HomePlug Ethernet, part 2

For the last week or so, our living room has been out of bounds as we installed a new fireplace, redecorated and are now getting a new carpet fitted. That means all of the furniture has moved out to another room – and that includes our Smart TV.

After months of near-perfect video streaming over the Power Ethernet connection that I wrote about in November, I’ve had to go wireless again, and that means lots of buffering, etc. – despite the TV being right next to the Apple AirPort Express that I’m pretty sure should be repeating the signal.  That’s prompted me to a) do something about it as it will be another week or so before the Xbox and Smart TV are back in the living room and b) write this post about my experiences with my Power Ethernet TP1000 sockets.

Installation

If you can install a 2-gang (double) power socket, you can install a Power Ethernet socket*.  Simply turn off the power at the mains (consumer unit), disconnect the existing socket wiring, connect the TP1000  – and you’ll have a single power socket and four Ethernet ports in place of the two power sockets that were there originally.  Repeat for the second socket (you need a pair to work together) and a mesh network is created automatically. Simple!

A few points to note:

  1. Depending on the depth of the pattress or wall box that your socket uses, you may need a “spacer” to increase the depth to at least 35mm. I found that the wall box for my living room (standard fit for an early-1990s house with dry lined “dot and dab” walls) was too shallow but some spacers were included with my sockets.
  2. Even with the spacer, it’s still a tight fit (the back of the TP1000 is bulkier than a standard switched double socket) and I moved the point at which the ring main entered the wall box by a couple of centimetres to improve access to the wiring connections.
  3. The TP1000 power socket is unswitched. That’s not a problem for me, but may be a concern for some people.
  4. Although the facia plate for the TP1000 is white, the unit itself is grey (and my spacers were white). Also, it has rounded corners, which look nice, but are difficult to match with existing sockets (or the spacer).  Again, not a problem for me (the socket is hidden behind our TV stand) but it would be good to see Power Ethernet devices available in a selection of finishes to match the most commonly used electrical fittings here in the UK.

Use

It’s a power socket, just use it as normal.

And it’s an Ethernet switch with four connections. Just use them as normal. Of course, one end will need to be connected to your Internet connection – for me, this is via the wired LAN in my home office, without any need for cross-over cables.

Performance

For many years, I avoided Ethernet over power line solutions because I was concerned about interoperability between the various standards, and I’d heard stories of poor performance. Of course, this will vary tremendously based on the electrical wiring in use but I’ve been pretty impressed with the Power Ethernet devices. Bear in mind that my primary use is to stream TV from the Internet (BBC iPlayer, for example), so the bottleneck is my “up to 8Mbps” ADSL2 connection, but  I’m having no issues at all, even streaming HD content.

It’s difficult to measure the true throughput of the network but the Power Ethernet Management Software (PEMS) suggests I’m sustaining a connection at around 160Mbps and the initial connection speed often rises over time.  Tests using file transfers (for example, using NetCPS) suggested lower transfer rates but it’s still far better than over Wi-Fi – and seems more reliable.

The TP1000 Ethernet sockets also go into standby mode when not in use, which obviously has an environmental (and fiscal) impact, but they are quick to “resume” when a device is plugged in to one of the RJ45 connections or switched on, taking just a few seconds to establish a connection as normal.

Management

As I mentioned above, Power Ethernet provides management software  for the Ethernet switches inside the TP1000s. I’m not using the advanced functionality (e.g. setting up VLANs or QoS) but those sorts of capabilities will be extremely useful in an office environment and it’s still useful to be able to see the topology of the network, check out the port states, monitor bandwidth and otherwise manage the devices from a single location. Supplied as a Microsoft ClickOnce application, I did initially have some problems installing the software but Power Ethernet were able to take my log files and quickly resolve the issue. Since then, PEMS has automatically updated itself to the latest software release with absolutely no problems and apart from a few display problems (which may be due to the fact I’m running it on a Windows Server 2008 R2 machine, and connecting via RDP), it’s been pretty solid.

Power Ethernet Management Software

Interoperability

I mentioned that my SmartTV is temporarily in a different location (approx 8m from the nearest Ethernet socket) and, faced with an inability to watch iPlayer without buffering, I needed to set something up.  As this is a temporary fix and I don’t think Power Ethernet sockets are available with a brushed metal finish, I picked up a single TP-Link AV200 Nano powerline adapter (TL-PA211). It’s not as neat but it’s no worse than a 12V DC “brick” and it’s fine for a temporary setup. And, because both the TP-Link and the Power Ethernet sockets are HomePlug compatible, it instantly joined the mesh so I was connected to my Internet connection right away with no further configuration required.  What I did find is that the TP-Link connection is slower – which may be down to the the household electrical wiring or the device chipset (the TP-Link device uses the Intellon INT6000 chipset, whilst the TP1000 uses the Qualcomm Atheros INT6400) – but PEMS recognises a third party device and has shown me connection speeds in the range of 85-115 Mbps – which is still pretty decent and far more than my broadband connection!

Summary

I’ve been really pleased with my Power Ethernet TP1000s and I’d certainly recommend them for home or small business use. The management software can be a little clunky but it’s only really needed if you want to manage the embedded Ethernet switch, which is overkill for my simple home setup. And, whilst they may not be the cheapest HomePlug devices on the market, there are some significant advantages in terms of physical security, aesthetics and performance – and there’s always the option to combine with other 200Mbps HomePlug devices where appropriate. If you’re looking for an alternative to Wi-Fi, and running CAT5/6 is not an option, I seriously recommend taking a look at Power Ethernet.

 

* Of course, if you’re not confident in doing this, then consult an electrician. I’m not qualified to give electrical advice – I’m just a “competent DIYer”.

The benefits of IP TV in my living room

Our living rooms have become a battlefield: Microsoft, Apple and Google each want to control our entertainment experiences, integrating TV, PC, smartphone (and games consoles); then consider Samsung, Sony and the other consumer electronics giants – all of whom want a slice of the digital media consumption cake – there’s certainly a lot at stake as existing media consumption models start to crumble and new business models are established.

Until fairly recently, I was resisting any temptation to bring more technology into the living room, especially as my “black loud crap” (19″ hi-fi separates to you and I) was banished when Mrs W and I became an item all those years ago. I’m not much of a gamer but I do have an Xbox 360, which also doubles as quite a decent DVD player/media hub (especially since the BBC released iPlayer on Xbox). We don’t have a BlueRay player, I think 3D TV is a gimmick and music is on an old iPod, hooked up to some speakers in our garden room, served up from Spotify on my phone/PC/iPad, or streamed from a iTunes/Spotify on a Mac using an Apple Airport Express. All very 2005.

But then I bought a new television.

Much to my surprise, the SmartTV capabilities on the new telly impressed my wife (who saw the potential for the kids accessing the CBeebies website, etc. from the TV, still under our control) as the Samsung rep took us through the motions in a local Currys/PC World store (by co-incidence, the same rep was working in John Lewis, where we actually bought the TV, a week or so later). I wasn’t sure how much we’d use other apps, but having BBC iPlayer, and to a lesser extent ITV Player (hopefully to soon be joined by 4oD and Demand5), running directly from the TV has real benefit.

Since finding that the Wi-Fi connection in my living room wasn’t up to the task, and putting in a HomePlug Ethernet solution from PowerEthernet, I’ve become more and more convinced that IP TV is the way forward. Catching up with the latest BBC natural history series, Africa, with my kids a couple of evenings ago I was streaming BBC iPlayer content in high definition without a hiccup. When the PVR failed to record a critical episode from Masterchef: The Professionals, our TV’s YouTube app came to the rescue. And, over the weekend, I decided that watching Vimeo on my computer screen was too restrictive, so I connected the Vimeo app on the TV to my account and started to surf through my “Watch Later” list. That’s more like it! New apps seem to be coming all the time – Spotify was a recent addition, as was TED (only a few days ago).

Of course, I can access the same content on a tablet, or a smartphone, or a PC – but the television is still the focal point of our living room and, by integrating my online video consumption into the broadcast mix, it’s suddenly a lot more convenient. I haven’t even started to consider the possibilities of streaming music, photos and video from the computers in the house although a neighbour did drop by to test his XBMC configuration on my TV before he commits to purchasing, and plugging a USB flash drive into the TV to look at some photos/home videos is certainly very convenient.

In less than two months I’ve gone from “there’s nothing wrong with my old Sony Trinitron” to “what, no high definition?” and “I’m sure we can stream from the Internet”.  Something else has changed too: whilst the majority of our TV content still comes from the BBC, or Channel 4, I’m watching more stuff from the ‘net – whether it’s Vimeo, YouTube, TED, the Red Bull Channel, or the BBC Sport app (which, incidentally, showed a great video of [Sir] Bradley Wiggins performing The Jam’s That’s Entertainment at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year after-show party).

For a long time I’ve heard talk of IP (Internet Protocol) taking over from broadcast TV. Now, it seems, this may actually have become a reality…

HomePlug Ethernet, part 1

As more an more computing devices are being allowed into my living room (Xbox, Smart TV, etc.) I’m starting to find that the Wi-Fi in our house, which seems fine for basic surfing, email, social media, etc. is struggling more and more when it comes to streaming video content.

It could be a problem with my Wi-Fi setup but I have a pretty good access point, located in a reasonably central position (albeit upstairs) and an Apple Airport Express acting as a repeater, connected to some speakers in our garden room.  I have a feeling that the TV and Xbox are picking up the Airport Express, rather than the main access point (no way to tell on the Airport Express as its diagnostics are almost non-existent) and the lengthy Wi-Fi journey between access points may be the cause of my problems.  I could redesign the network but it works for streaming Spotify to the garden room/kitchen so I started to consider alternatives.

Creating CAT5E/6 cable runs around the house is just too disruptive (I did consider it when we extended a few years ago, but it was quite expensive too), so I started to look at running Ethernet over the household electrical system with HomePlug devices.

A bit of crowdsourcing (asking around on Twitter) turned up quite a bit of advice:

  • Develo dLAN devices seemed to be well-regarded and I nearly bought a dLAN 500 AVtriple+ starter kit.
  • A few people mentioned the TP link Powerline products too.
  • Some people told me to go for faster connections (500Mbps) and that slower devices may be limited by 10/100Mbps Ethernet connections.
  • Others suggested higher speeds are more vulnerable to overheating and interference (that was another common theme – depending on the household wiring it seems you might not get very close to the stated maximum).

Ultimately, whatever I use will mostly be streaming content from the Internet (BBC iPlayer, etc.) over my ADSL connection (which runs at about 6Mbps downstream) so the home network shouldn’t be the bottleneck, once I get off Wi-Fi and onto some copper.

I mentioned that I nearly bought the Develo kit, so why didn’t I? Well, just as I was getting ready to purchase, PowerEthernet (@PowerEthernet) picked up on my tweet and suggested I take a look at their product, which is really rather neat…

Instead of plugging into a socket (either with or without pass-through power capabilities), the PowerEthernet devices replace a standard UK double socket to provide a single socket and four 200Mbps Ethernet ports. You need a pair (of course) but they work together to create an encrypted (AES128) mesh network that’s compatible with the HomePlug Alliance AV standard.

Professional installation is recommended but, as Paul Ockenden (@PaulOckenden) highlights in his PCPro article:

“Most competent DIYers should be able to replace an existing two-gang socket with a Power Ethernet faceplate, and indeed the IEE Wiring Regulations do allow for a confident consumer to do this. For a new installation, however, or if you lack the confidence, you’ll need to consult a qualified electrician.”

I haven’t installed mine yet – I only collected them from the Royal Mail today – but I intend to report back when I’ve had a chance to play. In the meantime, Jonathan Margolis (@SimplyBestTech) wrote a short but sweet piece for the FT. PC Pro’s full review suggests they are a bit pricey (almost £282 for a pair including VAT) but Girls n Gadgets’ Leila Gregory (@Swannyfound them on Amazon at closer to £80 each (as did I).

I’ll write more when I’ve had a chance to use them for a bit…

Streaming Spotify to remote speakers using Airfoil

Much of the music I play these days comes from Spotify but there are times when I’d really like to stream my music to some speakers on the other side of the house that are plugged into an Apple Airport Express.

A few months ago I found out how to do this, using a nifty piece of software from Rogue Amoeba, called Airfoil.  For just $25, Airfoil will stream audio to other Macs and PCs running the Airfoil Speakers companion app or to an Airport Express, Apple TV or other supported receivers.

I did find a few gotchas along the way though:

  • Airfoil will only recognise the same devices as iTunes and iTunes will recognise the same Airport Express as AirPort Utility. It took several reboots to get AirPort Utility to recognise my Airport Express (although things seem to have settled down since).
  • When adjusting the volume/pause/play etc. there is a short delay before the changes take effect (due to latency in the network) – so this is unlikely to work for live DJing (it was fine for my 40th birthday party a few months ago though!).
  • Spotify has a nasty habit of duplicating itself when it upgrades, leaving a copy in ~/Applications as well as in /Applications.  To resolve this, delete the old version of Spotify in /Applications and move the new version from ~/Applications to /Applications. Restart Spotify and Airfoil should, once again, be happy to take Spotify as a source application.  This has happened several times now, each time Spotify release a new client app although it could be a side effect of me running as a Standard User and not an Administrator (as all users should!).