TP-Link AV1200 Gigabit Powerline Kit Review
It is truly a wonderful time to be a consumer looking for home wireless networking equipment. Not only is the list of manufacturers growing, but they are stepping up their game and releasing fantastic products at a seemingly experimental rate. The sheer number of options on how to improve a wireless home network is also growing faster than most can keep track of. A perfect example of this is the all-new TP-Link AV1200, which is a powerline adapter, range extender and 3-port wireless hub all-in-one device.
While powerline adapters are not exactly new, this next generation of powerline-based products are really intriguing as the performance that they can offer promises to be every bit as good as what mid-level 802.11ac routers are capable of. What's even more impressive is that by including a wireless range extender, this nifty networking device has the potential to remove the other great weakness inherent to powerline adapters: extending networks beyond the range of your home's 110V wiring by creating a new wireless network hotspot at that furthest possible point.
For the wireless 802.11ac networking side of the equation is handled by the WPA8630 powerline receiver, which is rated for 867Mbits/sec on a single 5Ghz 802.11ac network and 300Mbits/sec on a single 2.4GHz 802.11n network. As an added bonus, this receiver comes equipped with not one but three 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports so up to three separate devices can be directly attached to it.
This combination of performance, flexibility, and price is certainly what makes the AV1200 Gigabit Powerline ac Wi-Fi kit unique, but as we have seen in the past not every product can live up to its potential. To be blunt, can the AV1200 (as we are going to call it for brevity's sake) actually do all that it says it can or will it have the same problems that have plagued earlier generation powerline adapters from all manufacturers? That is the burning question that we are sure most consumers interested in this product will be asking, and that is what we intend to find out. If it can do everything it promises, the AV1200 may just be one of the most technologically innovative networking products to be released in recent memory.
The AV1200 consists of two parts: the TL-WPA8630 combination range extender and powerline transceiver, and a TL-PA8010P powerline transceiver. Basically, the PA8010P is connected to a wall outlet near your router and is directly connected to said router via a RJ45 cable. This device transcodes the standard RJ45 Ethernet packets into 110V-based packets that are then sent down the 110V lines and outwards to all wall outlets on the circuit. On the other end, the WPA8630 is meant to be plugged into a wall outlet that is on that PA8010P's circuit and then coverts the packets back into standard Ethernet packets or 802.11 wireless packets, which are then sent these to the connected wired or wireless devices.
Exactly how it does all this takes a bit of explanation, as unlike typical range extenders there is a secondary standard at play. Powerline adapters first came about in 2001 and since then have grown and developed over time, and most now utilize the HomePlug standard. Now in its fourth generation, the Advanced HomePlug AV2 standard is capable of 1800Mbits/sec connectivity. TP-Link literature states that this kit is rated for 1.2Gbit/sec or 1200Mbit/sec, which is a more realistic real-world rating but it is still higher than the 10/100/1000 port these devices use for connection to the router! As such, 1000Mbit/sec is a more realistic 'maximum' and in testing 800-900Mbit/s connection speeds were often encountered.
Powerline adapters work by creating pulses on the 110V line itself, across all three wires, which then get carried over the copper cabling where they are picked up by the other device, decoded and then forwarded as standard Ethernet or 802.11 wireless packets. This additional overhead does mean higher latency, but in a home usage scenario the difference is minor at best.
It's worth nothing that this latest powerline adapter standard is capable of MIMO, so multiple packets coming from multiple transceivers can be sent over the same 110V power circuit. Unlike wireless connectivity speeds - which are heavily dependent on the amount of 'clutter' (walls, TVs, etc) in between the sender and the receiver - powerline is not as variable. Now that is not the same as saying that it is as capable as Ethernet, since as the amount of noise on the 110V circuit will impact overall transmission speed, but generally speaking this wired connection is more capable than wireless at longer distances.
The major weakness is that both the base station and remote stations have to be on the same circuit. Basically, if the wiring in your house is such that each room is given its own circuit at the circuit breaker then the distance the powerline signal can travel will be limited to that room and only that room. Luckily, in many homes, multiple rooms make use of the same 10/15/20 amp circuit. However, this is the main downside as wireless signals have no such limitation. It's also worth mentioning that neither device can be connected directly to a power line conditioner (power bar, UPS, etc.) as the packets will be 'seen' as noise and scrubbed from the line. On the positive side, this starter kit can be expanded up to 16 devices so it does have a lot of potential for future growth.
This is where the beauty of the 2x2 802.11n/ac WPA8630 adapter comes into play, as it can be located fairly far from the router and can then extended its range by using the wireless network. The only downside is that the devices that you wish to connect to the WPA8630 must be wireless capable, otherwise you will not be able to connect to it from anything further than what your RJ45 cable allows. Of course, as it does have three built-in ports, running a short RJ45 cable is not that big a deal.
As for the devices themselves, both the WPA8630 and PA8010P are about the same size as the typical wireless range extenders. However, they are a touch thicker than most as the internal components require larger heatsinks and more internal volume. As you can see, both units are passively cooled devices, but they do have copious amounts of ventilation built directly into their white chassis.
Another positive note is that both of these devices are directly powered via the 110V power outlet, but unlike the Linksys RE7000 that we recently reviewed, the base station makes use of a power pass-through configuration that allows another device – e.g. a router, PC, lamp, etc – to be pluged directly into the front it. While it is limited to 16 amps, this is a nice little bonus as it means neither device will actually take up a wall outlet.
The WPA8630 makes use of two proportionately large external antennas, which can be configured so as to not be 'blocked' by anything connected directly to the front of the unit itself. Another neat feature is that while the PA8010P only has one RJ45 connector (as that is all it needs to connect directly to the router), the WPA8630 comes with three RJ45 10/100/1000 ports. This is a nice little bonus as unlike the typical wireless range extender - which comes with a paltry one - this device can be directly connected to three devices and be used as a fairly decent network hub/bridge. Brilliant stuff.
The WPA8630 also comes with WPS abilities and a simple push of the button will allow any WPS-capable device to be connected to it. It's also nice to see that both units have a nicely lit diagnostics panel built right into the front of them. This means that with just a glance you can see if the wireless network is active, if the 3 ports are active, and if the device is actually properly connected to the PA8010P.
Internally, both halves of this kit rely upon the Qualcomm Atheros QCA7500 controller for the SoC and the powerline controller. This particular controller has been the cornerstone of many powerline devices recently, and it is an excellent choice.
For the wired Ethernet ports, both make use of a Qualcomm Atheros AR8035-A, which a single 10/100/1000 controller.
In order to offer three gigabit ports, the range extender also uses the Qualcomm Atheros QCA8337 switch. We would love to show you the wireless range extender's 802.11ac controller, but during the removal of the heatsink the inscription on the top of the controller was removed...clearly the thermal interface material is bloody strong. If were to hazard a guess, it would be a Qualcomm Atheros-based IC as well.
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