I've recently moved in to a new house. The WiFi from my lounge just about stretches to upstairs, but it's a fairly noisy radio environment as everyone on the street also has WiFi. The 5GHz range is clear as a whistle - but only a few of my devices support that frequency.
So! It's time to turn to HomePlugs. These nifty little gadgets create a wired network over your power cables. The most recent version promise up to 500Mbps transfer speed (a theoretical max which is never reached) - and, as I have 120Mbps broadband, that seemed like the most future proof route.
The plugs themselves are usually around £60 a pair for the basic models. However, I found the £17 Max Value 500Mbps 3 Port Home Plug Adapter which have 3 ports on the bottom and a plug passthrough. That means you don't lose a plug socket and don't need an extra Ethernet switch.
Model: NLHP-5003PORT. Which means they're sometimes sold under the New Link brand name.
What's In The Box?
The packaging was atrocious. As you can see, the plugs broke through their boxes and the CDs containing the manual were cracked.
Each package came with a meter long, bright yellow, Cat 5e cable - which should be suitable for the speed of the network. The cables are a little short, but it's not expensive to buy more if you need.
First thing to note is that the performance will vary depending on the quality of your wiring and the speed of your computers.
These plugs appear to have a "Fast Ethernet" socket - that is a maximum of 100Mbps. Most applications - even 3D video - don't require more than that. There's a good discussion on Faculty-X as to whether a domestic environment needs Gigabit speeds.
The first test I ran just had my server connected straight to my cable box. I ran speedtest-cli and, at the time of night I tested, the results were a healthy:
Testing from Virgin Media (126.96.36.199)... Hosted by LAUSA (Gloucester) [65.37 km]: 31.948 ms Testing download speed Download: 122.84 Mbit/s Testing upload speed Upload: 11.34 Mbit/s
A few minutes later - with the server connected to the HomePlug and the HomePlug connected to the cable box - the results were a slightly disappointing:
Hosted by LAUSA (Gloucester) [65.37 km]: 34.968 ms Testing download speed Download: 79.84 Mbit/s Testing upload speed Upload: 11.27 Mbit/s
The HomePlugs had cost me around a third of my download speed. Not brilliant. This shows how fast the switch is inside the units - adequate for most domestic broadband, but not for fibre-to-the-premises. The best speed test I managed when connected to the HomePlug was 80Mbps.
Next, I plugged two units into sockets located in the same room (my lounge, should you be interested). With two machines on two separate plugs, here's how they performed (best and worst of 5 runs copying a 100MB file over SCP).
36,909,875 bps = 35.2Mbps 49,492,787 bps = 47.2Mbps
That's more than enough to stream a 3D movie from one machine to another. I did see it peak at around 66Mbps though, which was nice. That's about as good a speed as I could get over WiFi - and a lot more stable and less prone to interference.
Finally, one plug upstairs, one plug downstairs. I sent a Linux ISO from my ancient desktop down to my server.
Transferred: sent 730525992, received 186000 bytes, in 68.7 seconds Bytes per second: sent 10633391.2, received 2707.4
That's just... weird! About 82Mbps. Usually, the further away the plugs are, the worse their performance.
I immediately ran the tests again in quick succession
Bytes per second: sent 7983703 Bytes per second: sent 11005671
61Mbps and 84Mbps. I obviously have mains wiring made from oxygen-free, unicorn-tear-blessed, 100% pure copper cable.
I moved my server upstairs. The path was Server -> Homeplug Upstairs -> HomePlug Downstairs -> Cable Box.
Hosted by LAUSA (Gloucester) [65.37 km]: 34.65 ms Testing download speed Download: 73.74 Mbit/s Testing upload speed Upload: 11.30 Mbit/s
So, yeah, I don't know WTF is going on 🙂
As I said, this depends on your equipment, your wiring, and your usage. The 500Mbps refers to the aggregate flowing through the network. - so your toaster could talk to your fridge at 70Mbps, your TV to your Media Server at 80Mbps, your security cameras to each other at 90Mbps etc. All adding up to a theoretical cap of 500Mbps cascading around your mains wiring.
By comparison, my WiFi speeds upstairs at 24Mbps down and 11.5Mbps up - and that's on 5GHz WiFi.
To conclude - the HomePlugs beat WiFi over long distances, but their performance is hugely variable around the network. If you've got Virgin Media - or other Fibre broadband - it's worth considering where you want to place your routers and servers. The 80Mbps maximum throughput is great for shifting media around your house - but with Virgin upping speeds to 150Mbps in the near future, it might actually be worth running cables around if you need speed.
According to the manual, the chipset is QCA7420. That's exactly the same as you'd find in a plug costing twice as much.
There's an off switch on the side, which could prove useful for some.
Lastly, there's a an auto-power-off feature which is really useful. If no network traffic is detected after a short while, it will move to a low power state. The manual states the consumption is less than 1W - although I've not measured it. During normal use, the claimed consumption is 3.5W.
The CD came with a Windows based set-up utility. This wasn't needed. It really was just a case of plug the units in and the network was ready.
These HomePlugs are a great and cheap alternative to hammering in cables all over your house. If your WiFi doesn't reach the far corners of your living space, and you can't afford to upgrade everything to 5GHz, these are ideal. With 3 ports on each plug, you'll be able to connect loads of device - one of mine has a TV, Xbox, and HTPC all connected. The pass-through is incredibly useful if you don't want to lose a power socket.
It would be great if the HomePlug Alliance didn't encourage manufacturers to lie about their speeds - there's no way the ones marked as 500 even get close to their potential. That said, even though their speed is variable, they're more than fast enough for most domestic usage.
They're a bargain at under £20.
Buy the Max Value 500Mbps HomePlugs on Amazon.
For extra "fun" you can form a human centipede.
I didn't dare plug it in, though!