The HomePlug networking standard has been around in the States and other countries for a few years, and has proven a popular alternative to running CAT 5 cabling in your walls or for the (then) expensive cost of setting up a wireless network. HomePlug is wired networking for sure, but it uses an existing infrastructure in your office or domicile: your copper electricity power 'network' that feeds your TV, hair-dryer, fridge and any other electrical appliance the juice it needs to run. In short, HomePlug uses your house's electrical wiring.
Before we delve into the intricacies of its configuration, performance and functions, it's worth dwelling on the immediate advantages of power-line networking. Firstly, there are no cables to install as your house is already wired for electricity and will have far more points in each room than you could ever hope to cable. Secondly, it has a maximum throughput of 14Mb/s – respectable, but by no means earth-shattering. Thirdly, the adaptors are really small and therefore portable (more on this later). Lastly, HomePlug is secure from the second you plug it in.
It's a very simple way to network as well. We looked at two types of HomePlug adaptor – an Ethernet adaptor and a USB adaptor. The former is for systems with either an existing NIC or with on-board Ethernet, the latter for USB-enabled PCs or notebooks. These tiny blue boxes are fairly basic with minimal sockets. With a USB or Ethernet cable, one side plugs into your PC, with a second cable leading to your power point. That's it.
The bundled software is easy to install, and if the manual is brief on details it's because there really isn't a great deal to it. After a reboot all you really need to do is enter a network password ('Homeplug' is the default) and it automatically sniffs out any other HomePlug devices plugged into your home's power network. This network password enables the in-built 56-bit DES encryption. There's no way around it, so straight out of the box HomePlug is much more secure than Wi-Fi. Furthermore, your data is confined to your local electrical wiring network as the data cannot travel beyond the electrical meter boxes so your neighbours or the business next door can't snoop into your network.
Each GigaFast HomePlug adaptor can work in two modes: node or bridge. Node is used for adding PCs to the HomePlug network, bridge for connecting existing networks to the HomePlug network, for if you already have an established Ethernet network but want to expand. Any HomePlug network is limited to a maximum of two bridges (only the Ethernet models can act as bridges), but may have unlimited nodes.
Even though a cabled Ethernet comparison may seem the most apt, HomePlug is more analogous to wireless networking, as both types do not require CAT 5 wiring, the installation of ports and setting up hubs and switches. Much like Wi-Fi, HomePlug represents freedom from cabling. It's worth imagining the flexibility of these adaptors too. They're tiny, so if you have a notebook you could conceivably access your network from any power point in your house as you move from room to room. We tested by moving our PC around a very long house, and had no problems networking instantly from different power points.
From a pricing scenario though, GigaFast's HomePlug products have Wi-Fi beaten on smaller installations. With a modest outlay for a Wi-Fi access point ($250) and a PCI card or PC card for each machine ($150) a two system setup would cost $550 compared to $400, but this gap closes the more PCs you want to add.
The GigaFast HomePlug adaptors we tested work on the HomePlug Powerline interface standard 1.0, which allows for a maximum transfer speed of 14Mb/s. Version 2.0 is being ratified now which should allow for around double that. As it is, 14Mb/s is not bad, particularly for file or Internet sharing. On an electrician's urging we ran a blender in the kitchen which had only a tiny affect on the data integrity of the HomePlug network even though it fritzed with the TV reception in the lounge.
Although we didn't receive blazing speeds over our electrical network we found the GigaFast HomePlug network adaptors to be an exceptionally easy way to connect our machines together. It's a stable yet versatile way of getting your home or office wired (think of the sheer number of available power points), and is simple to implement thanks to its plug and play nature (pun intended, sorely regretted).