4K video requires a lot of bandwidth. We mean a lot. Even if you’re streaming it from your own home server or NAS rather than over the internet, you may run into bandwidth issues on your local wireless network.
For a high quality 4K stream, such as one captured by a 4K home video camera, you likely need 30-40 megabits per second (that’s 4-5 MB/s). Even at the higher end of the compression/lower end of the quality scale, you need 15+ megabits per second.
Netflix, for example, encodes its 4K video at 15.6Mbps, which is a very high compression rate. YouTube varies quite a bit, but it generally works at 10-20Mbps.
Can your WiFi network sustain that? And we mean sustain, as in never dropping below that rate. It’s certainly possible, even on 802.11n, but in reality many home WiFi connections will struggle, and you’ll see frequent buffering pauses or frame skipping. And of course, don’t try to stream more than one thing at a time over it.
That’s where powerline networking (a.k.a. HomePlug AV2) comes in.
Homeplug devices use your home electrical network to transmit data, sparing you the need to run full Ethernet cabling but still delivering wired speeds and, more importantly, wired consistency. Unlike WiFi, where throughput typically fluctuates wildly over time, powerline tends to produce very consistent results.
The only times you might see dips or troughs is when some device in your home throws a bunch of extra noise onto the electrical cabling (dryers and heating appliances are the most likely culprits).
Speeds will vary, depending on the quality of your home electrical network, the distance between devices and the standard supported by the HomePlug device. At the time of writing, 200Mbps, 500Mbps and 600Mbps devices were common. As with most networking, actual throughput is quite a bit lower: expect to get quite a bit less than half of that in real world conditions.
Unfortunately, it turns out we decided to run this review at an awkward time. By the time you read this, the first few 1gbps and 2gbps devices should have hit the market in Australia, and it may be worth looking out for them.
These devices use multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) techniques similar to those used in WiFi to multiply the number of streams beamed through the electrical cables. One of the first devices to come out, the D-Link DHP-701AV is rated for 2gbps. Netgear has a device (the PL1200) rated for 1200Mbps.
Both of these may be available right now, but were not available in time for review in this issue.
How we tested
For all the adapters reviewed here, we used a simple file transfer test, copying a 2GB file from an SSD on a server PC to another SSD on a client.
We ran the test at two ranges, with “range” measured by running a tape measure along the walls between the devices rather directly. This is used to roughly indicate the length of electrical wiring the signal had to traverse.
Much like wireless tests, these results are mostly useful as a comparative measure, and do not necessarily indicate the kinds of results you’ll get in your home. Depending on the quality and arrangement of your home electrical wiring, as well as the other devices you run in your home, you may get different results.
One of the key things to remember when setting up a powerline adapter is that power boards are bad. Really bad. It may still work, but your speeds are likely to be very heavily impacted. Directly plugging them into wall sockets is the way to go.
If crowding on the power point is an issue (as it often is on paired power points), you can use a short extension cable to move the adapter away from the wall socket. This will likely have an impact on performance, but only a modest one.
Billion BiPAC P108
Where the other devices are hamstrung by the limitations of 100Mbps Ethernet, the Billion can achieve its full potential at any range.
As a result, its short range test results are far better than most of the competition. At long range, where Ethernet is not the limiting factor, its performance was more in line with the others.
Other than its Gigabit port, however, the BiPAC P108 is about as vanilla as you can get. It’s chunky, likely crowding out its partner on a double power point, and there’s but a single Ethernet port in each adapter. A sync button lets you very easily add additional adapters to the network.
Verdict: Solid performance from a device that doesn’t fall into the Fast Ethernet trap.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
D-Link DHP-309AV PowerLine AV500 Mini Network Starter Kit
Like the Edimax, the DHP-309AV is for people who just want something cheap, easy and discrete. It’s not quite as compact as the Edimax Nano, but the adapters are unlikely to crowd out other devices on paired wall sockets.
However, it suffers from the same issues that so many cheap adapters do: it couples 500Mbps powerline with 100Mbps Ethernet. That puts a hard cap on the performance of the device: they may be able to talk to each other at faster than 100Mbps, but they can’t talk to your computer at more than 100Mbps, so what’s the point?
Still, for $60, you can’t ask for too much. It still delivered just enough performance at long range for a single moderate bit rate 4K stream. It may not have the latest tech, but it might just get the job done for you.
Verdict: Best for people looking for a low cost “just works” solution.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Edimax HP-5103K AV500 Nano PowerLine Adapter Kit
The ‘Nano’ is the HP-5103K’s name is well placed. This adapter pair is one of the smallest you can find, being a square that simply covers its power point but won’t crowd out any devices next to it on the wall socket.
Given the requirement that powerline adapters be plugged directly into wall sockets, that’s nothing to sniff at.
Unfortunately, its speed is an issue. Although it technically supports 500Mbps powerline, it actually bridges to 100Mbps Ethernet, so 100Mbps is the actual cap on speeds. Not that that was an issue at long range: at 25m, it could theoretically stream most 4K video but only one stream at a time, and just barely.
At short range, however, it looks like the Ethernet link might have been the cap on performance.
Verdict: Its performance is a little lame, but at this cost and with the compact design it’s worth checking out.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
NetCommWireless 600Mbps Powerline Kit with Gigabit Ethernet – NP507
What’s more, it had one touch that just about every user will appreciate: a power pass through, so you don’t have to sacrifice a precious wall socket for powerline networking. According to NetCommWireless, that socket also serves as a filter, reducing powerline interference from devices connected to it.
Given it was the only 600Mbps device we tested, its performance didn’t stick out from the crowd as much as it might have. But still, it bested the rest, being capable of delivering solid 4K video at even long range.
It connected quickly and painlessly, and was even functioning just fine when we pushed it further, to 35m. It’s expensive, but a top pick.
Verdict: Pretty great all round (though a little pricey).
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
TP-Link TL-WPA4220KIT 300Mbps AV500 WiFi Powerline Extender Starter Kit
One of the adapters serves double duty as a wireless access point, delivering a WiFi access to nearby devices and carrying it back to the main router via powerline.
It’s a pretty great idea, since this is exactly what powerline is so often used for: to bridge multiple wireless access points without having to resort to often crummy wireless range extenders. The WiFi adapter also has a secondary Ethernet port, which is nice.
The problem is that TP-Link has coupled the adapter with last-gen network tech. Technically it supports 500Mbps powerline, but it can only talk to the router at 100Mbps, which cripples its peak performance.
Wireless is limited to 300Mbps wireless n. If TP-Link could get around upgrading those to gigabit and 802.11ac, it would have a pretty great product on its hands.
Verdict: A WiFi/powerline combo sounds like a great idea, until you couple it with older tech.