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WD Livewire Powerline Networking Kit

Western Digital’s Livewire powerline AV networking kit provides a reliable, effortless method of extending a home network using the existing electrical grid rather than running ethernet cable or using WiFi. Our full review compares the Livewire networking performance and benefits against 100 and 1000 mbps wired ethernet as well as Wifi G and N.

January 15, 2012 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Western Digital Livewire
Powerline AV Network Kit
Manufacturer
Western Digital
Street Price
US$80~$90

The WD Livewire is a powerline networking kit based on the HomePlug AV standard, allowing users to connect devices via the electrical grid within a building. Powerline kits have been around for awhile, but are now more popular than ever due to the ever increasing number of network capable devices popping up in homes all over the industrialized world. It’s not a revolutionary technology that is going to replace traditional methods, but it does provide an alternative when WiFi or wired ethernet are undesirable or difficult to implement.

Ethernet is a tried and true way to network but older homes, apartment buildings, and condos are not wired, and adding it after the fact is no easy task. Running cable inside existing walls is a nightmare, and having them on the outside is an eyesore. WiFi, despite being almost ubiquitous these days, remains a fickle mistress with issues regarding range, interference, reliability, and security. There has also been an increase in concern over the amount of RF noise produced by wireless routers and various networked enabled devices that are everywhere these days


The box.


Package contents.

The Livewire kit consists of two HomePlug AV adapters which look very familiar to anyone versed in networking technology. They resemble network switches because they effectively are, only they’re connected to one another through power outlets rather than a long ethernet cable. They’re about the size of a 3.5″ desktop hard drive, though not quite as long. Each unit has four connectors, so you can plug in three devices to one (the fourth is used to connect it to the rest of your network) and four devices to the other. The two adapters can be as far as part as desired provided they are on the same electrical grid.


Setup diagram.

Setting up the Livewire is incredibly easy. Connect one unit to either a router or switch already on your network with an ethernet cable and plug in the AC cable. Plug in the other unit in a different location and connect it with ethernet cable to the devices that require network access. There is no configuration to be done, no software required (though there is a utility provided by WD), and network connectivity is almost instant once set up.

Western Digital Livewire: Key Features
(from the product
web page
)
Feature & Brief
Our Comment
As easy as plugging in a lamp.
Simply plug the adapters into your electrical outlets to create a high-speed network connection anywhere in your home. No tools needed. No holes in your walls.
Essentially plug and play.
The speed you need to
stream HD.
Media-optimized HomePlug AV technology offers up to 200 Mbps* performance for smooth HD video streaming over your network.
200 mbps would be nice, but only a fifth of that is required to stream HD. Blu-ray tops out at 40 mbps.
Multiple secure connections.
A total of 8 ports means you can connect up to 7 devices and your router, all protected with 128-bit encryption.
Ethernet is inherently more secure than WiFi, and the Livewire allows you to segregate devices connected to it on a separate network.
Expand your home network instantly without running wires.
Create high-speed Internet connections anywhere in your home without running wires between rooms. Just use your home’s electrical wiring to create a network.
Using the existing power grid is a great alternative to running ethernet cables through the middle of your home, though WiFi is the most common alternative.

 

Western Digital Livewire: Specifications
(from the product
web page
)
System Requirements
Ethernet router
AC power outlet
Compatibility
HomePlug AV certified
IEEE 802.3, IEEE 802.3u compliant
Kit contains
Two 4-port HomePlug AV adapters
Two Ethernet cables
Two power cables
Quick Install Guide
CD with WD Livewire utility software
Warranty and support guide
Dimensions (H x D x W) 1.30 x 4.70 x 3.40 inches
32 x 119 x 86 mm
Weight 0.41 pounds
0.19 kg
Operating Temperature 41° F to 95° F
5° C to 35° C
Non-Operating Temperature -40° F to 149° F
-40° C to 65° C
Electrical Requirements Power Dissipation
AC Input Voltage 100-240 VAC
AC Input Frequency 50-60 Hz

TESTING METHODOLOGY

Test System #1:

Test System #2:

Networking Equipment:

File Transfer Suite:

  • Small Files:
    1,250 small HTML, JPEG, and MP3 files totaling 871MB.
  • Large Files: Four large AVI files totaling 4194MB.

Testing consists of timed transfers of two sets of files between the test systems connected on the network in varying conditions. To prevent any drive bottlenecks we used two of the fastest desktop hard drives on the market, the WD VelociRaptor 600GB and the Seagate Barracuda 3TB.

SOFTWARE FEATURES

The Livewire is essentially plug and play; the software provided is fairly simply, used primarily for diagnostic purposes, similar to the utilities included with wireless networking adapters.

The Diagnostic tab provides such information as the MAC address, network name, and firmware revision of the Livewire adapter. Additional powerline adapters connected to the network are displayed along with their rated speed. Under best conditions the utility reported 150 mbps but during testing we witnessed it going as low as 60 mbps. In either scenario the actual speeds were considerably lower.

 

For extra security, you can segregate the adapters onto their own private network. This is in addition to the inherent advantage of a wired network — without physical access it is impossible to be broken into. WiFi encryption on the otherhand is hackable, even with the best encryption protocols available.

File Transfer Performance

Our first test compares the Livewire kit to other networking standards. The adapters were plugged into their own dedicated outlets on the same electrical line without any extra devices being powered by the outlet to give best case scenario results.

The Livewire didn’t exactly perform as expected, given the diagnostic utility was reporting a speed of 150 mbps. In reality, our best result with one or two of the adapters isolated on their own outlet was 66 mbps in our large file copy test, about 20% slower than 100 mbps ethernet, and well short of the gigabit. It still managed to produce results 2.5 to 3 times faster than 802.11g however.

Note we weren’t able to provide 802.11n results as a new router router was recently installed that doesn’t perform any better on the N standard. For what it’s worth, with our old router, 42 mbps was the best result we experienced when copying over a single large file.

Western Digital recommends that the adapters be placed on their own electrical plugs rather than shared with other devices using a splitter or power strip. On the same electrical line, simply placing the adapters on power strips with nothing else connected resulted in a 9 mbps loss in our large file test. Adding three devices to the power strips brought the performance down close to 802.11g levels. Moving the power strips and extra devices onto adjacent plugs rather than sharing had no impact on speed at all.

Unfortunately more likely than not, the adapters will not be on the same line which is best for performance. On separate lines and dedicated plugs, the Livewire was slower by 8 mbps in our large file test compared to running on the same line. The slow down was even greater when the adapters were connected to power strips. Adding devices to the power strip added to the snowball effect, resulting in poorer speeds than WiFi. Interestingly, a power strip with devices connected to an adjacent plug affected speed somewhat as well, though this was not the case when we were testing on the same electrical line.

Assuming you are able to place both units on their own electrical plugs, we expect to see anywhere between 30 and 40 mbps in real world conditions, which, while isn’t exactly impressive, is enough to be considered as an effective replacement for WiFi, at least 802.11g. Powerline doesn’t hold a candle to being wired though, even compared to old fashioned 100 mbps ethernet. The most obvious application is streaming high definition video, which has demands well within the capabilities of the Livewire (it’s no accident that Western Digital also has a well known network video player, the WD TV).

We managed to stream a 22 mbps test clip smoothly over the network in all of our testing conditions except for the worst scenario in which the adapters were on different lines, sharing power strips with multiple devices. Most ripped high definition content is encoded with less than 20 mbps, so you won’t encounter trouble unless you’re trying to stream full Blu-ray backups and the like.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Western Digital Livewire is a pain-free way of extending an existing home network without any fuss. Being able to instantly turn any AC outlet into a network switch gives home users, particularly those who live in larger houses, a simple alternative to WiFi. No, it doesn’t hold a candle to ethernet, especially gigabit, but unless your house has not been dry-walled yet, the wiring is arduous to implement. Livewire skips all of that hassle, piggybacking on your existing electrical system to give you a reliable, albeit slower, semi-wired connection. Like many network and transfer protocols, powerline fails to achieve promised speeds, but even with the 30 mbps you can reasonably expect to attain is enough for most high speed internet services and high definition video files. If you want to be able to move or backup large files quickly, wired gigabit ethernet is far superior.

Powerline has its issues as well, mostly with the electrical circuitry in your house, and whether you share the outlet with other devices. In older homes and large apartment complexes, noisy lines may also affect performance. Combined with power strips, extension cords, etc. you might be able to cripple the Livewire to the point where the speeds are unbearable. However if you provide it with reasonable accommodations, it makes a useful networking addition for video game consoles, networked multimedia devices, etc.

The WD Livewire kit currently sells for US$80 to US$90, which is a fairly solid value if you want to augment your current network without having to run ethernet cables or use WiFi. It’s a bit on the expensive side compared to entry level HomePlug AV units, which typically plug straight into the wall like a battery charger, taking up space around the AC outlet, and provide just a single port. The WD Livewire adapters on the other hand are essentially network switches, allowing you to connect 3~4 devices on each end, and unlike network switches, they don’t need a wall wart. These advantages make the WD Livewire well worth the extra cost over the more basic HomePlug AV products.

Our thanks to Western Digital for the Livewire powerline AV network kit.

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