I had high hopes for Belkin’s new Gigabit Powerline HD Starter Kit. Having recently reviewed Belkin’s Powerline AV+ Starter Kit, which performed well and had great features, I was expecting to find more of the same, plus faster performance in the Gigabit product. However, the results made me wish that Belkin had forgone the use of the word Gigabit.
Powerline networking kits are a great way to connect setups that may be in one part of your house (like your home entertainment center) to your home network, which may be in another. They connect to your router and a power outlet on one end and to another power outlet elsewhere in the house at the other, essentially turning power outlets into ethernet ports, without the hassle and expense of running cables. And they can provide the stable high-speed connections required for HD video streaming, unlike most Wi-Fi options.
Belkin’s Gigabit kit, with its nominal link rate of 1000 megabits per second, promises speeds that are a full five times higher than the 200-mbps rate claimed by the AV+ kit; that gave me hope of a throughput rate over 300 mbps, or five times higher than the 68 mbps that the AV+ kit averaged. While real-world throughput never matches up to nominal link rates, due to networking overhead and connection quality issues, even 300 mbps would best any wireless network and would even be competition for gigabit ethernet, which has real-world throughput of 600 to 800 mbps. Plus, Belkin told me that it had managed to get 300 mbps under controlled conditions.
However, while the new kit was nearly twice as fast as the AV+ kit in our tests, with results ranging from 112 to 157 mbps, it came nowhere near 300 mbps, let alone 1 gbps. I used the exact same power outlets and laptops for testing as before, in the same 100-year-old house with both old and new wiring.
So why does double the throughput in a kit that costs $30 less seem disappointing? If Belkin had simply called the kit “enhanced” AV+ or some such, then I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up–and more to the point, consumers would not make unwitting comparisons to gigabit ethernet.
Furthermore, even with the speed increase of the Gigabit kit, I prefer the AV+ kit for several reasons. First, both kits are more than capable of streaming full HD video from your PC to your TV (about 20 to 25 mbps), so the added speed will really be appreciated only by those with higher bandwidth needs, such as those doing network backup or running multiple simultaneous video streams.
Second, the Gigabit kit seemed more subject to interference than the AV+ kit. I have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for my home entertainment system plugged into the same 4-gang outlet used for testing both kits; neither Belkin kit was plugged into the UPS, it was just connected to the same outlet. The UPS had seemingly no effect on the AV+ kit, but with the Gigabit kit I could not get a good connection until I unplugged the UPS. As soon as I did, the connection-quality LED turned from amber to blue (indicating a link rate greater than 200 mbps).
Next, the AV+ kit includes one adapter with three ethernet ports, while both adapters in the Gigabit kit have a single port. Multiple ports are a big advantage for living rooms with multiple networked devices, such as game consoles, DVRs, and Blu-ray players. (You could mimic a multiport feature by attaching an ethernet switch to a single-port powerline adapter, at added cost.) Belkin says they plan to offer a multiport version of the Gigabit kit next year.
Finally, while the adapters look outwardly identical, the AV+ kit includes interchangeable plugs that allow either wall wart-style or desktop placement. The Gigabit kit plugs only into the wall; it has no cord that would let you place it on your desk. Desktop mounting is very convenient if you need frequent access to the port–you would otherwise have to crawl under your desk.
Both kits offer plug-and-play installation, with no software configuration. You simply plug them in and wait for a few seconds until the separate parts recognize each other and the blue lights come on, signaling that you’re connected. Both also offer encryption out-of-the-box; however, if you live in an apartment or office building where circuits might be shared, you should change the default encryption key by pressing the buttons on each adapter. For an expanded network, you can buy additional kits and plug them in.
The two kits–Gigabit and AV+–are also interoperable, according to Belkin. However, Belkin has not yet received HomePlug AV certification for the new kit (which would guarantee interoperability), so we’d advise against mixing kits if you need more than one. They use different chipsets (the AV+ kit has an Intellon chipset), and we’ve had problems getting one vendor’s powerline gear to interoperate with another’s, even when they use the same chipset.
Also, powerline technology is subject to interference, attenuation, and electrical system vagaries, so performance can vary from house to house and from outlet to outlet. With any powerline kit, you should buy from a seller that accepts returns, and test it promptly to be sure it works with your setup.
Overall, the Belkin Gigabit Powerline HD Kit is a top-performing networking kit that will stream HD video with ease and is a snap to install. We just wish it didn’t subtract valuable features found in the earlier AV+ kit and have a name that implies gigabit performance.