Powerline adapters are getting increasing coverage in the technology sphere as an ingenious home networking solution, but are they actually any good?
Do they do what they promise – namely turning your wall socket into an internet connection and providing internet access across the home?
The reality is that in most cases, powerline adapters will deliver an at least acceptable and often very good internet connection at distance from the router, often allowing for a wired connection with strong bandwidth and consistency. In older houses with worn circuitry, or lots of electrical interference, powerline adapters can not work so well, but these cases are comparatively rare.
Most people will get the connectivity they need with powerline adapters. In most homes they will deliver a superior connection to Wi-Fi, especially the further you get from the router, and when they work well, will be almost as good as if you were plugged into the router with ethernet directly.
Let’s look at powerline adapters in more detail – how they work, when they work well, and when they don’t work so well, so readers can make an informed decision as to whether it’s something they’d want to use in their home.
How Powerline Adapters Work in Brief
We assume that most readers of this blog post have at least a general idea of how powerline adapters work, but for anyone who is not completely sure, we’ll go over how they work in brief.
Powerline adapter kits most often consist of a pair of adapter plugs, one of which is plugged in and connected to your router, the other of which plugged in and connected to your device.
The two adapters then communicate through the electrical wiring of the house to deliver a wired connection to the plug at the receiving end.
They are a clever way of bypassing Wi-Fi and getting onto a wired connection, except that it’s mostly the (hidden) electrical wiring of the house that’s sending the data, instead of having to run long ethernet cables through the house.
See the video below for a good 2 minute demonstration of how powerline technology works.
Advantages of Powerline vs Wi-Fi
Using powerline adapters can have some great advantages over staying on Wi-Fi particularly when you are getting further away from the router, perhaps on a different floor or several rooms away.
Here are some of the main benefits of using a powerline adapters instead of using Wi-Fi:
Better Connection – Powerline adapters get you on a wired connection, which are generally always more stable and consistent than Wi-Fi, usually delivering higher bandwidth and lower ping than Wi-Fi, particularly at distance. Wireless signals always drop out the further they get from the router, and the more obstacles, like walls, that they have to pass through. Wired connections don’t have this same problem.
Less Congestion – Being on a wired connections also means your device has it’s own dedicated, uncluttered communication channel with the router. Wireless devices all have to share the same bands or “space”, which can lead to lagging and buffering at busy peak times when lots of people are using the internet in the home.
Better For Streaming – More consistent bandwidth means it’s easier to stream in HD with powerline adapters vs using Wi-Fi at distance from the router. They don’t usually deliver the full bandwidth of direct ethernet, but they often come close, often delivering 75-99% of what you’d get plugged in next to the router.
Better For Gaming – A more stable connection with lower ping is also better for gamers vs Wi-Fi. When they work well, powerline adapters can deliver almost as a good a ping as if you were plugged in right next to the router. See our article where we tested this.
Multi-Port Models – Powerline Adapters are available with multiple ethernet ports as well, so you can connect up multiple devices on wired connections at the receiving end. See our Product Comparison Table where we link to more advanced models with 2 and 3 ethernet ports.
Wi-Fi Functionality – Other models are also available which have Wi-Fi features as well as wired ethernet ports. In other words, the wireless powerline adapter models can also produce a cloned wireless access point at the receiving end, as well as having ethernet ports, so you can connect portable devices like iPhones and tablets to this closer, and stronger, access point.
As a caveat, all of these things are true with powerlines as long as the wiring in your house is good enough for the adapters to properly and consistently communicate. We will cover this more in a section further below
Powerline adapter models are available with multiple ethernet ports and/or wireless funtionality to allow for more connectivity options.
Some Powerline Adapter Models
Here are links to some TP Link powerline adapter models, starting with entry level ones up to more expensive advanced models.
- Entry Level – TP Link Nano Powerline – Simplest powerline adapter model – 1 ethernet port, no passthrough, 600Mbps maximum theoretical speed.
- Multi Port Model – TP Link TL-8030P Model – More advanced model with 3 ethernet ports to connect up multiple devices, plus passthrough plug so you don’t lose the plug socket you use it in.
- Wi-Fi Model – TP Link TL-WPA 8630P Kit – Even more advanced model with 3 ethernet ports, passthrough socket, plus W-Fi functionality, so it also produces a cloned Wi-Fi access point at the receiving end to connect portable devices to.
See our pages on Wired and Wireless powerline adapters for a full breakdown of all the TP Link models, with links to these and other models.
If you prefer different brands, we also have pages on Netgear and Tenda, two other popular manufacturers:
- Click here to view our page on Netgear powerline adapter models
- Click here to view our page on Tenda Powerline adapter models.
Times When You Can Benefit From Using a Powerline Adapter
We have already covered some of this in the section on powerline adapters vs Wi-Fi, but we’ll reiterate some of the points again here.
Here are some situations when powerline adapters can really benefit you:
When You Are a Long Way From The Router – If you want to run a wired connection, and/or are getting an inconsistent Wi-Fi signal and you are a long way from the router, powerline adapters can be an ideal home networking solution to get a better internet connection even several rooms away from the main router.
Powerline adapters allow you to bypass Wi-Fi altogether and get on a wired connection, but by using the house’s existing electrical wiring instead of having to run long cables along walls or down stairs.
For Higher Bandwidth Activities – Like HD streaming or regular downloading. Again powerline connections can allow you to extract more of the available bandwidth out of your router versus using Wi-Fi at distance, allowing for a better experience when you are doing things which need more bandwidth to run smoothly.
Online Gaming – Powerline adapters can be a key solution for online gamers who take what they do seriously or semi-seriously and need low latency or ping to play online smoothly. When working well they will usually beat Wi-Fi hands down in terms of stability and keeping ping down. Again their benefits become more obvious the further you are from the router.
Multiple Devices in One Room – One of the more advanced multi-port powerline adapter models can come in handy when you have several high bandwidth usage devices clustered together in one room, and you want to be able to feed a wired connection to them all (eg. PC, games console and streaming device all close together in one room). High throughput models are available with 2 or 3 ethernet ports to allow for this.
For connecting multiple wireless devices as well, again models are available with Wi-Fi functionality as well as wired ports to connect up tablets, iPhones etc.
Congested Home Networks – Powerline adapters can also benefits gamers, streamers and people working from home (Skype, conference calls etc.) on busy home networks where there is a lot of traffic use. Because they feed a wired connection to the device, they can help to avoid problems with congestion that can arise on Wi-Fi when lots of devices are having to share the same space.
When Might Powerline Adapters Not Work So Well?
We’ve gone over all the potential benefits of powerline adapters, so now we need to cover the cases when powerline adapters may not work so well.
It is true that they will not work well in all houses and cases. There are some situations when powerline adapters don’t work well, or don’t work at all.
Here are some of the more common things which can stop powerline adapters working:
- Very old or very large houses with complex and/or worn circuitry.
- Any house or apartment where the electrical wiring is in poor condition, or poorly installed.
- Any house where the adapters are installed in parts of a house running off separate meters or feeds (eg. some annexes, outbuildings, extensions etc). Comparatively rare.
- Powerline adapters can run off separate rings/phases, but there may be a drop in throughput (speeds) each time they cross over into a new phase.
- When they are plugged in close to high energy use appliances, like washers, dryers or electro-motor tools. Moving them away from these devices often solves this problem.
- If they are plugged into extensions and power strips. They work much better plugged directly into wall sockets – see our post on this.
- For more on this, see our article on the times when a powerline adapter will not work, as well as our troubleshooting guide for solving problems which do arise.
- Also, in larger homes and where you want to stay on wireless connections only, a Wi-Fi Mesh System can be a better alternative to spread reliable wireless coverage over a larger area.
In these cases, you may either get much slower speeds, or no connection at all as the adapters simply cannot communicate with each other across the circuitry.
You’ll know this is the case if the “pair” buttons on each adapter don’t light up when plugged in, showing they haven’t “found” each other on the circuitry.
The whole issue of powerlines and circuitry is complex; here is a quick summary:
- Powerline adapters will not work between separate residences and apartments within the same building that are on separate feeds.
- Powerline adapters may or may not work across different circuit phases within the same house. Most of the time they will, but there are exceptions.
- When they do work across phases, there can sometimes be a drop in speeds each time they cross over to a new phase.
- They will not work when trying to connect two places supplied by separate meters/feeds.
- See our full article on using powerline across different circuits for a very detailed breakdown of this issue.
The only guaranteed deal breakers for getting powerline adapters to work are the wiring and circuitry issues – you can’t get past this if the wiring isn’t in good enough condition or the circuitry does not allow the adapters to communicate. All the other issues can usually be worked around.
I have personally used powerline adapters in many different houses and apartments, and the only two occasions when I have had problems with them was indeed in older houses, where the wiring wasn’t in great condition, meaning I sometimes had connection drop outs.
The Bottom Line on Powerline Adapters
For many users in many houses, powerline adapters can be a very clever and helpful home networking solution to deliver better internet in parts of the home where the Wi-Fi may struggle to reach consistently.
They can be an ideal solution for online gamers and streamers especially, in that they can deliver the higher bandwidth and lower latency connections needed versus staying on Wi-Fi with it’s unreliability and signal drop outs.
That said, in some cases they might not work as expected, most often because the wiring they are sending data on is too old and worn to allow for a consistent signal to be sent between the adapters.
In most modern and semi modern homes you shouldn’t have to worry about this. In older houses or ones with poor quality or complex circuitry, then you might not be able to get powerline adapters to work.
In these less common cases, other networking solutions like range extenders, Wi-Fi mesh systems, or wiring directly with long cables may be a better option.