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Devolo MicroLink dLAN Starter Kit Review

The dLAN starter kit is a pair of small adaptors that plug into the mains of a premise allowing you to use the mains cabling to carry LAN traffic without the need for unsightly network cabling. The ability to network without cables has been around for some time with 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networks. The HomePlug technology used by the dLAN kit overcomes the problems of getting a wireless signal through the many walls that a house may have.

Using the mains network to carry data has been around for some years now, but it has only started to develop in the last couple of years. We reviewed an earlier entrant to the market sometime ago, the Phonex NeverWire system. The HomePlug website http://www.homeplug.org has plenty of information for those wanting to find out about the concept. It works by using the mains wiring to carry a high frequency RF signal; fortunately the electricity meter in a house effectively stops the signal from reaching other houses in the area. HomePlug has been linked to Broadband over PowerLine systems, and while the RF components are very similar, the power levels required for the HomePlug kit are smaller and the localised nature of the set-up should help to mitigate any problems. For example, rather than have the RF signal on the wiring from the substation to many houses in an area, it will only be those houses with the HomePlug kit. This review is not going to be an investigation into the mysteries and urban myths surrounding mains borne data, but rather a look at what it can do for you the end-user.

The concept behind the dLAN starter kit is blindingly simple, if you can connect two devices using an Ethernet cable, then you can replace the cable with the two adaptors in the starter kit. This means no need for a network cable running into the room where the X-Box or PlayStation 2 resides; use the dLAN kit to connect the games console back to your broadband router. Extra dLAN adapters can be used to network up to around ten machines realistically, allowing you to link computers across many rooms of a house. There is one real limitation, and that is the bandwidth that is currently possible using the kit. The current standard is around 11Mbps-13Mbps, which means it will generally out perform an 802.11b wireless network.

What your money buys you

The retail pack comprises of two dLAN adaptors, which as can be seen from the box are not unlike a lot of power supply bricks, haveing the plug built into the device. The other parts supplied, are a manual, a CD-ROM with software and two CAT5e Ethernet patch cables for connecting the two units to something at either end.

The adapters comprise of a blue translucent plastic case with a few vent holes, 6 small LED's and an Ethernet socket. The LED's flash away indicating what is going on. The adaptor physically is slightly wider than a normal plug so you may not be able to plug it in next to another power brick. 

One extra on the CD-ROM is a 60 day trial version of OrangeBox web filter software. The software can be installed on a PC and acts as a web site filter, only allowing access to sites that fit the selected guidelines. It also supports a black-list of sites, and a white-list, allowing you to precisely control what sites your children view. A licence for using this content filter after the 60 day trial costs 30 Euros.

Configuring the dLAN Starter Kit

Here is the big surprise, there is no configuration to do to get the kit up and running. You simply take the kit out of its box and plug it in. The dLAN adapters ship with a default encryption key of HomePlug so if you have left the key at its default setting just plug in more units. If you have previously changed the key then the software supplied on the CD needs to be used to configure the encryption - more on this later.

One very likely scenario for using these units would be if your ADSL line was a very long line, and you had to use the master phone socket to connect an ADSL router. You can simply plug the LAN port from the router into a dLAN unit, and then plug its opposite number into a power socket in the room where you actually want to use ADSL. Then you can plug the computer directly into the adapter, or if using multiple computers, plug the adapter into an Ethernet hub/switch. The units have no IP presence at all, they are transparent to any TCP/IP network, so no need to worry about the units using up an IP address or interfering with DHCP requests.

We mentioned encryption, and using some software earlier in the review. If you put the CD-ROM into a PCs CD drive, it will auto-run and offers to install the MicroLink dLAN Configuration Wizard, which is used to set-up the encryption. MicroLink EasyShare software is a bit of software that that makes sharing files across a local network simpler, and provides an instant messaging facility between computers on the LAN. The final bit of software is MicroLink Informer which informs you about what dLAN adapters can be seen over the mains network, and what speeds they are all connected at. The software is also available for Linux and MAC OS X and can be downloaded from the MicroLink dLAN website.

The configuration wizard is really only needed if you want to alter the default 56-bit encryption key. The first step when it is runs can be seen below. Before you can change the key for a unit, it requires you to connect to each unit, which is done by entering the Security ID located on the underside of the adapter. The bit that caught us out, and is worth mentioning here is that to access each unit you need to be on the same LAN segment. This means that the dLAN adapter you want to be connected to must be visible via an Ethernet cable. To program the remote device, either install the software on a second machine or bring the adapter to the computer that has the software already installed.

Setting the encryption key is very easy once you've connected to an adapter, simply enter the string, confirm, and press NEXT to store it into the unit. If you run the MicroLink informer software, after you've plugged all your units back into their respective power sockets you will see the network devices listed.

Performance

The units are perhaps the most reliable kit we have had to date, even though the review units were mounted in two 4-way power strips they functioned fine, and the through put was generally around 650KB/sec or 5.2Mbps (which is a clear 1 to 2Mbps faster than 802.11b wireless kit). The throughput was reduced to around 410KB/sec when a 10m long extension lead was used to host the HomePlug adapter. The review units have been put to good use by allowing a noisy old PC that is used as a mail-server to be placed in a cupboard in the hall, thus making the homeoffice a lot quieter to work in.

We have tried gaming across the bridged connection the dLAN kit provides, and you cannot really tell the difference between using an Ethernet cable and the units. The difference in latency is about 1 to 2ms; this is mainly due to the encryption used on the kit. The connections are also very stable, with no packets lost from a long sequence of 150,000 pings. Range wise, generally most properties should have no problems, the kit should work with cable distances of up to 200m, enough for the average house. We also found the Devolo kit to be fairly tolerant of using mains extension boards, something which slowed the speeds down greatly on the older Phonex kit.

We did find the adapters themselves can get a little warm, though they have run all the way through the summer, and never really felt any hotter than the average PSU brick.

Conclusion

The most significant thing about this kit is that you simply forget that it is working. You can easily unplug it, and move the adaptors around and plug it back in, it may not have the freedom of wireless, but once you have tried to keep a wireless link working through four or more brick walls you will be looking for another solution.

We only wish that wireless hardware was so plug and play as the HomePlug kit appears to be. The kit at under £100 for the two adapters, and £50 for any extra ones, is not that cheap, but cheaper than the previous Phonex Neverwire system, and when you consider that you can use the link to join several computers on different floors the price seems much more reasonable.

The future for HomePlug looks set to bring HomePlug AV with much faster connections, which should open up the world of high bit rate video streaming between computers in the same house. That said we found running a 4Mbps MPEG-2 stream across the link was no problem.


Prices: £77 – Devolo dLAN Starter Kit (£90.48 including VAT)
£41.30 – Devolo dLAN Ethernet (£48.53 including VAT)
Links: http://www.devolo.co.uk
Where to Buy: See our DSL Hardware FAQ

Andrew Ferguson


andrew@thinkbroadband.com

The contents of this review should not be relied upon in making a purchasing decision - You should always discuss your requirements with your service provider and hardware supplier.