Holiday Buyer's Guide 2006, Part 2: Networking

Alternative Networking

If wireless isn't your thing, or you've tried it and found that it won't work in your environment, there are alternatives to getting out your drill and stringing good old CAT5/6 cable for wired Ethernet. Products that use your home's electric or phone wiring have been around for years, but have generally been avoided by consumers given their relatively slow speeds. However, satellite, cable and telco service providers now feel your pain, since they also want their services to reach every room of your home. And whenever there is a huge pile of money to be made, you can rest assured that the big guys will keep pursuing a solution.

As a result, a wave of new "alternative networking" products aiming to use your home's existing wiring is coming, this time with speeds capable of supporting multiple "triple play" data streams for video / music, voice and data. Unfortunately, service providers are doing selective roll-outs of most "alternative" technologies since there are still performance limitations and bugs to be worked out. The only "alternative networking" products generally available to consumers use power line wiring, but the story there isn't pretty, with two alternative incompatible technologies - HomePlug and DS2 - battling it out.

The upshot is that you should proceed with caution if powerline networking products are on your holiday shopping list. Products touting "200 Mbps" speeds use technology from DS2, which can neither interoperate nor coexist with products bearing the HomePlug moniker. Products using DS2 technology include D-Link's DHP-301 and Netgear's HDX101.

85 Mbps on the box indicates HomePlug Turbo technology, which is interoperable with earlier HomePlug standards. In the HomePlug Turbo Adapter Round-Up I liked Netgear's XE104, which includes a four port 10/100 switch in a compact wall-pluggable design.

Netgear XE104 85 Mbps Wall-Plugged Ethernet Switch

But shortly after you read this, the first HomePlug AV products will be appearing. Like DS2-based products, HomePlug AV gear also advertises 200+ Mbps speeds, but is supposed to be compatible with all existing HomePlug gear. If it ships as planned, ZyXEL's PLA-400 HomePlug AV PowerLine Ethernet adapter should be out this month at an MSRP of $94. Since I haven't tested HomePlug AV I can't vouch for any of its claims. But if the performance of DS2 gear is any indication, I expect best-case usable throughput between 50 and 80 Mbps.