The $70 That Made My Home Office Work

(And kept me from pulling my hair out)

Over the past year I have struggled A LOT with getting fast and consistent internet to my home office, and a few other rooms. One problem has been that the wireless card in my Microsoft Surface laptop doesn’t seem to work as well as my phone or Mac laptop’s. The other problem has been the countless walls, a floor and part of a garage that separate my office from the odd corner of our home where the router lives. In retrospect, maybe I should have drilled some holes and moved the router but I crossed my fingers (more like dug in my heels) for a hardware solution and thank goodness have finally found one!

I tried a number of routers and even linked some Apple Airports to help solve the problem but slow or inconsistent speeds persisted in some parts of the house no matter how much expensive equipment I threw at it. I was about to go a little nuts and get a top of the line whole home WiFi system that would have cost a small fortune, or, go through the hassle of running ethernet through the walls. Then I stumbled across an inexpensive piece of equipment that I could not believe exists. It's an adapter you can run from your modem or router into an electric socket and convert your home's existing power lines into a hardwired network. Say what? Yup! It’s called powerline networking  and it actually works pretty well!

There are a number of brands and models of powerline networking adapters. I went ahead and got the Netgear Powerline 1000 set. It’s the best one I saw at Target and I like their 30 day return policy! We get 180 MBPS out of my router (thank you Comcast) and while the powerline adapter doesn’t transmit all of that, it is still consistently delivering 25-35 MBPS all the way up into my office. That’s about 16% of the original speed and occasionally slower than a WiFi connection could be, however, it is more than fast enough for video conferencing and 99.9% of the downloading and uploading I do. Most importantly it has been absolutely reliable!

It’s worth mentioning that some outlets work better than others, many outlets on the top floor do not work as well while some that are close to the original source work better. There are also some models that can additionally create a new WiFi hotspot so prices can swing pretty far — from about $30-$130 at the extreme ends. As with any of this equipment, be sure to check return policies before buying, I've had a lot of hardware not live up to what I was hoping for. I got extra lucky with these and how they worked with the outlet behind my desk and am so happy I thought it was worth a public share!

I am so glad to have put connectivity issues behind me, If you are still reading then you're probably going through some of the same struggles. There's a lot of solutions out there and, with the right gear, I'm sure it is something that you too can lay to rest. I've tried a whole slew of hardware and commented on a lot of them below, hopefully it can help you find the right fit or avoid a bad purchase.

Apple Airport Extreme: My current set-up is simply a good modem connected to an Apple Airport Extreme. It handles gigabit speeds and I’ve seen used ones for $50-$150. From all the routers I have tried this is one of the two that emits as much speed out of the WiFi as I can get when hard wired and the signal penetrates more walls and goes further than even my more expensive efforts. It also has the ability to be paired with another airport to create an extended network. Funny thing is it works so well my airport express is currently on a shelf collecting dust rather than unnecessarily adding it to the network. A point worth noting is that any network extending airports must be paired to the one that is connected to the modem or hardwired in to create a roaming network.

Apple Airport Express: In my experience, the WiFi speed out of these is about a third of whatever is coming into it. They can be used to extend the network of other airports and have a number of other great features like airprint and airplay but thanks to bluetooth and modern printers those last points may be obsolete. I did use one for a while as a wireless antenna for my office and it excelled in that role! It worked even better than the powerline adapter in fact, I just really don’t like clutter and got tired of looking at it. One day when the kids have tons of gadgets on the network I’m sure I’ll set it up to extend from the Airport Extreme.

Arris Surfboard model number SVG2482AC: Much like the Airport Extreme, the speed that came in was the speed that came out, and it too has gigabit capabilities. It’s a good piece of equipment and is a modem/router combo but at a $250 price tag, I expected a little more out of its signal strength. I used this while using the Airport Express as a WiFi antenna in my office and most of the house got good coverage. It was just missing a few key rooms and thus prompted my latest network changes. Were it located in the middle of our home I’m sure it would have worked just fine.

Arris Surfboard SB6190: Pretty good bang for the buck in this inexpensive router/modem combo but despite its claimed capability, it was trimming our speeds about as much as the airport express and had the same disappointments in its signal broadcasting that the more expensive surfboard came with.

Network extenders. These are pretty disappointing. Can they extend your network, sort of. They take in a wireless signal and put out a wireless signal, much like linked airports would, but these have to give the signal they put out a new network name. That’s fine if you just want it to power a device or two that doesn’t move around but at that point I think you’re better off with powerline adapters assuming the necessary plugs get the speed you need and some powerline networking devices can also create WiFi hotspots.