In the modern digital home, we have several ways to join the network dots. The best way is not always the easiest though, which is why in 2011 we now have two unobtrusive ways to send data across the home: completely wirelessly, typically using 802.11 aka Wi-Fi, or kind-of ‘wirelessly’, by making use of pre-existing and nicely concealed cables.
We’re talking about sending high speed data over the electricity mains wiring in the house walls.
Western Digital looks committed to the digital home concept, and its WD LiveWire can be seen as a useful tool from its line of products for wiring-up extra rooms in the house. The WD LiveWire conforms to the HomePlug AV standard, meaning it should interoperate with similiar adaptors from the likes of Solwise, Belkin and Cisco.
The first generation of HomePlug had a nominal 100 Mb/s transfer speed. The second generation, dubbed HomePlug AV and which includes this LiveWire, is rated for 200 Mbps operation.
The principle is simple: mains electricity is already modulated as a sine-wave at 50 cycles per second (or hertz). We can superimpose a much higher frequency signal at very low amplitude to this 50Hz, a coded version of digital network traffic, which will be available on all power sockets on the same phase of the mains around the house.
The real trick is to maintain safety with these adaptors, as the 13 amps available is more than enough to destroy both delicate electronics and human beings, should the full force of the mains supply transgress the power/data divide. Naturally, these appliances are furnished with safety certification labels, so we should trust that the core safety element is satisfied.
Another, subtler, issue is radio frequency (RF) pollution. Audiophiles and radio hams both have reason to be concerned about the adding of very high-frequency harmonics to mains wiring.
The former may notice RF noise interfering with the purity of sound from high-end audio systems. The latter are concerned that the average urban semi will start radiating RF noise like a local radio station, drowning out their reception of distant sources.
There’s no space here to explore these extraneous-RF concerns, although we didn’t notice any deleterious effect on our music system with its, admittedly, well-filtered mains conditioners, while the WD LiveWire was running.
The WD LiveWire kit comprises two identical small black plastic boxes, about the size of an old school Walkman. Each box has a figure-of-eight power inlet for a mains lead on one narrow end, and four RJ45 ethernet ports on the other.
Along one long side are a row of four green LEDs, which light up and pulse to indicate network activity, and two more LEDs to denote power-on and data connectivity.
One WD LiveWire box can be connected to your broadband router with a length of Cat 5e or Cat 6 ethernet cable, the other box goes anywhere in the house to which you need to extend the network. After both units are powered up, you just press the (quite stiff) Sync button on each. And they auto-magically find each other over your mains wiring.
Each WD LiveWire unit includes four ethernet ports. But how fast are they?
Such basic setup of the WD LiveWire is platform agnostic. But if you want to tweak the powerline network, you’re limited to using a Windows PC, with WD supplying an .exe utility with which you can add 128-bit password protection of your mini network. That will prevent any possibility of neighbours in the same building getting crossed wires with your network.
Instructions could be more explicit: we initially couldn’t get this app to ‘see’ the network from a laptop connected to the network by 802.11n. It seems you must use direct ethernet connection to one of the boxes before the utility will find the WD LiveWire boxes.
So when assembled, you have the option of up to four ethernet ports at the remote side of the WD LiveWire powerline network. And additionally, you can use the three remaining spare ports on the ‘sender’ side to connect other peripherals such as a network printer or NAS.
In our tests, data throughput rate of the WD LiveWire was useful, if only a quarter that advertised. Despite promising 200 Mbps operation, we couldn’t measure data transfers anywhere above about 6 MBps (circa 50 Mb/s) transfers.
This was in a home setting, with the WD LiveWires plugged directly into the wall (no extension blocks) in adjacent rooms.
Closer examination suggested that we’d never get above 100 Mbps from a WD LiveWire anyway. We were unable to sync to the WD LiveWire boxes with the necessary gigabit ethernet protocol. It was as if the WD LiveWire only had 10/100 network interface controllers (NICs) installed.
We’re awaiting confirmation from Western Digital that an overspecification in the marketing materials is the root of the huge shortfall in performance, and will update this review later.
Unlike many similar powerline adaptors, the WD LiveWire units each include four ethernet ports, greatly extending their usefulness for plugging in all manner of network peripherals at each end of your mini network. We just wish they were faster, and that the system was as cross-platform as it says on the box. And we do question why WD markets them as 200 Mbps adaptors when they only seem to include ethernet ports whose top speed is 100 Mbps.