Innoband HomePlug AV+802.11n AP Starter Kit review

HomePlug has been around for years now, nearly as long as mobile broadband, Windows Mobile and sliced bread... combined. Unlike any of those three, however HomePlug hasn't exactly caught fire in the industry. For those unaware, the general principle with these devices is to send network signals (or other signals, we suppose) over a home's existing power network. In theory, this would prevent someone from being forced to run a 50 foot Ethernet drop, instead using the 50 feet (or more) or power wiring that already resides within the walls of a given abode to transmit the same signals. For whatever reason, early models were plagued with flaky performance and speeds that were far less than advertised. Granted, things have progressed quite aways since the HomePlugs of old, but has the tech finally reached a place where it could be adopted en masse?

We recently had the chance to test out Innoband's HomePlug AV+802.11n AP Starter Kit, which is a two-piece solution that consists of a transmitting unit (which connects to your router or modem via Ethernet and plugs into a nearby wall outlet) and a 802.11b/g/n WiFi transceiver, which is designed to be plugged into a different wall socket where you need an Ethernet connection or extended wireless coverage. Curious as to how things stacked up? Tap that 'Read More' link for the rest of our review.

Generally speaking, HomePlug AV (the newest standard) connection kits serve a pretty specific niche. If you've ever dreamed of running an Ethernet cable from your loft upstairs down to the Xbox 360 in your living room -- you know, for optimal ping times in Xbox Live play and stutter-free Netflix Watch Instantly playback -- you've probably considered a HomePlug alternative. In many cases, WiFi dongles are available to take the place of a direct Ethernet run, but as we all know, wireless performance can vary with the wind, and when it comes to being entertained, none of us have time for that sort of nonsense. Innoband's solution allows for network signals to be passed over your existing power network, but the bonus here is that you'll also be able to extend your wireless network range to a location of your choice -- wherever you plug in the transceiver with the antenna is where you'll get a whole new area of 5-bar coverage.

We tested the solution out on a scenario that we felt would be fairly representative of how most folks would put this to use. We plugged in the non-wireless adapter near our WLAN router, and then we jacked the WiFi-enabled one in behind our television. We linked our Xbox 360 to the adapter via one of the bundled patch cables, hit the "Sync" button, waited around 20 seconds, and fired up Xbox Live. As we were hoping, everything loaded up just fine. In fact, we couldn't tell that we didn't have an actual Ethernet cable running directly between the console and the modem, and that's precisely the point. Our on-demand movies streamed cleanly, our online gaming experience was just as snappy as connecting via the Xbox 360 Wireless N adapter and we gained another blanket of WiFi coverage in our den to boot. If you couldn't tell, setup was dead simple -- no software installation was required, and everything was up and running within a matter of minutes.

Speaking of wireless, we did find the range to be a bit weak. We had trouble getting a solid connection on our MacBook Pro from around 150 feet away, but anywhere between 0 and 75 feet netted us a fantastic internet experience. It's pretty simple to connect; just look for "Innoband" in your list of wireless networks and punch up the security key that's pasted on the underside of the wireless adapter. Our first test was to see if downloads were any slower due to routing network signals over the home's power lines, but out of the 15 files that we download from various sites (all between 35MB and 400MB in size), we didn't notice a performance hit. We saw download rates of around 900Kbps over the Innoband connection, matching the rates we experienced when connecting directly to our WLAN router. Obviously your experience will vary based on the connection in your home, but for the average cable / DSL user, you won't notice any slowdowns here. Oh, and as for uploads? Speeds over the Innoband matched our WLAN router, too.

We also tested one final scenario in hopes of uncovering something magical, but alas, our hopes were dashed when the units failed to communicate after attempting to sync for 10 to 15 minutes. We kept the non-wireless receiver plugged in (and connected) near the router, but we jacked the WiFi-enabled adapter in at a nearby barn. Said barn was only 200 some-odd feet away from the house, but it possessed its own power meter. Given that lines to the home and barn were both ran to the same outdoor pole, we were hoping that the Innoband solution would be able to drag network signals from the home to the barn. Unfortunately, that never panned out, so it's certainly something to keep in mind if you had such a scheme all worked out in your head.

Overall, the HomePlug AV+802.11n AP Starter Kit is a solid bet for those who just can't get by with their existing wireless network (or don't feel like spending big bucks on a wireless dongle for your Blu-ray deck, Xbox 360, etc.). Performance was impressive throughout our testing, and not once did we experience an unexpected dropout, connection timeout or any other unwanted interruption. The added bonus of extending the wireless range in your home makes this even more succulent to those in a McMansion, and folks who'd love to make their sunroom or outdoor patio a WiFi-enabled locale will also find even more to love. The only knock we have is the somewhat disappointing wireless range (it tended to get flaky / sluggish beyond 100 feet away), and while we wish the MSRP ($169.99) were lower, it's actually quite respectable when you consider that this kit could prevent you from buying a WLAN router, a huge spool of Ethernet (and the apparatuses to conceal the drop) and at least one WiFi adapter. That said, this makes the most sense for someone who's just now starting up a home network, but it's definitely worth a look if you could imagine this benefiting your setup in any way, and you want a non-wireless version, that's also around for $110.