You know what they say Ė if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. That was my first thought when I first read about Powerline here and here. I mean, you just plug in a couple of adapters and youíve got decent Internet speed even in the most inaccessible nooks of your house? What about the hours trying and failing to set it up, followed by more hours corresponding with technical support, after which you finally get it working only to find itís a bit rubbish? Powerlineís got to be too good to be true, right?
For some time Iíve been bugged by a Wi-Fi issue that will be familiar to many. I live in a house with three floors. My router is on the top floor, where my study is. My living room is on the ground floor, which means that if I want to take my computer downstairs and use the Internet, the wireless signal has to pass through two floors and several walls. The obvious result is that although I get a signal of sorts wherever I am in my house, by the time itís made its way downstairs it is so slow that it makes a lame slug look like Roger Bannister. Thatís not too much of a problem if Iím just reading Web pages, but I can pretty much forget about listening to streaming audio. Which means I canít listen to the cricket in the comfort of my living room without the sound cutting out every few minutes.
As I live in the Czech Republic I canít watch it on the telly or listen to the radio, so I have to rely on the Internet broadcast. It doesnít help that I have to use a proxy server to get round the BBCís stupid ďrights issuesĒ Ė so I spend more time reconnecting than actually listening to the match and consequently I get more worked up than Geoffrey Boycott does about his Mum and her stick of rhubarb. I have to monitor my blood pressure these days and I darenít measure it after one of these sessions for fear the gauge will melt.
First World problem? Absolutely. Does it irk the crap out of me? You bet it does. Iíve tried all the usual tips for improving reception, of course. Iíve used different routers; Iíve changed the channel and frequency in the router settings; Iíve tried a wireless repeater (which worked for a bit then caused the dreaded yellow triangle to appear over the connection icon); and Iíve demolished all the floors and internal walls in my house. OK, Iím kidding about the last one but it probably would have been about the only thing that would work. That, or setting up the kind of industrial Wi-Fi network businesses use which looks so complicated and expensive that it would be easier to buy tickets for the matches and fly out to watch them live.
Then I came across Powerline which, as the articles I link to at the start explain, involves two simple stages: you use an Ethernet cable to connect your router to an adapter and plug that adapter into the mains, then you plug a second adapter into a mains socket where you want the computer to be and connect it to the computer with another Ethernet cable. The Internet signal simply travels through the mains in your house, from one adapter to another.
I decided to try a Powerline kit from Zyxel. Such is my lack of faith in the reliability of much computer-related stuff that I got the nice salesman who sold me the kit to write a guarantee, in his own blood, stating that I could return the kit when I got home and found it didnít work.
Well, it does work, and how! The first thing I did after setting it up was run a speed test, and I found that I was getting the same speed two floors down through Powerline as I get direct from my router. Whatís more, the cricket commentary came through uninterrupted and I was able to listen to the whole dayís play with no annoying breaks (not even for bad light or rain, as it happened). And just in case youíre interested, England beat Sri Lanka and won the series.
And it was all so simple. Connect a couple of cables and plug a couple of things into the mains. Even I managed to get it right first time. Hell, I reckon it would be simple enough for PE teachers to set up (with a bit of help, perhaps).
There are various Powerline kits available; some are Ethernet only, others create a Wi-Fi hotspot. I went for the simpler and cheaper option, Ethernet only. This means the movement of the computer is limited to the length of my Ethernet cable, but itís not as if I carry my computer around the room while Iím listening to the cricket (unless weíre about to win an Ashes series, perhaps).
Are there any disadvantages to mitigate this rave? A couple perhaps. One of the linked articles suggests you donít put heavy demands on your mains supply (e.g. phone chargers or the microwave) while youíre using Powerline, as this could interfere with the signal. Iíd say thatís a small price to pay. Iíve seen some reviews on Amazon which say that these adapters (not just the Zyxel) fail after a while. This may well be the case, especially if theyíre in use all the time. Iím only going to be using them when thereís cricket on, but if mine do stop working after a relatively short period of time Iíll update. To be honest, Iíd be happy to buy a new kit every year now I know Powerline works. Itís got to be worth it for my blood pressure alone!
I suggest that anyone who is bugged by the same Wi-Fi issues as me looks into this. Itís so refreshing to find a piece of computer technology thatís simple to set up and does exactly what it says on the tin!
I wrote the preceding section three years ago, and I am still delighted with the Zyxel Powerline unit. I havenít used it that much, just when thereís cricket on, but itís still a joy to be able to get full-speed Internet via an Ethernet connection anywhere in my house by simply plugging in a couple of units.
This would have been enough, but recently I went over to the dark side and bought an iPhone. I held out against buying a smartphone for as long as possible; partly because I find it depressing to watch young couples playing with their screens rather than talking to each other, and partly because lovers of smartphones, the iPhone in particular, are a bit cultish (change one letter and thatís still a true statement). But in the end I gave in after several occasions when I really missed having a decent camera and access to the Internet while travelling. My phone remains firmly in my pocket when Iím out with friends, though!
Unfortunately the feeble Wi-Fi signal on my ground floor is even more of a nuisance with the phone than the laptop. The computer usually manages to hang on to the connection by the skin of its teeth when I donít have Powerline set up, which is adequate for non-demanding tasks. Obviously itís more convenient to use the phone for checking mail and looking things up online rather than having to keep carrying my laptop up and down two flights of stairs, but it constantly loses the signal and reverts to using mobile data. I get a generous data allowance, but even so it is rather silly to use it up at home where Iíve got free Wi-Fi.
I mentioned in the previous section that some Powerline units provide a Wi-Fi extension, and I decided to look into getting one of these. Based on reviews I bought a TP-Link TL-WPA7510 KIT Powerline Wi-Fi extender. I had doubts as to how well (if at all) it would work, despite the success of the Zyxel Ethernet Powerline kit, as Wi-Fi extensions can be horrendously tricky to set up.
The kit contains an adapter and an extender, both small rectangular units which go into wall sockets. The first task is to connect the adapter to the router via an Ethernet cable, and then plug the adapter into a wall socket. Then the adapter has to be paired with the extender; you plug the extender into a socket near the adapter and press a button on each unit. LEDs come on when the process is complete.
That all went smoothly, but that was the easy bit. Now you have to set up the Wi-Fi.
There is an option to use the Wi-Fi network generated by the TP-Link extender. If you choose this, all you have to do is relocate the extender to where you want it to be and connect to it using the password provided with the unit. All well and good, but it means that you will now have two networks in your house, one provided by your router and one by the extender. I can see complications arising from this, though in fairness I havenít set the extender up this way so I canít really report on how well it works.
Far better, in my view, is to set the extender up to copy your routerís settings so that you are on the same network wherever you are in your house. You can do this by leaving the extender plugged into a wall near your router, pressing the WPS button on your router and then pressing the Wi-Fi button on the extender. The instructions for doing this are laid out clearly in the manual that comes with the kit. The WPS button makes the router discoverable to other devices, and the extender picks up the necessary information from the router and stores it.
Two LEDs on the extender flash for a while, and then should stay on. One LED represents 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi and the other 5 GHz. The 2.4 GHz LED stopped flashing and stayed on quite quickly, but the 5 GHz LED continued flashing indefinitely. Following a tip Iíd read online, I repeated the process Ė pressed the WPS button again, then the Wi-Fi button on the extender Ė and soon the LEDs for both frequencies were shining solidly. I was rather surprised as I donít think my combined router/modem supports 5 GHz, but Iíll admit my understanding of this aspect of Wi-Fi is far from perfect.
The next step, now that I had (I hoped) copied the routerís network settings was to take the extender downstairs and plug it in. I did so, and nothing happened. The power light didnít come on. Nor did the pairing LED or the LEDs for the two Wi-Fi frequencies.
Here we go, I thought. I knew all along it was too good to be true. Still, before writing desperate emails to TP-Linkís technical support Ė which I know from past experience is excellent Ė I tried plugging the extender into a socket on the middle floor of my house. The power light came on, went off, and a few seconds later all the LEDs lit up as they should. Did this mean that Powerline wasnít available on the ground floor circuit? I hadnít had any problems using the Zyxel unit there, so that seemed unlikely.
I decided to try the extender again in its intended location, and this time it did what it was supposed to. A brief blink from the power light, followed by all the LEDs coming on in sequence. Perhaps it takes a while for the two units to recognise each other when they are further apart?
Of course there was still the small matter of whether my Wi-Fi was actually being extended from my router to my ground floor. It was with some trepidation that I looked at the signal strength indicator on the iPhone. My worst fears were confirmed: only the first of the three arcs was filled in, with the second flickering on and off, just like before. So that was a waste of time and money thenÖ
But wait! After a few seconds all three arcs of the signal strength indicator sprang into life. Could it be working after all?
It certainly is working. I tested the connection using my laptop, which now displays a full five barsí signal strength on the ground floor, and ran a speed test. The signal speed was the same as I get when the laptop is connected to the router directly via an Ethernet cable. Whatís more, I was able to listen to the England v Sri Lanka World Cup cricket match without a single cut-out. The only trouble was that England lost.
The TP-Link Powerline kit also offers an Ethernet connection from the extender, but the Wi-Fi connection is so good that I canít see that youíd need it.
In conclusion, Iím very impressed. Set-up wasnít quite as simple as with the Ethernet-only Zyxel kit, but it still didnít take more than 20 minutes. I donít know how reliable the Wi-Fi extender will prove to be; in the past I only plugged Powerline in to listen to the cricket, whereas now I will have it running all the time. I hope it wonít ďforgetĒ the router settings after a while and need to be reconfigured, or even deteriorate with continuous use. I will amend this piece if these or any other problems show up. So far, though, I would strongly recommend this or similar equipment if you want an easy and not too expensive (about £70) way to extend a Wi-Fi network to reach the previously inaccessible parts of your house.