Powerline AV has always had big promises and huge under-delivery, but we recently had an example showing just how bad it is. Our new (to us) house in Arizona was built in the early 1990s and previously inhabited by folks of advanced years. They did not have WiFi APs anywhere for a ~5000 sq ft home. Instead, they utilized the ISP WiFi router, and for the furthest run to my office, I found an old-as-dirt Netgear Powerline adapter. That gave me the idea that I should see how much better Powerline networking has gotten over the past decade-plus, and the results are not pretty. The bottom line is Powerline AV networking still sucks.
Over a Decade Later, Powerline AV Networking Still Sucks
To set the stage, the house this is being tested in is a single story with the WiFi ISP router about 60% of the way to the other end of the home. It is simply unreliable through the kitchen, a few walls, and etc. Through an archeological excavation, I unearthed a Netgear Powerline AV+ 200 adapter (XAV2501) attached to the walls of both my new home office and the AV stack in the theatre room.
Carbon dating does not really work for networking gear, so instead, we used a STH Methodology: Press-Release Dating. We found updated models of the Netgear units being announced for CES 2010.
We also found a setup manual on Netgear’s FTP site from October 2009. Our best estimate puts the age of these Netgear units at ~14 years old, getting close to a decade and a half in service, and to their credit, they still work.
Of course, since this is STH, we wanted to see how fast these are, and we got, well, at least a connection. We hooked up the Asustor Flashstor 12 Pro FS6712X NAS we reviewed with 10Gbase-T networking and all-flash storage to use as a Speedtest target. The results were, well, about what we expected.
Powerline AV+ 200 would have been the 200Mbps generation, so we were not expecting hundreds of Mbps figures here. A fun one from the manual is the link rate description. This is perhaps the only Green, Amber, or Red LED status where Red is slow, which is “good.” Maybe it is just “good” that there is any connection at all.
One of the biggest challenges with Powerline networking is noise. Wiring is noisy, and cable runs can be long, so these adapters must do a lot of signal processing in strange environments.
At the same time, 14 years is a LONG time in the technology industry. In the server CPU realm, 2009 would have been the end of the Nahelem-EP and just about the start of the Westmere-EP generations. Coincidentally, 2009 is also when STH was founded. Surely if server CPUs can go from 4-6 cores to 192 cores in the timeframe, and 10GbE networking has given way to 400GbE and 800GbE networking, the DSPs in Powerline AV adapters must have improved significantly.
As a result, we got TP-Link AV2000 Powerline Adapters TL-PA9020P (affiliate link on Amazon) delivered the same day.
These were a bit underwhelming as they covered both sockets, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice for more speed.
We plugged in the units to the same sockets that the archaeologically relevant Netgear Powerline adapters were found in and saw speeds that were, well, here is what we saw.
While mainstream data center networking has seen 40-80x increases in about a decade and a half, CPUs now have seen 40x increases in core counts and well over 80x increases in total throughput, SSDs are now more than 25x faster, Powerline AV managed to triple its speeds roughly, but with a giant asterisk. The latency increased by 30%. Jitter increased by about 20%.
It is worth mentioning that sometimes, this is the answer. Mesh WiFi is usually more expensive to run. MoCA is generally much better, but if you do not have cable where you need it, then it is less useful. Running fiber or Cat6 might not be possible. Sometimes, Powerline is the option.
Of course, in a lab somewhere, companies can probably get better results. Likewise, better results are easily possible in different homes, offices, and environments. Still, some folks were using Powerline networking years ago and are still using it today, where the lowest friction upgrade path is to get new endpoints. This result was not pretty. If I was just trying to bridge a short distance, say a room or two away, then a WiFi 6E AP is much more helpful today.
While doing this experiment, Will who is our SSD editor, was trying to bridge networking from a house to a shed using TP-Link Powerline WiFi (AV1300) extenders (Amazon affiliate link here.) These units are AV1300 generation but have built-in 802.11ac WiFi. His results were fairly close, so that is two installations in one day that feel similar.
At this point, some of our readers have probably gotten very upset that I would even think of using Powerline. Cat6/ Cat7, fiber, MoCA, and even mesh WiFi are better. That is fair. In Austin, my house had 1692 fibers (half single mode/ half multimode) in its walls, which was a big deal as it had up to 400GbE running. At the same time, I just wanted to know if Powerline AV is better now than it was more than a decade ago. The answer is yes, but after testing it out, I think the answer is that Powerline networking still sucks. Moreover, it seems to have lost ground compared to other technologies we commonly use.
There are many folks out there who see 2000Mbps on a device, know that other networking technologies can get near their rated speeds, and make a purchase. While I was not expecting anywhere near even 1000Mbps, I was a little shocked with how bad these were, and I suspect many other buyers will be as well. After all, the majority of consumers who purchase these things just expect that they plug both adapters in and it works like magic.