Wireless networking is great stuff. Revolutionary, in fact -- without it, this review wouldn't be being written on a lounge room sofa for a start -- not that you needed to know that, really. Still, wireless networking isn't without its flaws, and one of the biggest is that there are areas where wireless networks just won't penetrate, such as through certain wall materials or electromagnetic fields. There's also the issue of setting up wireless networks in a congested space, fighting for spectrum with everybody else's wireless network. Netcomm's HomePlug Ethernet kit offers an alternative and/or complimentary solution to wireless networking woes, by transforming the powerlines within your home or office into virtual ethernet ports, capable of sending and transmitting data for whatever purpose you need. It's built using Intellon's Powerline Communications technology, so it should be compatible with any other products using the same technology, although we weren't able to test this.
The Starter kit we tested with contains two HomePlug adaptors, two sections of ethernet cable and a setup CD-ROM. Once again you've got to make do with a PDF manual. That's not so handy if you're using it in a non-computer environment, like connecting up a games console to a router. The two HomePlug adaptors are very chunky affairs, and you'd be hard pressed to fit two of them on a double adaptor. On each adaptor is a socket for ethernet cable, along with indicator lights for power, ethernet cable and network activity.
As an Ethernet device, the adaptors top out at a theoretical rate that's just slightly higher than 802.11b wireless. At peak speeds, you could expect up to 14Mbps across a Powerline network, although interference and network issues mean that this is unlikely except under lab conditions. A single powerline network can support up to 253 devices in theory; in practise the PDF manual suggests that no more than 10 devices should make up your network.
Setup of the Netcomm Homeplug Ethernet kit should be easy; just plug one adaptor in near a router or PC that you wish to network from (or share Internet with), and the other at the terminating ethernet end. Attach the supplied ethernet cables, step back, and watch the magic happen. That's what we did initially, and the results were unspectacular to say the least. To be more specific, the homeplug adaptors weren't detected at either end of our network, and therefore refused to work at all. There's one major catch with powerline technology, and it's that it doesn't much like powerboards, extension cables or double adaptors. Some quick rewiring, getting the adaptors as close as possible to their relevant powerpoints did resolve these woes, and to be fair once this was overcome it was all pretty plain sailing.
We tested the kit with some networked PCs and with Xbox Live, and overall our results were good, especially on Live, where we found the network more robust than with a comparable 802.11g wireless bridge. There's another potential worry with turning every power point in your home into a network point, and that's data security. Netcomm provides a very simple password-based security package on the install CD (Windows systems only); we'd suggest carefully monitoring permissions on networked machines and servers as a better overall solution if powerline networking appeals to you in a business sense. For home networking purposes, the password utility should be fine -- in fact, it's probably overkill.