Date: February 6, 2008
Author(s): Greg King
Looking for an alternative solution to a wireless LAN or drilling holes in the walls for a clean wired connection? The Actiontec AV200 might be of interest, with the ability to create a network using the power sockets already in your house. As it turns out, it’s effective, and incredibly easy to set up.
In the realm of home networking, nothing beats a good run of Cat5. Currently, wireless can match neither the performance nor reliability of a wired network and in every way imaginable, this isn’t surprising at all. By now however, most home users have incorporated a wireless router into their network, more than likely the 54 Mbps 11g, which provides the average user with the convenience of a wireless connection.
However, connections such as this still don’t provide the performance that many users demand, leaving them with no real alternative to running cables either across their floor, through their walls or in their crawl space. I don’t know about you but routing cables is a true pain. There really isn’t any other way to put it. I have done the wall snaking and I have spent too many hours under homes and while the latter approach is a little bit easier, both are total PITAs.
Unless your home is made in the past 5 years, there is a good chance that you don’t have Cat5 behind your drywall. One thing I bet you do have is AC power lines. As homes built with networking in mind start to gain more and more popularity, it does little to help us stuck with homes lacking such convenience. If you’re not a fan of draping cables across your home, what other option do you have?
Another scenario is this. Say you have a wireless router, either 11g or 11n. This setup still has a finite range and once you’re out of that range, your pretty much out of luck unless you get a repeater or add an extra access point. Even then, your still subject to the somewhat flakiness of a wireless connection. Luckily, there are alternatives and there have been for years. Unless you need total mobility or have a streaming device in your entertainment center that is in plain sight, it might be easier to let your current AC power lines do the dirty work for you.
Power line Ethernet adapters are nothing new and have been around now for a while. One company dedicated to the advancement of this technology is Actiontec. Makers of many different home networking devices, they currently offer two different adapters of the 85 Mbps and 200 Mbps varieties. Today, we will be working with the latter. The MegaPlug AV 200 Mbps Ethernet adapter offers the convenience of TCP/IP communication but without the need to run Cat5 from one point to another.
The concept is actually quite simple. Coming in pairs, you plug one adapter into a wall outlet and run a Cat5 cable from the adapter to your PC. You then plug the other adapter into a separate wall outlet and run a cable from said adapter to your router or modem. Boom! You’ve just done all that you’ll need to get up and running as fast as possible. As simple as this sounds, and trust me, it is, we are going to examine this technology and see how well it performs in a real world environment.
Shipping in a router-ish sized box, the Actiontec MegaPlug AV reminds us considerable that you can achieve up to 200 Mbps speeds with the device but in all reality, you will not realize these speeds at all. Regardless, the packaging provides a good example of what can be done with the adapter kit, pointing out the many advantages of using a device such as this.
Opening up the box, the included manuals and setup disk lay on top of the minimalistic contents of the package. Included in the box are the aforementioned manuals and setup disk but also a pair of MegaPlug AV adapters and two 6 foot Cat5e cables. Nothing special about the included gear but beautifully simple, providing us with everything that we will need to get our network expanded into places never intended to offer a connection.
The units themselves are your typical wall-wart style adapters with three indicator LED lights in the lower right hand corner indicating power, link and Ethernet. There are venting slots all the way around the adapter, allowing adequate cooling (assuming that it even needs it). Turning it over reveals a standard 2 prong plug yet lacking a third ground prong. Underneath the unit is a female RJ45 jack, allowing the MegaPlug to connect to your PC or router depending on which end of the network your setting up that particular adapter.
With the look at the product out of the way, let’s get right to installation.
Setting up the MegaPlug AV kit is as straight forward of a process as it gets. Seriously, it takes longer to walk to where you want to place the second adapter than it does to actually set the hardware up. Once you have the two pieces where you want, all that is needed is to do is plug your PC into one of the plugs (assuming you have already plugged the other plug into your router) and you will see your PC acquiring an IP address from your router. Rarely do products live up to their simple setup promises but this one completely blows away our idea of quick and easy.
As simple as this is, what if you’re in an apartment? While most people won’t have a set of these units laying around, if they do, theoretically they can plug in their own MegaPlug AV into the wall and rock and roll all night long… all on your network. With that in mind, Actiontec has incorporated a slick little security setup disk into the package that the plugs come in. Also on the disk is a full manual in PDF form as well as Acrobat Reader but assuming that you already have a PDF reader in some form or another, we won’t spend any time on this.
To lock down your MegaPlug AV enabled network, all that is needed is to install the very small program on the setup disk on your PC, or any PC for that matter, and run the program. When the program is up, hook up your PC directly to one of the plugs and enter in whatever encryption key you want. Remove the first plug and repeat on the second. You now have an encrypted connection from one end of the plug to the other. Take that neighbors!
While not necessary for most users, those in highly populated buildings might want to consider taking the extra 5 minutes and setting up their security password as the 128-bit AES link level encryption is going to fend off all of your haxoring neighbors by keeping them out of your tubes.
With everything setup, I quickly took a look at the clock. 17 minutes. 17 minutes from start to finish setting this kit up, grabbing a drink, installing the encryption software and setting the key. If you wanted to split hairs, remove my alcoholic urge and the encryption setup and we are more than likely a lot closer to 10 minutes for the entire process. As the box states, “Very easy to install… simply plug it in”, the MegaPlug AV kit turned out to be the easiest setup of any hardware I have used to date. Sure there has been the occasional switch or monitor, but as network adapters go, this kit is tops.
As in all of our throughput tests in other device reviews, our test file is a 600 MB .iso of a Windows XP install disk. To be completely honest, it’s 599 MB and I rounded up, sue me. The file in question was transferred to both wirelessly and through the Actiontec MegaPlug AV 200 and will originate on our test notebook. The hardware used is:
Like we mentioned earlier, to test the speed of the Actiontec kit, we simply transferred a 600 MB file from our test notebook to the test desktop. This test was run three separate times and the results were averaged out. We then took those times and divided them into the overall size of the file being transferred to get to our total MB/s second total.
The 600 MB .iso transferred over in 254 seconds which comes to 2.36 MB/s. If you want to look at this in Mbps, this falls just under 19 Mbps at 18.9.
The same file when transferred over the Actiontec power line adapter went through in a relatively speedy 143 seconds. This factors out to 4.2 MB/s and 33.6 Mbps.
While this is far short from the theoretical speeds of 200 Mbps, it is nearly double that of the wireless.
What can be said about a networking kit that is out of the box and functional in about 15 minutes? A lot actually. In our testing, we found that a powerline adapter such as the Actiontec MegaPlug AV 200 is a very solid alternative to expanding your home network into rooms where the wireless range of your router might not reach.
With speeds double of that of a standard wireless g network, it not only is an easy alternative to additional access points but is an overall faster performing alternative at that. That said, this technology will not compete, not even remotely, with a wired connection and as unfair of a comment as that may be, it’s true. If you’re going for tops in performance, by all means, get out your drywall saw and snake them wires baby, just don’t call me. It’s not fun.
Therein lays the entire point of this technology. This isn’t intended to rival wired performance, though it would be great if it did, but rather it’s intended to extend a network that might be crippled by their wireless range. In doing this, the Actiontec MegaPlug AV 200 succeeds.
It is important to note that the 200Mbps rating is a little ambitious, however. That’s the theoretical number found in their labs, without ethernet cables, which would in turn be what a power line could handle. Their labs have found the actual cap through Ethernet to be 90Mbps, so 200Mbps speeds can’t be expected.
Before we get to your final score, we should point out that this kit isn’t without its faults. First off, you cannot use it with a surge protector as the protector performs line conditioning that will all but ruin your data signal. You can however use the kit with extension cords and while completely functional, this is a horribly ugly way of doing things. The unit is also large and for most outlets, this will almost eliminate the usage of the second plug. However, if you have a plug that lacks a third ground prong on it, it will quite possibly fit above or below your AV 200 adapter.
All in all, the Actiontec MegaPlug AV 200 is a refreshing example of “as advertised”. Although it will never hit 200Mbps as the name would suggest, the speed seen is almost double that of wireless G. The installation was mind-numbingly easy as well. If my dog had thumb and the mental capacity to mechanics of plugging something in, I am certain that he could setup this device. It’s that simple.
The Actiontec MegaPlug AV 200 earns a solid 9 out of 10. It’s not for everyone, but those that need it, won’t find anything else as simple as this. Because of this ease of use, it also earns an Editor’s Choice award. For those interested, you can find this kit online in the neighborhood or $140 (US).
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