The Great Room Reshuffle and Powerline Ethernet

May 20th, 2012  |  Published in etc

So, the Great Room Migration of ’12 is pretty much over today: I paid Ben $5 to finish the tedious task of moving his stuff out of his old room and into The Room Formerly Known as the TV Room, and that’s that: He’s got a bigger room, we’ve got a new guest room, and the t.v. is down on the ground floor, where the person who built the house (and stuck a cable jack over the fireplace/tv plinth) intended.

We’re ahead of plan by about 5 years. When we first moved here we decided to put our t.v. in one of the larger four upstairs bedrooms. We liked the idea of keeping the t.v. out of the house’s socializing area, and the upstairs t.v. room was sort of cozy. Ben got one of the smaller rooms (with a loft, to give back some floor space). But in the process of shifting things around over the past few months, we decided it might be a little more comfortable to just move the t.v. back downstairs. It’s not like we plan to let the t.v. interrupt guests, and Ben was getting tired of his loft. So instead of waiting until he was in middle school to move his room around, we went ahead and got him a regular bed and moved him around.

The biggest complication turned out to be our network. With the t.v. upstairs, our four connected devices (a Roku, AppleTV, Blu-Ray and Wii) were all within 20 feet of the Airport Extreme in my office. Everything moved along pretty quickly, most importantly the Plex channel running on the Roku, which connects us to any digital entertainment stored on my iMac that I don’t feel like running through Handbrake to stream over the Apple TV.

Once we moved everything downstairs, things went south pretty quickly.

My office, where the Airport Extreme lives, is upstairs and on the opposite end of the house from the t.v. and all the attached devices. The first few things we tried to watch on the Roku (Netflix, Hulu or Plex) had a lot of problems: It took forever for content to load, there were periodic minute-long hangs because of rebuffering, and sometimes the Roku just reported that it couldn’t load whatever I was trying to watch. An AppleTV movie rental stopped about three minutes in and took another several minutes to rebuffer. That took me by surprise because Wi-Fi performance downstairs has always been good enough for laptops, iPads and iPhones. YouTube was sometimes a little balky, but the iPhone YouTube app has always seemed sort of flakey, even in good network conditions.

I think some of the problem is the sheer proliferation of neighboring 2.4GHz networks: Depending on when I look, I never see fewer than three nearby networks, and sometimes see as many as ten. When we had everything upstairs, the devices that could support the 5GHz connections an Airport Extreme can provide profited from the lower interference of the 5GHz band, and the devices that couldn’t were just close enough. Once we moved everything to the opposite end of the house, it probably made some neighboring networks loom a little larger.

I went into fix-it mode. I took an 802.11n Airport Express and put it between the Airport Extreme and the living room. There’s an outlet right at the top of the stairs that represents a spot about a third of the way between the office and living room (and on the living room side of a dogleg in upstairs layout). That worked out a little better, but there were still problems: The house is a little too large and twisty for a single WAP to cover the entire premises well enough to stream HD video, but not too large to keep devices from ignoring a relay in favor of the primary base station, so periodically one of the devices would pick up the Airport Extreme, ignore the Airport Express (as reported by Apple’s Airport Utility), and we’d be back to rebuffering and long load times. I might have been able to address some of that by turning the power on the Airport Extreme down to 50 percent, but I had a suspicion that the latency of connecting through a relay would still cause problems. And like I said, we have a lot of neighboring networks no matter what.

My next thought was to run some Ethernet cable along the side of the house, from my office and down to the living room. Doing it right, though — drilling the holes, using conduit, getting cable that wouldn’t degrade during the occasional freeze, grounding it all — seemed like more work than I felt like dealing with. Internal cabling was a possibility (our garage shares a floor or wall with all the rooms involved in this situation, so it would have been pretty easy to drill a few holes and run cables between rooms), but that also seemed like a lot of work, and I didn’t want to end up running internal conduit to hide the CAT5 cable.

So I printed out a few coupons from Best Buy I’ve been holding on to and went out and bought a Powerline Ethernet kit by Netgear. I made the purchase as an experiment, being careful to keep the packaging and tape the receipt to the inside flap of the box, because I’ve read a few reviews over the years (I’m positive we covered it when I was running Practically Networked) but I’ve never had a situation where Wi-Fi wasn’t good enough.

I brought the kit home, plugged one of the two little wall warts into the wall by the t.v and one into the wall by the Airport Extreme (which has a gigabit switch) in the office. The devices are supposed to be able to provide gigabit speeds over house electrical wiring, but the LED speed gauges they provide suggest they’re not operating up to their full potential in our house. That makes sense to me: They’re not on the same fuse and they’re at distant ends of the house from each other. I plugged the Airport Express into the downstairs box, set it up to share the home network over its own SSID, and ran speed tests with SpeedTest.net from both my laptop and iPhone. As near as I could tell, I was getting 15Mbps download speeds over Wi-Fi via a 20Mbps cable connection. Since the Roku needs a 3Mbps connection to stream HD video and the Plex server’s max 720p connection speed is 4Mbps (8 for 1080i), I’m sort of over-provisioned from a digital media standpoint. Since there’s nothing downstairs that’s storing or moving large files in chunks (as opposed to streaming them from Plex on the iMac), we’re in pretty good shape.

The final step was to take the Airport Express down and drop a four-port gigabit switch I’ve had in the closet behind the t.v., cabling it to the Powerline Ethernet adapter, Apple TV and Roku. Now video content from Plex is loading almost instantly, and video via Hulu or Netflix has very little buffering time. The Roku has always displayed an initial softness when streaming HD video, but that’s become shorter (and buffering time is down, too). The iPhones, iPad and laptops all work as well as they ever did for everything else.

So, mark me down as a pretty happy Powerline Ethernet customer. It solved our problem without the need to drill holes or run more cable. It isn’t performing at the ideal advertised speeds, but it is providing four or five times the bandwidth necessary to stream HD video, and it provides a stable connection that’s not prone to interference from neighboring phones and networks.

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