Powerline network kits are wonderfully clever. They create fast, reliable networks between routers and other devices by piggybacking a signal on the existing electrical wiring within your home's walls.
However, in a world of cheap and accessible wireless networking technology, their utility is limited. They make sense for people paranoid about wireless security, folks who want the reliability of a wired connection without running Ethernet cables throughout their homes, and suburbanites whose McMansions are so giant that wireless signals have a tough time effectively penetrating the many walls and floors separating networked rooms.
However, if you happen fall into one of these niche groups, powerline networking is well worth investigating. I took Linksys' new Linksys PLSK400 Powerline AV 4-Port Network Adapter Kit for a spin, and it was one of the simplest and most reliable network products I've tested.
It's composed of two adapters that plug into your home's power outlets. Using standard Ethernet cables, one connects to your router, the other to the device(s) you want to network. That's it. There's no software to install, no password security to set up. I was online three minutes after opening the box. It's far and away the simplest and easiest home networking product I've ever installed.
A speed test was next. Linksys' kit conforms to HomePlug Power Alliance specifications, which means it's designed to support speeds of up to 200 Mbps. I used a free LAN speed test tool and found that I achieved speeds right around that mark; more than quick enough to stream high-def video, which ran through the connection smoothly and without lag.
Granted, that's no faster than a decent wireless router (I tested my own Wireless-N router for comparison and achieved nearly identical speeds), but wireless signal strength degrades with each obstacle it passes through. Powerline signals don't suffer this problem.
Security was my next concern. I live in a multi-unit building with what I assume to be at least some shared electrical wiring. Would tech-savvy evildoers in neighbouring suites be able to tap into my powerline network?
Apparently not. I asked a Linksys rep about security and he said 128-bit encryption is enabled out of the box. The only device capable of descrambling the signal sent from the adapter connected to my router is the sibling adapter that came with it. I didn't try expending the network, but additional adapters can be added by simply pressing a security lock button on each unit to reset the encryption.
The only serious caveat I could identify is that powerline networking relies on healthy, modern electrical wiring. Linksys' adapters are geared for outlets that line up with Canadian home standards, though the company warns that older wiring could prove unsuitable and negatively impact performance. The 40-year-old wiring in the building in which I tested the PLSK400 seemed fine for the task.
The real question is whether you have any need for powerline networking. Unless you're working in an area of your home isolated and insulated from radio signals, wireless is still a much better option for non-tethered devices like laptops, and is downright essential for gadgets without Ethernet ports, such as tablets, phones, and portable game machines.
However, if your den and living room are in opposite wings of your home and both host machines hungry for high bandwidth feeds, a powerline network could make your life a whole lot simpler.
The four-port kit I tested goes for $120. Linksys also offers a single-port kit for $100.
(Linksys PLSK400 Powerline AV 4-Port Network Adapter Kit, homestore-ca.cisco.com)