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Anyone who's wriggled through spider-infested crawl spaces and drilled into beams and walls in order to run Ethernet cable through a home or office has undoubtedly thought, "There's got to be a better way." Recently, that better way has been an IEEE 802.11b wireless network, a la Apple's wireless AirPort technology. But AirPort isn't an option if the distance you want your network to cover exceeds AirPort's range or if you have an older Mac -- such as a Power Mac G3 or a PowerBook without a PC Card slot.
But don't don the spider-suit yet, for there's another option: HomePlug networking. With two or more HomePlug 1.0-compliant adapters, you can network computers and printers -- as well as share a broadband connection -- via the power outlets in a home or office. We put five of these adapters through their paces -- the Asoka Plug-Link Ethernet Bridge, GigaFast HomePlug Ethernet Bridge, Linksys Instant PowerLine EtherFast 10/100 Bridge,
Netgear Powerline Ethernet Adapter, and Phonex Broadband NeverWire 14 QX-201 -- and found that they all performed adequately. But only the NeverWire adapter makes it easy for Mac users to implement security measures in a HomePlug network, and it's this feature that puts the NeverWire ahead of its competition.
Plugging Into HomePlug
Each adapter has a power and an Ethernet port, and each has status lights that indicate an active power connection. (The Linksys adapter provides an additional light that turns on once you've established a 100BaseT connection.) To connect a device to your network, you'll have to plug it directly into a powered wall socket, and then connect one end of an Ethernet cable to the adapter and one end to your Mac's Ethernet port or a free Ethernet port on a router or hub.
Nearly all of these HomePlug adapters work in sets of two or more, with a 16-adapter limit on any given network. The HomePlug Ethernet Bridge adapter is the exception: it's currently limited to two adapters. (A new HomePlug Ethernet Bridge with support for as many as 16 adapters should be available by the time you read this.) In a typical two-computer network, you'll have one adapter per machine. If you want to share a broadband connection, all you need is a HomePlug adapter connection for your router.
A HomePlug network can be affected by interference from household appliances such as stereos, computers, microwave ovens, and hair dryers. More-severe interference -- an intervening circuit-breaker box, for instance -- can disrupt the link between HomePlug adapters. Thankfully, these devices are rate-adaptive: they can lower their data rates to compensate for power-line interference. However, because such interference is common in most homes and offices, you may have to try different power outlets to find the best connection.
Although all of the adapters can be used either in a computer-to-computer configuration or with a router or hub, certain adapters make it easier to set up these configurations. For example, the PlugLink Ethernet Bridge, HomePlug Ethernet Bridge, and NeverWire have switches that let you choose between a direct-to-computer connection and an uplink connection to a router or hub (the kind of connection you'd choose if you were sharing a broadband connection, for example). The Powerline Ethernet Adapter lacks such a switch, but Netgear graciously includes a straight-through and a crossover cable, as well as instructions on when it's appropriate to use each. In what looks like a case of unfortunate economizing, the Instant PowerLine Etherfast 10/100 Bridge provides no Ethernet cables at all.
The Need for Speed
Although HomePlug networks boast a maximum data-throughput rate of 14 Mbps, this is the theoretical limit. In practical use, you should see speeds about 30 to 50 percent faster than a typical 802.11b wireless network, which also operates well below its theoretical maximum of 11 Mbps. While this is sprightly enough for Web surfing, you'll really notice the slowness when you copy files across a network.
To test speeds, we attached the adapters to a 400MHz PowerBook G4 and a 700MHz flat-panel iMac G4. Both Macs were equipped with 10/100BaseT Ethernet ports. We copied a 50.2MB file between the two Macs over a wired Ethernet connection, over an AirPort connection (using an intervening graphite AirPort Base Station), and via each of the five HomePlug adapters. We weren't surprised that the wired Ethernet connection was far faster than either the AirPort or the HomePlug connection -- it took just 6 seconds to copy the file.
Transferring the file over the AirPort connection took 3 minutes and 55 seconds. While not nearly as zippy as the direct Ethernet connection, the HomePlug adapters outperformed AirPort, with speeds ranging from as fast as 1 minute and 20 seconds to as slow as 2 minutes and 55 seconds.
These numbers reflect tests in a real-world environment, one in which electrical interference ebbs and flows. For example, when the adapters shared a plug with a power strip connected to a host of peripherals, including a computer, a scanner, a printer, and powered speakers, it took each adapter nearly a minute longer to copy our test file. Because of the many variables involved, we were unable to ascertain exact speeds for each of the HomePlug devices.
Our speed tests shouldn't unduly influence your buying decision, but your ability to secure your HomePlug network certainly should. You can successfully link these adapters throughout apartment buildings and office spaces that share wiring; if you live or work in such an environment and would prefer that others not access your network or pilfer your bandwidth, you'll choose the NeverWire, hands down, for its security features.
Turning on encryption is a simple matter of pressing a Secure button on each NeverWire unit within the network. This initiates 56-bit DES encryption, which, although it's a less secure level than most current encryption schemes, is solid enough to deter all but the most determined hackers. However, the NeverWire's method is desirable only when you control the space in which the adapters reside.
To secure the other HomePlug adapters you must run the included Windows-compatible encryption application from a PC (all the adapters use the same Security Configuration Utility software). This software generates and stores a password in the unit's hardware, so you can configure the adapters with a PC and have the encryption still work with your Mac. If you don't have access to a PC and want a secure network, we don't recommend anything but the NeverWire.
Macworld's Buying Advice
At a cost of $200 to $250 for a two-computer network, these adapters aren't the most economical solutions around -- 1,000 feet of Category-5 (Ethernet) cable costs less than $80 -- nor are they the speediest. But if you plan to operate a network in a single-family home or small office and don't require peak performance, you'll be content with any of these adapters. If you need a measure of security in your setup, Phonex Broadband's NeverWire 14 QX-201 is your only choice.