the weaker the connection.
I made another call to Best Buy and this time they sent me a D-Link PowerLine AV 500 4-Port Gigabit Switch Kit ($149.99), rated as having speeds of up to 500 Mbps. That did the trick. I set up the Slingbox Pro HD in about five minutes, and got the HD HomeRun streaming HD video smoothly. As well, the four ports allowed me to connect the home theatre PC and my Xbox at the same time, all of which performed flawlessly.
The lesson in all of this, for me at least, is to go for broke from the start. No messing around with anything less than 500 Mbps, especially if you're planning on streaming HD television. However, the Netgear 200 Mbps HomePlug operated just fine when connected to the Asus EeeBox, streaming Netflix on its highest quality settings without lag or stutter.
Editor's note: The photo initially attached to this story was misidentified as the D-Link PowerLine AV 500. We regret the error.
Below is a discussion with tech expert Michael Snider on the challenges of wiring up your living room with the latest entertainment technology. Mobile users can click here to read.