Yesterday we discussed why it's a great idea to connect your HDTV or Blu-ray player to the Internet, or to get a media steamer - to give you a lot more to watch when there's nothing on or as the first step to cutting off your cable monopoly. ("Why Connect Your Home Theater to the Internet?")
But how do you connect your home theater equipment to the Internet when your computer and Internet modem is in some back room?
A couple of weeks ago I described "How to Hook Up A Wi-Fi Router - and Why." In order to either wirelessly or wire connect your home theater gear to the Internet, you need a router connected to your cable modem.
Fortunately, most newer Blu-ray decks, "smart" HDTVs and media streamers have Wi-Fi radios built in. But, some don't. If Wi-Fi isn't built in (and ask before you buy), you will need a Wi-Fi "dongle," a small thumb-sized antenna you insert into the a USB jack on your Blu-ray deck, HDTV or media streamer.
But Wi-Fi suffers from two flaws as far as connecting it to a home theater gadget is concerned.
One flaw is the potential health hazards I described last week.
The other Wi-Fi shortcoming is, for video streaming, Wi-Fi is slow compared to a wired connection. Think of transporting Web content - music, video, data - as liquid being sucked through a straw (the straw being Wi-Fi). Streaming data or audio - music - is a thin digital stream, like water or soda, which is easy to suck up through a skinny straw.
But the data that makes up video (which includes multi-channel digital audio) is more like a thick milk shake (like a Wendy's Frosty), which is impossible to suck through a skinny straw.
As a result, movies or TV shows often stall when streamed over Wi-Fi, creating annoying pauses in your viewing as the data stream "buffers," or catches up after clogging the skinny Wi-Fi straw.
For thicker video milk shakes, you need a wider straw. A wired connection is just such a wide straw, and delivers data twice to four times faster than Wi-Fi.
The Powerline solution
But, you say, your router is nowhere near your TV gear, in a back room. You can't run an Ethernet cable through your entire house just to connect your Blu-ray player or HDTV.
Calm yourself. No need to string out 200 feet of Ethernet cable. Use your home's electrical system using a system called Powerline to transmit Internet data.
Powerline is a ridiculously simple Internet connectivity solution and solves any potential qualms you have about the health or speed limitations of Wi-Fi.
A Powerline kit consists of two small boxes, each with a two-prong AC jack and at least one Ethernet jack. You plug one box, or module, into an AC outlet by your router - and it has to go into a wall outlet, not an outlet strip - and you run an Ethernet cable to this Powerline module from your router.
Then, you plug the Powerline partner module into a wall AC outlet by your AV gear and run an Ethernet cable from it to your HDTV or Blu-ray player.
And that's it.
Your Internet signal gets funneled through your home electrical system. Some Powerline kits run data at 200 Mbps (megabits per second), some at 500 Mpbs. The faster the data rate speed, the more consistent the video streaming. At any speed, Powerline will deliver a more sure-fire video streaming experience than Wi-Fi.
One caveat. All homes apparently have two types of electrical lines coming in. If the jack by your router and the dock by your TV aren't on the same line – and there's no way to tell beforehand – you may experience problems only an electrician can solve. If Powerline doesn't work and the electrical work to put the two jacks on the same line is too expensive, you'll have to use Wi-Fi.
The Powerline kit in the picture is the latest from Linksys, the PLSK400 ($120). As you can see, the 200 Mbps PLSK400 module you connect to your HDTV gear has four Ethernet jacks, which lets you connect up to four (duh) connected devices in your AV stack - your HDTV, your Blu-ray player, your media streamer and your videogame console.
Other Powerline solutions include (many of which oddly carry some variation of AV500 as part of their name):
Belkin AV500, a 500 Mbps single-Ethernet jack kit ($130)
Belkin VideoLink 3, a 100 Mbps kit with three Ethernet jacks ($100)
Belkin VideoLink, a 100 Mbps kit with a single Ethernet jack ($90)
D-Link DHP-501AV, a 500 Mbps single Ethernet jack kit ($160)
Netgear XAVB5001, a 500 Mbps single-Ethernet jack kit ($160), which I got and installed for my mother-in-law, and which has performed flawlessly
Netgear XAVB5501, a 500 Mbps kit with a single Ethernet jack but equipped with an extra AC outlet so you can plug something else into the same outlet
Netgear XAVB5004, a 500 Mbps system with four Ethernet jacks in a small set-top box rather than in the jack like the pictured Linksys ($180)
Even if you don't want to cut your cable connection, Powerline and a connected home theater device can bring you nearly every movie or TV show you'd ever want to see. You'll never again complain about there being nothing on.