Setting up a Home Network - Powerline Networking with the Belkin AV Starter Kit

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Alternative Networking

A couple months ago, I wrote an article on Power Line Networking designed to introduce the concept. In summary, Power Line Networking uses the power lines in your home in order to relay network signals. I had been experimenting with products while I wrote that article, and I was so impressed by the potential of the technology that I purchased Belkin’s Powerline AV Start Kit for use in my apartment. The results? Well, read on…

Aesthetics And Build Quality (5 out of 5)

These Belkin Powerline Adapters Are Large, But Good Looking

In order for a power line network to work, you must have your adapters plugged into your power outlets. If you happen to have free power outlets located next to the router and computer you are trying connect, both of which are also obscured by furniture or other objects, then the looks of the powerline adapters doesn’t matter. However, this isn’t always the case. Depending on how your room is set up, you may need to connect the adapter to a visible outlet. Powerline adapters are notorious for being ugly, and some products can be a real eye-sore if placed in a visible location. The Belkin adapters, however, are quite sleek despite their large size. Their glossy black exterior is classy, and the dim blue LEDs aren’t disruptive in a darkened room. Should anyone notice the adapter in your living room, she’s more likely to be curious than horrified.

The build quality of these adapters is also solid. The plastics feel solid rather than cheap, and there is nothing on the product which seems flimsy. Belkin also provides an external power cord which can be used as an extension cord. This is useful because the adapters are large, and could become troublesome if your wall outlets are of a small size or oddly positioned. The power cord also makes it possible to put the adapter somewhere out of sight if you choose.

Easy Of Use (5 out of 5)

Powerline networking is shockingly easy to use, and these Belkin adapters are no exception. As mentioned, the external power cord makes installation of the adapters into your outlets a breeze. The adapter is large, but is designed so that it should not block the second socket in a wall outlet if placed in the bottom socket. If for some reason the size does become an issue, you simply use the external power cord, which is small and can be plugged into any outlet.

One adapter needs to plug into your router, and the other adapter can be placed anywhere in your home. My apartment is not large enough to test the range of the adapters, but the adapters did work in every outlet of the apartment. In my case, I ultimately used the adapters to connect my HTPC in the living room to the main router in the bedroom.

Once the adapters were plugged into the wall sockets, and the Ethernet ports on them connected to my router on one end and to my HTPC on the other, setting them up was a simple as pressing the button on the top of each adapter. This syncs the adapters together. All of this is plug-and-play, without any need to install drivers, although Belkin does include the typical suite of unneeded network applications. The entire process is nearly fool-proof, and no more difficult than physically connecting a router to a PC with an Ethernet wire.

Performance (4 out of 5)

The Adapter Performs Well, Only One Ethernet Wire Can Be Connected Per Adapter

Subjectively, the performance of the adapters was quite stunning. Having performed the simple set-up, I opened the web browser on my HTPC to see how using the Internet felt. I had previously been trying to use a wireless connection for the HTPC, and when doing so the connection felt sluggish. The wireless connection would seem to randomly drop dead for periods of up to half a minute before coming back to life, and I was never able to download files faster than a few hundred Kbps, which was poor compared to the consistent 1.5Mbps speeds I could achieve on the computer when it was connected directly to my router. The Belkin powerline adapters demolished these problems. The web browser was silky-smooth, with no hangs of any sort. Even complex pages loaded within seconds. Download speeds topped out at a little over 1.3Mbps through familiar services like Steam. In other words, my experience accessing Internet content was identical to the experience of using a PC connected directly my primary router.

Objectively, my tests seemed to back up this experience in terms of internet download speeds. I ran several quick tests to try and benchmark download speeds. One was to re-download Dawn Of War II from Steam. I found that the time it took to download the game through the Belkin adapters was only five minutes longer than downloading through a wired connection. I also downloaded several games from Direct 2 Drive, and found again that downloading through the Belkin adapters took only a few minutes more than downloading through the wired connection. This result repeated itself when I tested the time it took to download HD Battlestar Galactica episodes through iTunes. I found that the episode I was downloading took 29 minutes and 30 seconds on my wired connection, while downloading the episode took 31 minutes and 9 seconds through the Belkin Adapters.

Performance differences did become noticeable when transferring local content. Belkin claims speeds of up to 200Mpbs through its routers, but I found that getting more than 100Mbps was difficult when transferring movie files between my primary desktop PC and the HTPC. Having read other reviews, it seems that your experience may vary, as some reviewers have claimed as little as 50Mbps, while others have claimed as much as 160Mbps. In any case, the speed is sufficient for most tasks, and is certainly far better than what I received using a wireless connection. While it is unfortunate that the Belkin adapters don’t seem to be able to reach their claimed 200Mbps maximum, it should be remembered that these maximum ratings are usually obtained under perfect, highly controlled conditions. 802.11g wireless claims up to 54Mbps, and 802.11n wireless claims up to 248Mbps, but I’ve never been able to come close to either of those claims even when the wireless router and the wireless PC are located in the same room.

Value And Verdict (4 out of 5)

Overall, the Belkin Powerline AV Starter Kit has made a convert of me. I am extremely satisfied with the product. There is a catch, however; the Belkin Powerline AV Start Kit has an MSRP of $149.99, although it usually retails for around $110. For that hefty price tag you can only connect one PC. If you want to connect more PCs, you’ll need to buy more adapters, which rapidly sends the price tag of your home network into the stratosphere. By comparison, you can spend $50 dollars on a wireless router and use it to connection to any number of wireless-ready PCs. Even if your PC isn’t wireless-ready, Newegg offers some very good wireless PCI cards for less than $20 bucks.

In other words, these powerline adapters are damned expensive. Is it worth it? The answer is yes, so long as you need the speed. If you are merely trying to hook together a few PCs which are used mainly for web surfing and e-mailing, then you may be happy with a wireless network. But if your goal is to connect an HTPC to your home network, then do yourself a favor and splurge on these Belkin adapters. Their performance is sufficient to stream HD content (provided your Internet service has the bandwidth to do so), while attempting to stream HD content over a wireless network can be extremely difficult even when using 802.11n.