Saturday, October 20, 2007

HomePlug, HomePNA or WiFi?

You know you have a problem when you find out that your new house does not come equipped with an Ethernet cabling infrastructure. And you know you have a bigger problem when your house span a few levels. *sigh*

So what are my options? Well, I can take the opportunity to wire up the house before I move in but this is a very costly option due to the amount of hacking and cable laying involved. Alternatively, I can go with something less destructive such as wireless or "no new wires" technologies.

WiFi is a wireless technology that seems attractive at first as it gives me the most flexibility in terms of equipment placement. In real life however, I will have to watch out for weak spots and dead zones created by thick walls and other obstructions. In addition, I will have to invest in additional AP/range extenders to cover all 4 floors. To make matters worse, wifi is prone to signal pollution from other 2.4GHz devices around the house (like your cordless phone, baby monitor, bluetooth devices, microwave oven, and most likely, your neighbour's AP) resulting in degraded performance and dropped connections. Obviously not practical when one of the primary usage of my home network is for video and audio streaming from my central media library (located in my level 3 study) to the various networked media players spread all around the house (furthest being the basement).

A HomePlug network falls into the "no new wires" category as it works over existing power lines. This is especially useful since multiple power sockets can be found in every room of the house. Considering that most of my networked equipment have to be plugged into a power socket, this approach is indeed convenient. Now comes the bad news. Firstly, the adaptor has to be plugged directly to a wall socket as extension cords and surge protectors will interfere with the high frequency signals used by HomePlug. Secondly, they don't come cheap at almost $120 per adapter. Lastly, and most importantly, although the latest specs HomePlug AV allows for speed up to 200 Mbps, reviews (here and here) showed that real word performance is way below that presumably because of the cabling as well as the signal quality which is seldom clean (i.e. spikes (sudden rises in energy), surges (prolonged overvoltages), and brownouts (prolonged undervoltages)) due to heavy duty home appliances such as air conditioners, fridge, vacuum cleaners, etc.

A HomePNA network is in the same class as the HomePlug network except that it works over existing phone lines rather than power lines. Luckily for me, my new place has not one but two phone jacks (independent lines) in every room, including living and basement. Although the technology itself can co-exist with voice and data (i.e. fax and even DSL) traffic, I get to setup a completely isolated network just for the LAN. With the latest standard HPNA 3.1 introducing a theoretical speed limit of 320 Mbps, this will indeed be my top choice (barring gigabit Ethernet of course). The bad news? Well, apparently, there aren't many backers of this technology and the few vendors who are (like 2Wire, Motorola, Conexant) only offer them via service providers (such as AT&T) and not in the retail market. I was hoping to find a few resale units on ebay but I was out of luck there too. Damn.

So until I find a supplier for some HomePNA adapters, I guess I will have to live with the patchy wifi. :(

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