Much of the marketing around wireless routers, extenders, and other networking equipment focuses on dealing with range problems—your house is too big, so the back bedroom doesn’t get a strong Wi-Fi signal. But for people like myself who live in apartments or condos in extremely dense urban neighborhoods, range is not the only problem. Interference from neighbors’ networks is the chief villain.
Worse, renters are often prohibited by their leases from making modifications to the apartment like running Ethernet cables inside the walls, or sometimes even pinning Ethernet cables to the outside of the walls. For those apartment dwellers, there are few options.
Powerline networking adapters are a black sheep exception, but they don’t get a lot of attention for good reason: early products in this category were awful in a lot of ways. From inconsistent performance to flickering lamps, they’ve had a spotty history. They’ve gotten gradually better, but are they good enough to solve the problem yet?
One of the more recent attempts to make powerline networking work ‘no seriously for real this time’ is Ubiquiti’s EtherMagic. The company provided a review kit to Ars, and we decided to use it to test whether the tech is finally where it needs to be. Consider this our quick dive into whether this technology is currently a viable alternative to Wi-Fi at all more than a review of the kit itself.
About the kit
New York-based Ubiquiti makes wireless networking products for a variety of markets, and it has a few consumer products of note like a wireless mesh networking kit. EtherMagic is the company’s powerline networking kit; the full kit comes with one switch and three receivers.
If you’re not familiar with powerline kits, the concept is straightforward: you plug a Switch into a wall power socket in your home or office, and then plug one receiver (Ubiquiti’s kit calls them EndPoints) into another wall power socket. The Switch connects to your router or modem via Ethernet and uses your home’s electrical system to transmit data back and forth with the EndPoint. It was extremely easy to set up; Ubiquiti provides an app for connecting an EndPoint to your Switch should you add another EndPoint, but all the EndPoints that come in with the Switch in the kit are already synced. It is quite literally plug and play.
When you plug an EndPoint in, you’ll see a blue LED indicator that shows how strong a signal is. Like wireless signal indicators, more bars is better. The quality of the connection depends greatly on the quality of the wiring in your building, along with a bunch of other factors likely out of your control, especially if you’re a renter. But if everything is ideal, it is very fast and effective—moreso than Wi-Fi in many situations. In many earlier powerline kits, performance was inconsistent, power was drawn even when data wasn’t being transferred, and other electronic devices in the home or office were impacted negatively.
More recent products have gradually addressed many of these problems, hence now being a good time to revisit this tech. I didn’t experience any of the above problems with this kit, but your mileage could very well vary based on your wiring and other factors.
About the location
I live in a large apartment building in one of the densest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, with a population of around 22,000 people per square mile—comparable to the Mission in San Francisco, Lincoln Park in Chicago, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. It’s a far cry from many parts of Manhattan, but it’s a much more dense area than most Americans live within. There are a lot of neighbors in close proximity, and a lot of Wi-Fi networks around the standard 1, 6, and 11 channels.
The situation, then, is that interference makes 2.4GHz wireless basically nonfunctional unless I’m in right next to the wireless router. 5GHz is better because there are generally fewer people using those channels, but it’s still slower and spottier than I’d like. I’m prohibited by my lease from running Ethernet cables either inside the wall or attached to the wall; they would have to be laid out across the floor. I’ve chosen not to do that for both aesthetic and safety reasons.
My apartment has two bedrooms and is around 1,000 square feet. The modem (a Time Warner cable modem) and router (an Apple Airport Extreme—admittedly not the strongest) are located in the living room, as connection quality is most important to me with regards to 4K video streaming and console gaming on the TV. Everything in my entertainment center is connected to the router with Ethernet. Everything else uses Wi-Fi.
One of the bedrooms is used as an office, where I keep a Windows desktop PC and a VoIP phone—this is also where I typically do my work on a 2016 15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro, which will serve as the testing device. I use the office as my workspace because it gets the most light, but unfortunately, it has the most Wi-Fi problems, too. It’s oriented towards most of the other apartments in my building and their respective Wi-Fi signals.
Finally, there’s the bedroom. I usually only use my phone in bed, but I sometimes watch Netflix on my phone before I fall asleep, and I occasionally have streaming problems. The bedroom is at the corner of the building, so none of the walls are shared with other apartments. Thus, interference is lower here.
Testing the kit against Wi-Fi and Ethernet
I tried the kit in all three rooms along with 2.4GHz Wi-Fi and 5GHz Wi-Fi; I also tested on Ethernet in the living room. I used Measurement Lab‘s Network Diagnostic Tool (which is also the basis for the simple Speed Test feature in Google) to test download speed, upload speed, and average latency. I ran each test three times and averaged the results. It’s worth noting that individual results varied quite a lot with the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi tests, and a little with the 5 GHz tests, but the powerline and Ethernet connections were fairly consistent. I also used the EtherMagic powerline kit regularly for more than a week, performing periodic tests (data not reflected in the charts below) to make sure there wasn’t much change over time; there wasn’t.
It’s also important to note that powerline kits aren’t as popular as you might expect in part because your mileage could vary significantly depending on all sorts of arcane factors like the age and quality of your power lines, which rooms are on which circuit switches, what else you have plugged in, and so on. All three test rooms are on different switches in my apartment, which could explain the much slower results in the bedroom and office versus the living room, where the receiver unit was on the same switch as the sender.
With all that out of the way, let’s look at the download test results, which involved downloading a file from a remote server over the Internet.
2.4GHz is useless in the back rooms, but 5GHz is fine. However, the powerline kit is faster than either. It’s 85 percent faster than 5GHz Wi-Fi in the living room, 29 percent faster in the bedroom, and 64 percent faster in the office. Ethernet is still king, though.
With the upload test, even Ethernet capped out at 23Mbps on this connection. In the living room and the office, both the powerline connection and 5GHz Wi-Fi met that. 2.4GHz Wi-Fi struggled in all three locations.
Latency was a mixed bag; I don’t think this powerline kit will be adequate for hardcore multiplayer gamers. While it matched Ethernet on the same circuit, it lagged behind in the other rooms. It was still better than Wi-Fi, but not good enough—especially in the office.
I went on to use the kit for more than week with no issues. I streamed Netflix, did work in my office, and played Overwatch. The latency was a little higher than I’d like for Overwatch in my office, but it was otherwise a success.
That said, the truth is that for most people, a 5GHz router will address many of the problems they face with 2.4GHz wireless. That’s not just because 5GHz is better; it’s because lots of people don’t use 5GHz routers or channels, so there’s likely less interference in most buildings. Even in my building, the speeds provided by 5GHz Wi-Fi are sufficient for most people. But if you transfer tons of files, or you play online games, there’s a possibility this could be a better alternative.
Unfortunately, results will vary from building to building based on how the electrical wiring is done. Nevertheless, this Ubiquiti kit is much better than powerline networking kits from a few years back. For many people, this technology is now a viable alternative to Wi-Fi. It’s just too bad you may not know whether you’re one of them until you buy it and bring it home.
- It’s extremely easy to set up.
- In my situation, download and upload speeds were significantly better than 2.4GHz WiFi, and noticeably better than 5GHz Wi-Fi.
- Performance can vary based on which electrical switch the devices are on.
- Latency remained an issue in the most problematic of the three rooms.
- Because results are so dependent on your individual building, it’s impossible to say that success in my building will be replicated in yours.
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