Devolo MicroLink dLAN powerline Ethernet adaptor
Wired networking through the mains
Review After Reg Hardware tried out ZyXEL's new PL-100 Ethernet-over-powerline product, quite a few readers pointed out a similar but more convenient item from Devolo. It's been around for some months now, but since it was new to us, we guess it'll be new to quite a few other Reg Hardware readers too. So we called up Devolo and asked to try it out...
The MicroLink's convenience arises from the way Devolo has integrated the power connector: the unit is a compact 8 x 6.3 x 3.7cm box that plugs straight into the wall. The only cable you need to connect is the Ethernet line between the MicroLink and whatever network device you want to hook it up to. Devolo bundles a pair of MicroLinks and two 3m RJ-45 cables in a single package, so all you need to get networking is in the one box.
Like the PL-100, the MicroLink has a theoretical raw throughput of 85Mbps, but Ethernet and other protocol data traffic, plus the inevitable noise on the line, will knock that down significantly, just as 802.11g Wi-Fi never yields 53Mbps except in the laboratory, and a 56Kbps modem will never give you that throughput in the real world.
Crucially, the wired link is more secure than the wireless once - if only because it's harder to tap into - and should still yield a higher real-world bandwidth than Wi-Fi. There shouldn't be any blind-spot issues - a particular problem with some older European buildings with thick walls and signal-degrading metal bits in them.
Germany-based Devolo also scores points for offering not only Windows but also Mac OS X and Linux versions of its MicroLink set-up utility, operating systems Far Eastern hardware manufacturers often ignore. The software CD also includes a quaint video introducing the system and a full manual in PDF form, but it's barely needed, what with the inherent simplicity of the system and the visual quick-start sheet in the box. Like the PL-100, the MicroLink is truly plug and play. Put two or more MicroLinks into power sockets and they'll automatically form a network to relay Ethernet traffic between the devices connected to them.
The units support 56-bit DES encryption to protect traffic sent across the power network. To enable it, you'll need to run the bundle set-up utility into which you key the security codes printed on any or all the other MicroLinks on the network to gain administrator access and to then send across the password you subsequently enter. The password is stored locally and used to encrypt data from between the MicroLinks it's been assigned to. The downside is, all you need to change it is are the security codes and a new password - you don't have to re-enter the old one.
DES isn't as hacker-proof as it once was, and 56-bit doesn't sound much in an age of 128-bit AES crypto in the latest Wi-Fi products. But you have to ask how readily accessible the power network will be. Devolo claims there's sufficient suppression at the electricity meter to prevent data leaking out of the house. Offices, particularly in shared premises, might pose a problem, but it's still got to be better than the open WLANs many offices host.
Once again, I connected one MicroLink to a Windows laptop upstairs in my home, and the other to a PowerBook downstairs. I used the same sockets and - in the case of the Windows machine - the same distribution board as I used to test the PL-100. The Windows box was different from last time, but its specifications were close enough.
As before, I copied a large folder from the Windows machine to the Mac, timing the transfer. I ran through the process half-a-dozen times to obtain an average transfer time. I also checked it against Mac OS X's Activity Monitor utility, which has a throughput read-out of its own.
First off, I measured a transfer speed of 20.86Mbps. Enabling the encryption, I got pretty much the same figure: 20.81Mbps. Trying a third time after switching on the dishwasher yielded 20.98Mbps. Putting on the washing machine didn't appear to impact performance. During the runs, Activity Monitor gave between 20.88Mbps and 22.8Mbps.
These numbers compare to the 16.43-16.88Mbps I got for the pair of Pl-100s I tried. To be fair to the ZyXEL products, I had more machines drawing power from the mains when I tested them than was the case with the Devolo tests, but I wouldn't expect that to account for all the difference. Your experiences may differ, depending on the state of the mains in your building.
Subjectively, swapping data between the two machines and accessing the Internet felt much faster with the MicroLinks than with my 802.11g WLAN. And for all the 'operate anywhere' freedom of the wireless network, I usually find myself connecting to it in the same two or three locations, all within easy reach of a free power socket. If you're in the same situation, the MicroLinks a worthy alternative, particularly as broadband speeds rise and the airwaves become more crowded with local WLANs.
The units conform to the HomePlug 1.0 specification, so they're backwards compatible, but Devolo recommends sticking to either the older 14Mbps HP 1.0 products or the newer 85Mbps 'standard plus' products rather than mix the two. At just £140 for a pack of two 85Mbps, it's worth the upgrade.
With its natty translucent blue casing, the MicroLink is more consumer friendly that ZyXEL's PL-200, though it's no easier - or harder - to use. A major benefit is the built-in power plug, allowing you to shove it in a mains socket and forget about it until you need it. Anything that cuts down on cable clutter is a winner in my book. But it's the speed advantage that recommends the Devolo product, above rival offerings and wireless. ®