First powerline products pack surprises

When you wait long enough for something, you build up expectations. Like when you finally meet a remote colleague you've worked closely with for months. You don't realize until that moment the picture you had all along in your mind doesn't quite hit the mark.

That's what happened when I finally got to test the first powerline network products. The technology lets you network PCs and other devices over your home's power lines. Since you've probably got several power outlets in each room, powerline gear frees you to plug in your gear wherever you like. Want to take your notebook downstairs? No problem. And since you're just plugging in, there should be fewer wires.

Well, not quite. Powerline's connection ubiquity isn't much like mobility - surprise - at least not in this first iteration of products. The Linksys Group Inc. gear, Powerline USB (Universal Serial Bus) Adapter and Powerline Etherfast 10/100 Bridge (US$149 each, available now at Radio Shack) are big and bulky - each the width of a 300-page paperback book and a bit longer. An Ethernet cable sticks straight out of one end, a power cord out of the other, adding more inches to the form factor. And the cables? Bigger surprise. Unless you know something I don't, expect to drape around more cables and cords than you might already (a UTP Category 5 cable and power cord for each device). No new wires this isn't.

To network, you need to connect an Ethernet bridge to your broadband modem or router, and either the bridge or USB Adapter to each of your PCs. (If you have an Ethernet and USB port on a system, opt for the bridge as its rated speed (14M bit/sec) is a bit faster than the USB Adapter's 12M bit/sec.

That's assuming you've rearranged the power strips supporting the power plugs of your existing printers, lamps, phones and PDA (personal digital assistant) cradles to free up a wall outlet for each powerline device. While I was able to sneak the USB Adapter attached to the downstairs desktop onto a power strip, when I got cocky and tried the same on my upstairs office system, the connection swooned. Even after I plugged the cord properly into the wall socket, checked all the connections and rebooted, the device still refused to connect. When I tried again a few hours later, it worked fine.

Otherwise, the gear, even this first iteration of a brand-new technology, works fairly well. It was easy to set up - a good surprise - and the Linksys documentation was adequate. Linksys says a new Quick Start guide will soon replace the documentation I worked with - good news, as the existing booklet makes a big deal about using a "crossover cable" for this and "straight through" cable for that - just the kind of thing to throw off a novice. The USB Adapter includes the necessary USB cable, but the bridge lacks the Cat 5 cable. Including the right cable would clear up the confusion.

Speed was slower than I had expected, too, only about 4M bit/sec. Seems I assumed all-Ethernet cabling would produce better speeds. In contrast, my 802.11b wireless gives me about 7M bit/sec. But then again, you needn't choose one over the other. Just use a mix of both.

Even today's gear is well suited to the far ends of a house wireless can't reach, such as attics, basements and the room over the garage, or for homes and offices with concrete walls built with wire mesh; then use wireless for PCs that are relatively near each other, say within 30 to 50 feet.

You don't even need to wait for new products to set up a hybrid powerline/802.11b network. All you need is a device with a built-in router and access point, such as a 2Wire HomePortal residential gateway or Linksys EtherFast Wireless AP + Cable/DSL (Digital Subscriber LIne) Router with 4-Port switch. You can even use a router attached to an access point, if you don't mind daisy chaining so many boxes.

Here's what I did: In the family office downstairs, I connected my cable modem to a 2Wire gateway, then the Powerline Bridge to the gateway's LAN port. Then I installed the Powerline USB Adapter on the desktop system. Upstairs, I left my fiancé's notebook connected via 802.11b (he likes to roam and winces when I say powerline), but added the Powerline Bridge to my notebook system, which also has an 802.11b wireless card.

If you want powerline now, go for it. But if you can wait, prices will soon begin to drop, form factors will shrink, and vendors will offer begin offering powerline technology built in to their routers and gateways. Already, Linksys has announced its powerline router will be available in June ($179), and Philips Components is putting the finishing touches on the first powerline/802.11b wireless gateway, which it will make available to OEM (original equipment manufacturer) customers next quarter.

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