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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Review of Netgear Powerline HD Network Kit (HDXB101)

by Vernon Keenan, April 6, 2008

Powerline To The Rescue

Using an unreliable wireless network connection is huge waste of time, and can be quite infuriating. I'm sure many of you have had an unforgettable experience when your wireless connection failed at the most inopportune moment. Or, you might be mystified why you can't get a desktop computer to connect using WiFi to a new router in the next room.

What is the ambitious home networker to do? Is he or she doomed to spotty connections forever? Never fear,
Netgear comes to the rescue with its Powerline products. Using Powerline adapters is the smart way to network media centers, servers, and desktops in the home and small businesses.

Powerline technology works by plugging two-pronged adapters into regular home power sockets. When two or more of the adapters are plugged into the same power network they link up to create an Ethernet network.

I use these handy devices by connecting one to my router, and the other to my desktop computer upstairs. They work magically with no set up required. They also work well in very large home or dormitory. You can have up to 16 Powerline devices. I have used three Powerline devices to make a three-node Ethernet network in my home without any problems. It couldn't be simpler.

Once you have an Internet router plugged into one end of the Powerline Ethernet bridge and a computer plugged into the other end, the computer will have a direct Ethernet connection to the router. No special software is needed on the computer to use an Ethernet bridge.

Ethernet bridges are very useful because they are universally compatible with any Ethernet device. That means that Powerline Ethernet bridges are compatible with a game console, SlingBox, WiFi access point, and anything else with an Ethernet port. You can easily "split" an Ethernet connection with a $20 Ethernet switch. I think this will be pretty useful in a modern living room with a Media Center PC or MacMini hooked up to a HDTV setup.

The modulated signal used by Powerline encrypts the digital data, which enables separate data networks to exist on the same power network. There is a Windows application used to control these advanced features. Most users won't ever need them.

I have used several of Netgear's Powerline products. They have Ethernet bridge kits which include two matched devices. They also have WiFi versions where one end is an Ethernet bridge and the other is a WiFi access point. They also have three different speeds you can buy, and the speeds don't all interoperate! I have to say it is confusing picking just the right product to order.

I have used the Netgear Wall-Plugged Ethernet Extender Kit (
XE102G) with no problems whatsoever. I added a standalone Wall-Plugged Ethernet Bridge (XE102) to have a total of three Ethernet nodes. I have also used the WiFi access point Powerline Wireless Range Extender (WGXB102). I did have reliability problems with the WiFi access point functionality, and I don't recommend using Netgear's wireless Powerline devices. I worry about heat and other factors inherent in this design. I do definitely recommend the pure Ethernet solution.

I wasn't really impressed with the speed of the XE102 bridge, however. It wasn't any faster than a good wireless connection. So unless you need it, there really is not a speed advantage. That was why I was eager to try out the newer Powerline HD Network Kit (
HDXB101). They claim a 200 Mbps top speed.

I bought my adapters at Frys in Concord, California. They had them in stock for the same price ($169) as on their web site.

I set up my new adapters with one in the basement connected to the router and my servers, and its twin upstairs next to my desktop. Everything worked super smooth on the first try. I attained a top speed of approximately 40 Mbps. Now that is actually pretty good, hitting right in middle of the 100 Mbps capacity of most Ethernet devices. That speed should allow for streaming of an uncompressed DVD with no problems.

It is interesting that Netgear claims a top speed of 200 Mbps because the Ethernet port on the HDXB101 is 100 Mbps! Technically, it is impossible for the end user to ever see 200 Mbps. I suppose this marketing claim can be substantiated because they have overhead due to the encryption or some BS. Funny how things never change in Silicon Valley.

In conclusion I heartily recommend the Netgear Powerline Ethernet bridges. I'd recommend sticking with the kit packaging for the straight up bridges. That would be the HDXB101 for the high speed, the XE103G for the medium speed and the XE102G for the low speed. According to Netgear the XE* units will interoperate, but I have only tested the XE102G and have never used the medium speed units. I suppose a followup to this review would be to compare the speeds of all three units to make sure there is some real value in the faster, and more expensive, units.

Happy networking! I hope this ends a frustrating situation for someone. Please let us know with a comment below! -- Vern

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