Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reactions mixed to home mesh networking effort

Reaction to plans to create a mesh standard for home networks has been mixed. Backers praise the effort as the future of whole home coverage, competitors from the Zigbee Alliance critique it as a late comer, those with who have worked on other wireless mesh standards indicate it won't be easy—and some still haven't heard about it.

In late April, an Atheros Communications executive said he was trying to organize a standards effort to create a mesh capability that would span Wi-Fi and the wired technologies of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance and the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. The effort aims to create hybrid wired/wireless links that can collaborate to cover a home of any size.

"To me that is the home network for the next 15 years," said Tom Lookabaugh, chief technology officer of Entropic Communications, the leading provider of MoCA silicon.

Lookabaugh said he was aware of the effort which is still debating whether it will create an ad hoc consortium or start a new IEEE standards group. "Some OEMs and carriers are already starting to put together MoCA-to-Wi-Fi bridges," he said.

Stefano Galli, a powerline specialist and lead scientist with Panasonic's R&D group in the U.S. welcomed the effort, but said he was not previously aware of it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Netgear Powerline AV 200 Adapter XAV2001 - bridge

At $80, the Netgear Powerline AV 200 Adapter XAV2001 is about $10 cheaper than the recently reviewed Plaster Network PLN3 adapter. However, the fact that it has only one Ethernet port (as opposed to two in the PLN3's case) makes it less of a good deal if you want to connect two computers at the far corner via the house's electrical wiring.

Other than that, the two adapters are very similar in regard to speed and the snap-in design, with the Netgear being about 20 percent more compact overall but noticeably thicker. The XAV2001 doesn't come with a fancy online service like the PLN3, but it makes up for it by having a convenient push-button solution to activate its security feature.

If you are looking to quickly connect a computer to your network via your home's electrical wiring, the Netgear XAV2001 is a good solution, especially when it costs only around $130 when you buy it in a kit that includes two units.

Design, setup and features
The XAV2001 has a typical shape of most power-line adapters, looking just like a two-prong power adapter for a small electronic device, such as a cordless phone or an external hard drive. It comes with only one Ethernet port. This means you will need a hub (or switch) if you want to connect more than one computer at the far end of the connection. What's more important at the far end is another power socket, as the as the XAV2001 doesn't feature a power pass-through and it, like all HomePlug AV power-line adapters, is not designed to work with power strips or surge protectors. To our surprise, it worked with a few strips we tried, but there's no guarantee that it will work with yours.

The XAV2001's setup process is like that of any typical power-line connection. You'll need two adapters, preferably of the same company, though the XAV2001 is compatible with any other HomePlug AV adapters. After that, say if you want to create a connection between the existing network and a device in the basement, you hook the first adapter to the network via the router (or the hub). The second adapter is connected to the Ethernet-ready device at the far corner. After that, you just plug both adapters into the power sockets. If the two locations share the same electrical wiring, which they do in most cases of homes or apartment buildings, the network connection is now established. This whole process takes just a minute or two, and you can't make a mistake.

We had no problem setting up the two test XAV2001 units and believed nobody would run into any issues. After the initial setup is done, the XAV2001 has a nifty security feature that you can enable by pressing on the button on its side. You need to press this button for all XAV2001 units at the same time or within two minutes of one another. After that, a secure connection is created between all of the XAV2001 units. This keeps others from tapping into your network by plugging another HomePlug AV adapter into the same electrical wiring, a necessary security measure for those who live in an apartment building.

We tested the XAV2001 using the same methodology we use for wireless routers, and it offered about the same speed as the average speed of a wireless-N router at a distance of 100 feet. The adapter registered a speed of around 22.9Mbps, just slightly faster than the 22.6Mbps of the Plaster Network PLN3. At this speed, the XAV2001 adapter can finish transmitting 500MB of data in slightly less than 3 minutes.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Getting things together on the smart grid networking front

Worth noting that the IEEE P1901 Working Group – which is working on global standards for powerline networking – has given the thumbs-up to the current draft of the standard.

A final version of the IEEE 1901 powerline networking standard should be available in the third quarter.

This is a big victory for the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, because the standard is, in part, based on HomePlug AV. That means technology that’s out in the market today that uses HomePlug AV will be interoperable with those that use P1901 Powerline Networking. HomePlug will actually get to be the certifying body to ensure that IEEE 1901 devices are truly compliant.

Part of the IEEE P1901 profile will be focused on smart energy/smart grid applications, so those watching smart grid adoption should continue to keep an eye on developments here.

Similarly, they’ll also want to keep tabs on a new collaboration between the IEEE Power & Energy Society and the GridWise Alliance, both of which are pretty heavy into engineering matters associated with the power grid and electric distribution system. The crux of the deal is that the two organizations plan to collaboration on a number of matters including smart grid policy proposals and research projects.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Plaster Networks PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter

The PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter is the first power-line adapter we've reviewed in a long time (more will be reviewed soon) and like all power-line adapters, it offers a quick way to extend your network via the electrical wiring of your home or apartment building. This is a handy and effective solution for those far corners of your home where your router's wireless signal may be weak or nonexistent.

The PLN3 is rather bulky but it has two Ethernet ports, as opposed to only one like many others, to host up to two Ethernet-ready network devices. It also comes with an online service that helps monitor the power-line connection. The device is compatible with all HomePlug AV power-line adapters from other vendors and costs around $90.

Note that you'll need at least two adapters to create a power-line connection. If you don't already have some at home, Plaster Networks is offering a deal by knocking off $30 if you buy a pair of the PLN3 adapters at a time.

Design and setup
The PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter looks like a large power adapter for a small electronics device, such as a cordless phone or an external hard drive. It's about the size of two decks of cards stacked together. With this large size, it would be better if the adapter had a power cord, instead of just two prongs. As it is, the only way to hook it to the power is to snap it over a receptacle. This is a bad design as the adapter takes up a relatively large physical space and might even obstruct other adjacent sockets.

As the PLN3 doesn't feature a passthrough for the power socket, you will need a power strip in the far corner to extend the network. Note that the adapter might not work with all power strips or surge protectors because these devices generally degrade or block signal of HomePlug AV adapters. In this case, the sure way is to plug it directly into the wall and make sure you have extra power outlets. To its credit, the PLN3 has two Ethernet ports. This means it can support up to two Ethernet-ready devices, such as a printer and a NAS server, at the far end. At the near end, where the adapter is hooked to a router, though, the second Ethernet port is redundant.

As with most other power-line adapters, there's really nothing to setting up the PLN3. For a typical power-line connection, say between the existing network and a device in the basement, you'll need two power-line adapters. The first adapter is to connect to the network by hooking it to an Ethernet port of the router (or the hub). The second adapter is connected to the device at the far corner. After that, you just plug both adapters into the power sockets. If the two locations share the same electrical wiring, which they do in most homes or apartment buildings, the network connection is now live. This whole process takes just a minute or two; we had no problem setting up the PLN3, and you won't either, most likely.

The PLN3 comes with a CAT5 network cable, which is needed to connect it to other network devices.

What makes the PLN3 different from other power-line adapters is the included Plaster Networks Service that automatically updates the adapter to the latest firmware and allows users to keep tab of their power-line network over the Internet.

This service is easy to set up. You just need to access it by pointing a browser to from a computer that's connected to the Internet via the PLN3 adapter. You will then be prompted to register a new account (or log into an existing one). Then the new adapter will also then be recognized and registered automatically.

From then on, each time you login at the same address, you will be able to view the power-line connection's status, activity history log, and so on. You can also change the password for the each PLN3 Powerline adapter. This is a necessary step for an apartment building because if you don't enable password protection or change the default password, others in the same building might be able to join your network (and tap into your Internet connection, for example) by plugging another HomePlug AV-compliant power adapter into any of the building's power outlet.

The service is potentially a handy tool for other service providers to offer remote troubleshooting for your network connection should a problem arise. However, this is possible only if the problem doesn't disconnect your computer from the Internet, as the Plaster Networks Service requires a live Internet connection to function. This also means you can't take advantage of it if you want to have an isolated network.

While we find this service useful, we didn't find it useful enough to justify the annual fee of $30. The good news is the service is free during the first year.

Note that if you don't want to use this service at all or do not even want Plaster Networks to be able to locate your PLN3 adapter (to update its firmware automatically for example), you can turn this all off. To do this--on a computer that's connected to the adapter--point an Internet browser to PLNxxxxxx, where xxxxxx is the adapter's six-digit identification number printed on its side. This allows access to the adapter's Admin Console, where you can change all of the adapter's additional settings, including those relating to the Plaster Networks Service.

Unlike the Plaster Networks Service, the Admin console doesn't require a live Internet connection to work.

We tested the PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter by using two units and the same test methodology we use for wireless routers. The adapters consistently registered 22.4Mbps in our sustained throughput tests. This is about the same average speed of 2.4Ghz Wireless-N routers at 100 feet distance. Note, however, this throughput speed can change depending on the electrical wiring of your home. At this speed, the PLN3 adapters can finish transmitting 500MB of data in about three minutes.

In our anecdotal movie streaming tests, the adapters proved that they can offer decent streaming for high-def content, as long as we streamed just one at a time with no other network activities, such as Web surfing or data copying, going on at the same time. We did notice, however, when we increased the file size of the movie or the workload, the streaming wasn't smooth at times, especially when we wanted to jump from one part of the movie to another.

On the other hand, for other casual network needs, such as printing, surfing the Internet, or even playing YouTube movies, the PLN3 will get the job done just fine.

Overall, we weren't terribly impressed with the PLN3's performance, but we weren't disappointed either. We believe it is a good alternative when wireless networking is not a viable option.