If you want to extend the network in your home or office, but don’t fancy running cables or using Wi-Fi, the only practical solution is powerline networking. By using existing power lines as data conduits, you can avoid the challenging requirements of running Cat5/6 cabling, and yet achieve many of the same benefits.
One of the top hardware makers in this sector is German-based Devolo, which launched its first powerline equipment way back in 2003.
There are cheaper brands and some serious competitors, but for those willing to pay a little extra, the Devolo powerline products are exceptionally well made and come with a three-year warranty.
The company sent us its latest dLAN 1200 triple+ Starter Kit – which retails at £120 (around $170) – and we were curious as to where Devolo had taken this networking technology with this fresh offering.
While not unique to Devolo, the standout feature of the dLAN 1200 triple+ Starter Kit isn’t the lovely finish on the products or even the internal functionality. It’s something super-simple: pass-through power.
And that’s a desirable feature because using mains power to distribute a network requires devices to be inserted into wall plugs, not just placed on a gang-switch or similar power extensions.
Both components in this package have pass-through power allowing for the easiest possible installation that doesn’t require any additional power sockets to be available.
But actually, that’s just one of the many features that make this technology remarkably easy for even inexperienced networkers to roll out.
The dLAN 1200 Starter Kit comes with two HomePlug compliant modules, the router connected MT2642 and the client end MT2887.
Quite why they’re not the same size, we’re unsure. But the MT2887 is a good bit larger than its brother, being 142mm high, 70mm wide and 41mm deep.
That’s a substantial structure sitting proud in a power socket, although Devolo did at least put the power pins at the bottom end, avoiding potential problems with the floor when it comes to sockets which are situated very low on the wall.
A design decision we are less enamored with is the fact that the Ethernet port is on the top of both devices. On one hand, this makes the connector easy to access, but we feel it would be much neater situated either on the side or underneath – although we can understand why the company might not want to place the ports there.
Along with the adapters the box includes two Ethernet cables, allowing you to get at least one client device connected right from the off.
Installation is as simple as it gets. The single Ethernet ported MT2642 should ideally go in the power socket that the router normally uses. Using through-power, you then plug the router’s power cord into it, and cable to one of its LAN ports.
And the MT2887 can then be placed anywhere within the same electrical wiring system, and any of the three Ethernet ports on that can be connected to a computer, games console, or whatever hardware needs networking.
The three port configuration is the ‘triple+’ part of this solution referred to in the name, and all MT2887 modules come with this localized Ethernet switch.
Establishing a connection is easy, as there are flexible slots on the devices which act as pairing buttons. Once pressed, you have two minutes to repeat that action on the client end.
Indicator lights on the devices should confirm a successful connection, and then you’re done. It is that straightforward.
This pairing exercise establishes 128-AES encryption between the devices, so it’s reasonably secure from other powerline devices on a shared power system.
At the client end, each of the three ports can be used to connect a different device, and they’ll all have direct access to each other and the greater network.
For those wishing to expand the network with extra locations, additional MT2887 modules can be bought and synced with the same client end adapter.
Obviously, the more devices you use at the same time over your powerlines, the smaller performance slice each will get, but this is a flexible technology that is easy to redeploy should you move location or alter your networking plan.
Devolo loves its branding terms, and this kit is designated as ‘Range+’.
In theory, Range+ uses the earth wire (for those electrical systems with earth) to negate interference and deliver a higher usable bandwidth over an extended range.
The limit of powerline equipment is 400m, but Range+ hopes to give you more speed as you get further out than previous powerline 1200 implementations.
We’re unsure of how many people have those sort of scale issues, but this equipment should address these issues if you have them, and make for better connections for those with shorter runs.
But Range+ has a basic requirement that isn’t guaranteed to be met by older wiring schemes, found mostly in Europe. Also, at this time Devolo sells UK and EU versions of this kit, as the company doesn’t offer its products in the US.
The inclusion of Range+ technology does naturally invite the question of what sort of performance should be expected here, assuming you have modern wiring of good quality.
It’s tempting to simply take Devolo’s 1200 triple+ specification at face value, or benchmark between two locations in a house (or office) and use that as a definitive evaluation of performance.
The problem is your mileage will vary, as they say, because powerline technology is dependent on the quality of the wiring, the distance over the circuit, as well as the effect of other equipment attached and potentially a million other factors.
Those 1200 theoretical megabits are whittled down to somewhere between a quarter and half of that level in real-world scenarios.
If you want to see the best possible speed, then you can place the adapters in adjacent double sockets – as pointless an exercise as that is.
Going from a socket in one room to another in a different room on the same floor, the best speed we achieved was 553 megabit/s, or about 70MB/s. However, a file transfer over that link crested at about half that value, in the 30-35MB/s range.
That’s about a third of what you’d expect from running an Ethernet cable with a Gigabit connection. But the performance is consistent, which is more than you can say for Wi-Fi. And it’s easily fast enough to watch a 4K video stream or play an online game.
The only problem that Devolo has is that there seems little scope to make this technology even better – until some bright spark comes up with an entirely new approach.
We’ve not seen dLAN 1600 or 2000 products yet, and we’re unlikely to do so at any time in the near future.
If better powerline gear exists for affordable money, we’d love to see it. The headline performance isn’t comparable with Gigabit Ethernet, but that’s the trade-off for not punching holes through your home or office to run cables.
There are cheaper powerline solutions out there, but they lack the polish that Devolo puts on its products.