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Netgear XE104 not ready for HDTV Primetime

Kevin C. Tofel

Last week we gave a 60-day update on our HDTV streaming over WiFi from a Windows Media Center to an Xbox 360. Overall, we're satisfied with the performance over our 802.11a wireless network, but it's still not 100%. We alluded to getting our paws on a new product from Netgear: the XE104, which is an 85 Mbps Ethernet switch that uses your home electric lines to send network data. The device is based on the HomePlug 1.0 standard and we really wanted to give a shot and see if brings our high-def streaming satisfaction to 100%.

We shot a note over to Netgear for some review units, but they're in high demand; understandable if you can get 85Mbps performance by using existing wires. Rather than wait, we decided to take the plunge and purchase two units. They arrived on Monday and we put 'em through the paces over the past few days...

The XE104 are basically plug-and-play units; you simply plug one in to an outlet near your router and another one into an outlet where you need an Ethernet jack. Each XE104 has four Ethernet jacks, so you can effectively add four wired devices to your network per unit. Once we unpacked the devices, we plugged one directly into the wall nearest our WMCE machine; Netgear doesn't recommend you plug these into a surge protector or other extension cord. We then wired the XE104 to our router.

Giddy with anticipation, we almost tripped going downstairs to the home entertainment room that houses our baby: the Xbox 360. The li'l fella was sleeping, so we quietly plugged in the other XE104 directly into an outlet and connected our 360 to it via the included Cat-5 cable. Just to be safe, we pulled the Microsoft Wireless adapter from the 360, which unfortunately woke him up. No worries, it was time for the big test.

Looking at both XE104's we saw the appropriate green and blue LEDs all lit up, indicating that our data packets were flowing to and from like busy little bees. Yippee! We got the Xbox 360 configured for the new wired network and fell going up the stairs this time; how exciting to have 85Mbps in the house! Back at the WMCE, we fired up the Network Performance Monitor to see all of the bars lit up like giant Christmas trees and....uh....wait a second.....there's not even enough bars to stream SDTV. Huh?

We loaded up the included Netgear software that allows you to change passwords on XE104's, create new networks with them and use network encryption when we noticed something very interesting:

See the Quality and Rate? That's not 85 Mbps. Thinking that the performance can vary a little based on the location we then proceeded to move the second XE104 unit throughout the house. We tested nine different outlets at various locations and here's what we saw:
  • With both XE104's in the same room (our office), the reported Rate was around 83 Mbps.
  • Moving one XE104 to the hall outside the office, the Rate dropped to between 45 and 50 Mbps.
  • Moving that XE104 to the next room yielded a rate of 32 Mbps.
  • Moving three rooms away, the rate hit a measly 9 Mbps.
Just for kicks, we tried the test with an XE104 in various rooms downstairs since the above tests were all on the second floor of our home. We could never get the rate above 25 Mbps. "OK," you say, "25 Mbps is enough to stream the HDTV content since it only requires 19.39 Mbps, right?" That's what we thought too, so we did a little sleuthing on the Netgear customer forums.

When we logged in there were approximately ten threads on the XE104. At least 80% of those threads were of customers complaining about the throughput. Even worse: these folks ran more extensive tests and found that the Netgear utility inflates the actual throughput rate by up to a factor of seven. This would certainly explain why we couldn't stream any DTV even though the utility indicates that we should be able to.

There could be other factors involved and yes, one of them is the wiring in your house. Our house used for the test is only two years old, so it's unlikely that the wiring is the culprit. Our XE104's cost us $85 each, but we're getting our money back. Simply put, these units just won't cut it for HDTV streaming between a Windows Media Center PC and an Xbox 360 in our environment.

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