Walt Mossberg

Powerline Adapters Bring Internet Access To Your Entire Home

Last week, I reviewed some new Wi-Fi wireless Internet gear that promised to deliver a fast Internet signal to the farthest corners of your home. Alas, my tests showed that the new models weren’t so great.

But there’s more than one way to get a strong, fast Internet signal all over your house. You aren’t limited to using a single wireless router. You don’t have to install a bunch of complicated wireless “range extenders.” And you don’t have to snake networking cables through your walls.

Instead, there’s a simple alternative that’s often overlooked: Using small gadgets called Powerline adapters, you can route your Internet connection around your house over your regular electrical power lines, the ones already in your walls. It really works, it’s fast and it doesn’t disrupt your electrical system. Even better, it requires zero technical skill.

You just plug one of the adapters into a standard electrical outlet near the place where your Internet connection enters your home. Then, you connect the adapter to your wired or wireless router. Next, you plug a second, identical adapter into an electrical outlet in a distant room where you lack an Internet connection. Finally, you plug a computer (or even a wireless access point) into that second adapter. There’s no setup, no required software and no technicians or tools are needed.

When you plug in a computer into the second Powerline adapter, it’s as if that computer was right next to your cable or DSL modem and router. You are on the Internet at full speed. If you plug a Wi-Fi wireless access point into the second Powerline adapter, it will create a wireless network in and around the distant room, which multiple computers can use.

I first reviewed these Powerline adapters in 2003. I liked them, but they were a little slow and never took off. Now, however, one of the leading home network product makers, Netgear, offers a whole line of faster Powerline adapters.

I’ve been testing one of Netgear’s newest models, the XE104, which costs $100 per adapter, and I can heartily recommend it. It couldn’t be simpler or more effective. In my tests, the XE104 gave me wicked-fast connections. I tried plugging Windows and Macintosh laptops directly into the adapters in rooms where my wireless signal was weakest. I also tried plugging a Wi-Fi wireless access point into an XE104 adapter and picking up the connection wirelessly on the laptops. (An access point is a wireless gadget that takes a wired Internet connection and propagates it through the air.)

In all scenarios, the Netgear XE104 adapters delivered nearly the full speed of my Internet service, which in my case is very fast — 15 megabits per second downstream and two mbps upstream. In fact, the XE104 can handle speeds up to 85 mbps, far faster than any common connection.

You can use up to four Netgear adapters at once, and the company claims they will cover a 5,000-square-foot home. Netgear includes optional software to encrypt your Powerline connection, but this is needed only if you share an electrical system with other families.

Linksys, Belkin and other companies also make Powerline adapters, sometimes called bridges. But Netgear is the leader in this category, and I didn’t test the other brands.

The XE104 is a small, white rectangular gadget about 4 inches high, 3 inches wide and 1.5 inches thick. It carries a standard two-pronged electrical plug and mounts right into the wall outlet.

On the side, there are four standard Ethernet network ports, like the kind on your router and laptop. Netgear includes a short Ethernet cable so you can connect the first adapter to your router and the second one to a PC or a wireless access point.

The four Ethernet ports are what make the XE104 a “switch.” They allow you to connect each adapter to multiple devices. For instance, the first adapter can be connected both to your router and to a PC. The second might be connected to a PC, a wireless access point and a device like a game console.

Netgear makes a similar model without the multiple Ethernet ports, called the XE103, for $80. There’s also a costlier model that goes up to 200 mbps, though that’s overkill for 99% of people.

The company also makes a Powerline adapter with a built-in wireless access point for the distant room, the $150 WGXB102 model. This saves you the cost and hassle of buying and connecting a separate access point. But it’s slower and uses older technology. In my tests, it was less than half as fast as using the XE104 with a separate, modern wireless access point.

Unfortunately, like a lot of network-equipment makers, Netgear is clueless about naming products so that normal humans can understand what they are. The XE104 is officially called the XE104 85 Mbps Wall-Plugged Ethernet Switch. That’s like calling a table lamp the LS482 75 Watt Wall-Plugged Switched Illumination Device.

Netgear even makes it hard to find the XE104 on its Web site, netgear.com. It lists it under a section called “Bridges, Access Points, and Range Extenders.” You can buy them at computer stores and other retail outlets.

These adapters are a terrific way to clear up Internet dead spots.

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