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Phonex NeverWire 14 Powerline Ethernet Bridge Review

The NeverWire14 is an interesting new type of home networking device that uses the standard household electrical wiring to carry an Ethernet signal. This means that any device with an Ethernet port can be connected to any other Ethernet device in another room of the house without the problems of additional wiring. This approach offers untold flexibility, for example you can have an ADSL router in one room with your main PC, and use the NeverWire 14's to allow your Xbox or PlayStation2 to have Ethernet access in the lounge, with no need to run Ethernet cable around the house. The term 'Ethernet Bridge' means that the unit provides no routing or connection sharing abilities, but simply act as a means of joining two pieces of Ethernet cable together via a medium which in this case is the mains wiring.

The Ethernet nature of the units also means they should be of use to cable modem users. For example if your Internet connection is via a set-top box, plug a NeverWire14 into it and then use the Internet in any other room of the house.

Power-Line Networking (PLC) is not a new idea having been around for some years, but the explosion of home networking has resulted in the ease of use improving and costs falling. The system very simply works by encoding the Ethernet signal and overlaying this onto the standard 230V AC mains signal. The range of these home based units is around 150 feet. To ensure the neighbours cannot snoop on your traffic, 56-bit encryption is available as standard.

It is worth noting that while the PLC may work for neighbours who are the same mains phase as you, it is very likely they will be on a different phase therefore the NeverWire units are not ideal for bridging connections between buildings unless you know the two buildings are on the same phase.

This review covers the basic Phonex NeverWire 14 twin-pack product which contains two routers that are needed for a working bridge. Additional single units can be purchased to allow more devices to use the network.

The Basic Package

The basic twin-pack is just two identical NeverWire 14 boxes. Each unit comes with a mains lead and a 1.5m long RJ-45 Ethernet patch cable. The units themselves can be wall mounted or left free standing.

A simple to follow QuickStart guide and a much more detailed 76 page manual is provided. There is no CD, as there is no software to install or any settings that need configuring to get the unit working. The NeverWire 14 is one of the most 'plug and play' devices that we have seen.

The Ethernet ports on the unit are just 10Mbps, but given the maximum bandwidth the units can transmit over the mains is 14Mbps then this is understandable. Each unit includes a PC/Hub switch which is in essence an 'uplink' switch found on many Ethernet hubs/switches, allowing you to plug the device into a hub or switch without the need for a cross-over cable.

Obviously the fact that this unit is using the mains and linking to a computer means you need to be sensible in locating the base units. In other words they should not be used in bathrooms, near sinks or any other source of water. Phonex also recommend against plugging the devices into the same sockets as a halogen lamp, light dimmer, touch lamp, fluorescent light or a surge suppressor as these devices have been known to cause interference that may slow down data transfer.

Configuration

The Quick Start guide, which is just 3 pages long (it actually includes two separate guides) covers everything you need to know to get a secure power line network running. The 'Instant Install' option has just two steps, first plug all your NeverWire 14 units into the mains, then secondly connect the units to your computing devices. This very simple set-up method which will take all of two minutes has a minimal level of security, the second guide explains how to enable the security.

The top of the unit includes the two control buttons and its five LEDs. The Secure button is used to set-up the encryption system and the Diags button lets you run various tests on the hardware, e.g. Pressing it for 1 or 2 seconds will run a sequence of self-tests. The run down on the LEDs is:

The main Quick Start guide comprises of only ten very simple steps which are:

  1. Check you have at least two NeverWire 14 units
  2. Check you have the mains leads and Ethernet cables to connect your devices
  3. Plug each NeverWire 14 into the mains
  4. Check the units work, indicated by the PLC R/A LED, and the Secure LED will blink every five seconds
  5. Setting up the security: press and hold the Secure button for five seconds, the Secure LED will now blink rapidly
  6. Visit every other NeverWire 14 unit in turn, pressing their Secure button for one to two seconds. The Secure LED will flash for five seconds then go solid, indicating it has locked onto the encryption. When finished with all units visit the first unit and hold the Secure button down for five seconds to exit the security set-up mode.
  7. Switch the PC/Hub button to the correct setting, 'PC' for linking to a PC or XBox, 'Hub' for linking to an Ethernet hub or switch
  8. Turn off the power to the devices that will be connected to the NeverWire 14 units
  9. Plug in the Ethernet cables
  10. Turn all the devices back on and check that you have connections. The ETH L/A LED flashes when there is network traffic.

This very straightforward set-up should only take five to ten minutes and will require no configuration changes on your computers assuming that they had a previously working networking configuration. The full manual covers many of the different network set-ups that the kit can be used for, and helpfully provides details on setting networking up for Windows 95/98/98SE. Once the units are set-up they retain their security information even if they are unplugged and moved to another room.

Uses for the NeverWire 14

The simple and transparent nature of the NeverWire 14s means they are very versatile, and can be used in home networking situations where wireless or extensive Ethernet cabling is undesirable. Some possible examples of how the units could be used are detailed below.

Connecting an ADSL router to a computer in another room

What is likely to be the most common set-up, allowing you to use a computer in another room, that is perhaps out of range of wireless hardware. The NeverWire14 simply plugs into your ADSL Ethernet router and the computer on the other side of the bridge will see the router as if it were locally connected. The diagram shows also that you can add an Ethernet hub or switch to allow the bridge output to be shared between multiple machines, for example linking two offices on different floors.

Connecting a games console to a USB ADSL modem via a computer

This set-up shows how you could use a games console in one room, and the computer with a USB or even a PCI ADSL modem in another room. The 'sharing computer' runs Microsoft Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) or another software router package, and the NeverWire 14's allow the games console to see the shared connection. This set-up is perhaps ideal for people who have a single computer and games console, and do not want to run their main computer behind an Ethernet router.

Connecting a games console using the NeverWire14 and ADSL router

Another set-up showing how a games console can be linked in another room without adding greatly to the wiring bundle around the house. The console will see the ADSL Ethernet router just as if it were in the same room and linked by an Ethernet cable.

Extending range of a wireless network

Perhaps the most ambitious network set-up is a combination of Ethernet, wireless and power line technology. The sort of use envisaged for this set-up would be a home office in the front of a house, with the power line networking used to carry the Ethernet data to a wireless access point located in the rear of the house to give good coverage out into the rear garden.

Diagnostics Software

While the units are shipped without any software CD's, there is a diagnostics utility that can be downloaded from the Phonex Broadband website. This software allows you to see which units you have on your power line network, and test the speed of the connection between them. Additionally the software allows you to manually set-up the encryption used in the security, though if using just Phonex brand units you are recommended to use the security set-up built into the units.

The software is straightforward showing the current network layout. You can select two units by clicking them when holding down the ALT key, and the speed test sends 1,000 data packets between the selected units in both directions. The console software is useful when determining what are the best mains sockets to use, a higher throughput of 8 Mbps was achieved by simply moving one unit off of a mains extension block to a full wall socket.

Performance

The units have run flawlessly, and are easy to forget about other than the blinking of the traffic indicator LEDs. Even on a hot summers day the casings are cooler than most ADSL routers' power bricks.

Gamers should not be concerned as the latency did not increase noticeably compared to a traditional wireless network which often adds a couple of milliseconds latency compared to a fixed Ethernet cable.

Verdict

It is not very often that such a simple to use product appears on the market. Though unfortunately this does come at a price of £176 (June 2003) for the basic twin pack, which is more than the cost of running Ethernet cabling. It may however still be cheaper than paying a professional to install a long run of Ethernet cable and provide more flexibility. For anyone who has just decorated or does not want ugly Ethernet cabling snaking around the house the price is much more justifiable.

Wireless networking is often the way people link devices around a house, but often the hassle of understanding what you need hardware wise and how to set it up causes much angst. Additionally, building construction materials can cause problems with wireless technologies. HomePNA (Phone Line Networking) as offered by the BT Home Network 1200 is another option for many, but with cordless phones growing in popularity not every room in a house will have a phone socket these days, whereas it is very rare to find a room without mains cabling already installed.

Hopefully, as the sales increase and the range of power line networking hardware increases we will see corresponding drops in the per unit pricing. At present though the price is still attractive for people who have tried wireless networking and found the size or construction of their house precludes using wireless.


Prices: £150.00 - Phonex NeverWire 14 Powerline Ethernet - Twin Pack
£80.00 - Phonex NeverWire 14 Powerline Ethernet - Single Extension Unit
Prices listed above are excluding postage and VAT.
 
Links: http://www.solwise.co.uk/net-powerline.htm
 
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.