Review: Netgear MCAB1001 MoCA Coax-Ethernet Adapter Kit

(Note: If you haven’t already, and are interested in some of the background of my needs and this testing, you should read my earlier review of powerline networking hardware)

So after the disappointment of the powerline networking experiment, I decided to give MoCA hardware a shot. If it performed as advertised, MoCA made sense in our house: There were already live cable drops in both the rooms in question, and the technology seemed far less jankier than powerline. So I ordered the Netgear MCAB1001 MoCA kit, which included two endpoints. This review will be much shorter than the last one.

I love this hardware. In fact, I really only have two gripes which I could think of:

  • The configuration utility is Windows only, and is basically required due to…
  • One of the endpoints was configured in “All Pass”, which lets MoCA overrun the frequencies used for television.  One of the reviewers on Amazon mentioned this as well, so I knew to look out for it.  Fortunately I was able to use the configuration utility in a virtual machine I already had lying around, so I wasn’t stuck.  But if you’re a non-Windows user, you’d be screwed as far as I can tell. (Update: See the comments for a non-windows way to accomplish this)

Installation of this hardware was as straightforward as the powerline hardware:  Hook up the endpoints and you’re live.  The endpoints even have a button which disables all of the front panel LEDs, which should be a feature on every piece of hardware.  Time to cut to the chase and get to the numbers:

milgrim$ time nc -v -v -n pbook 2222 < big-file.bin
Connection to pbook 2222 port [tcp/*] succeeded!
124.98 real         4.20 user        31.90 sys

(1,073,741,824 bytes) / (124.98 seconds) = 65.5464874 Mbps

Compared to the 15 Mbps I got from the powerline hardware, this was literally night and day.  And this was using the USB Ethernet adapter on my Air, so I doubt it’s fully flexing the bandwidth available.  Almost as important as the bandwidth (and the reason I sat on this review for awhile) is the reliability.  After I wrote the powerline review I learned that I was seeing all kinds of dropouts and failures.  But the MoCA hardware has been seemingly rock-solid. I’ve done many large data transfers over the link and seen no trouble whatsoever.

I’ve been so pleased with this gear, that I’ve considered getting a third endpoint to put in the basement and move some ‘headless’ hardware down there (cable modem, Slingbox, time capsule, etc), as it’d be really easy to run a Coax drop down there.  Actually, I think the only barrier to that right now is that all the power in the basement is on the common circuit of the house, so I’d have to install an outlet that comes off of our breaker panel.  Anyway, I’m rather pleased with this hardware, and if you have similar needs, you might want to give it a spin yourself.

Powerline Ethernet Revisited

So the grand experiment with Powerline Networking has effectively come to a end.  Besides the MUCH lower than advertised bandwidth, which I decided to tolerate (since it was better than my WDS WiFI setup to extend the WiFi range), I’ve seen many dropouts in the past few weeks.  They are rather short dropouts, and always seem to resolve themselves on their own, they are significant enough to disrupt my transfers from the TiVo.  It’s not fun waiting a few hours to pull a 20GB HD Movie off the TiVo just to have the transfer get interrupted.

So I’m going to sell the Powerline gear on ebay and give some Netgear MoCA hardware a swing.  Review TK.

Review: Netgear HDXB111 Powerline HD Plus Ethernet Adapter Kit

Update: This equipment worked less effectively than I had thought when I originally wrote this review.  See this post for an update.

Update 2: Since some people don’t seem to be interested in clicking the above ‘update’ link, I’ll put some detail here.  This hardware is crap, don’t buy it.  Not only is it ridiculously slow, it drops connections all the time making your network useless for transferring large files (or streams).  I unloaded the powerline gear and replaced it with Multimedia over Coax (MoCA) hardware, which allows you to use your Cable TV coax for networking (in addition to TV).

When we first moved into the new house, I initially set up a single WRT54G access point (running dd-wrt) in the office in the back of the house. I quickly learned, however, that this location didn’t provide much signal to the rooms in the front of the house, most notably, the living room. Fortunately, I had a second WRT54G lying around as well as a good place to hide it in the dining room, so I set up WDS and used it to extend the network to the front of the house. This has been our basic network configuration for almost two years now. The equipment in the front of the house which requires network, such as the Xbox 360 and the Tivo, all have wireless adapters which are served by this second access point.

This was mostly dandy for your everyday bullshit web browsing and checking email. But as I started to put more demand on the network by pulling HD content off the Tivo, renting HD movies on the 360, as well as things like Netflix streaming, it started to creak. Truth was that not only was the signal between the office and the dining room pretty lousy, but just using WDS halved the bandwidth available to wireless clients. It was time to find a better solution.

The obvious solution is to use wired ethernet to distribute the network around the house. Unfortunately, our condo is the middle floor of a 3 story house, which means no access directly below or above us to easily run Cat5. While it wouldn’t be impossible to get some Cat5 snaked through the walls into the basement, it wouldn’t be easy or fun. If I took on this project, it would turn into a complete mess. If we hired someone to do it it’d likely be prohibitively expensive. Neither Corinna nor myself are interested in running Cat5 visibly around the house, so that’s not an option either.

Unable to come up with a true solution to this problem, I shelved it, accepting the status quo. A few days ago it occurred to me that there had been some companies developing equipment to send data over the electrical wiring of a home. Reviews on this equipment seemed to be pretty mixed, though. Some people raved about how brain-dead simple it was and how well it worked. Others complained it didn’t work at all. After some hemming and hawing, I decided to just give it a shot and if the equipment sucked I could always just resell it. I ended up ordering the Netgear HDXB111 Powerline HD Plus kit. It advertised a top speed of 200Mbps, but of course, actual data rates may vary…

I received the equipment yesterday and spent part of the evening doing some basic testing. First off, the actual setup of this equipment is just as brain-dead as advertised. I plugged each of the units in on opposite sides of the house and within a few seconds had link. That was it, it just worked right out of the box, no configuration, software, or anything else required. There was one other optional, but important, step, which was to ‘randomize’ the encryption keys used by the device. Out of the box, the key is set to a default value, but there is a ‘pairing’ procedure which generates a ‘random’ key and distributes it among the devices. You hold the “Security” button on the first device, and it goes through some motions and decides it is the primary device and generates a key. Then you hold the button on that device again, a light starts blinking, and you have 30 seconds to hold the button on another device. This distributes the key to the second device and you are, in theory, more secure. It apparently uses 3DES, but that requires trusting Netgear, so as always, it’s in your best interests to never rely on it. There is also some Windows-only (ick) management software you can install if you wish to use your own keys. Either way, it’s a pretty simple procedure and when you are done, you have link.

Before I started testing the speed of this equipment, though, I figured it was wise to benchmark the existing setup. I created an empty 1GB file to use for testing. 1GB might seem excessive, but I wanted to make sure I had enough time to get past TCP’s slow start and get a good idea of the maximum speeds involved. So the first set of benchmark numbers are sending data from my MacBook Air in the Office connected via 802.11g to Corinna’s Powerbook G4 in the Living Room connected via 802.11g to the second AP:

milgrim$ time nc -v -v -n pbook 2222 < big-file.bin
Connection to pbook 2222 port [tcp/*] succeeded!
968.65 real         9.04 user        44.13 sys

(1,073,741,824 bytes) / (968.65 seconds) = 8.45713106 Mbps

So the performance of my existing setup using WDS was so much worse than I had imagined. I had never really bothered to test it before, and was truly surprised at how slow it was. Next up, I plugged in the first Powerline adapter in the office and patched it into the WRT54G’s switch. I set up the second Powerline adapter in the Living Room and connected the Powerbook directly to it:

milgrim$ time nc -v -v -n pbook 2222 < big-file.bin
Connection to pbook 2222 port [tcp/*] succeeded!
545.85 real         7.88 user        65.73 sys

(1,073,741,824 bytes) / (545.85 seconds) = 15.007786 Mbps

For those keeping score at home, 15Mbps is much slower than 200Mbps. Even though I had never expected to get anywhere close to the advertised bandwidth, I was pretty disappointed. While 15Mbps was almost twice as fast as my existing setup, it was still rather slow. I tried removing some equipment from the equation, connecting the MacBook Air directly to the office powerline adapter (so the two laptops were, in theory, “directly connected”), but I got very similar numbers. I then wired both laptops directly into the same 100Mbps switch and re-ran the test, and got around 60Mbps, so the laptops themselves were not the limiting factor. I also tried placing the two endpoints in the same room, using different power outlets on the same wall, and the speed went up a bit closer to 25Mbps, although I managed to lose the hard numbers.

So where do I stand on this technology? Disappointed, but likely sticking with it for the time being. Even though the throughput is MUCH lower than I had hoped, it is still better than what I had. And until I can figure out a way to get real Cat5 between the two rooms, I don’t really see any other solution on the horizon. I’m certain that the slow speed is due to some noise in my wiring, but being that the wiring is new within the past 5 years, I’m guessing it is some device creating the noise. I guess I could try to figure out what it is, but I probably won’t. I’ll likely keep dicking around with the devices to see if I can get them to run any faster, and until then I’ll take what I can get. Someday I’ll either get physical wire between the two rooms or find another solution, and then I’ll unload the equipment.. But until then I guess it will have to do.