Benchmarking MoCA: Does coax meet your bandwidth quota?

-December 04, 2012

As I most recently mentioned about a month ago, my primary downstairs (router)-to-upstairs (LAN gear) connectivity scheme is two-fold; "500 Mbps" HomePlug AV powerline and dual-channel 802.11n wireless, the latter with a "wide channel" 5 GHz beacon option. Aside from tethering my laptop, iPad, iPod touch and iPhones to the network, for which I employ Wi-Fi, the other upstairs devices that require connectivity (both to the LAN and Internet) exist within my home entertainment stack there; an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Roku SoundBridge M1000 streaming audio player and Roku HD-XR streaming video player.

While these latter devices all support Wi-Fi as a connectivity option (the M1000 via a CompactFlash-based adapter), I've decided to not further burden the wireless connection that my portable devices already harness, therefore explaining the home theater stack's alternative powerline networking. Specifically, upstairs I'm running a NETGEAR XAV5004 which integrates a four-port switch; its downstairs companion, connected to the router, is a single-port XAV5001.

The powerline setup largely works well, a statement which those of you who've been following my near-decade-long experiences to date with various powerline technologies and generations already know isn't a guarantee! But my Xbox 360, when acting as a Media Center Extender, occasionally spontaneously disconnects from my Windows 7-based Media Center server. And more generally, audio and video streaming playback sometimes becomes degraded-to-nonexistent for some period of time.

I've long wanted to try out MoCA (Multimedia over Coax)-based networking technology as an alternative both to Wi-Fi, to powerline approaches, and to slinging Ethernet cable around (the latter option not even feasible where I'm now living). But until now, I've not lived in a place that had pre-installed coax outlets scattered around the house. Shortly after moving in at the end of September and experiencing powerline networking glitches for the first time, I emailed MoCA's marketing and press relations representative, requesting review units. He responded by sending me two units' worth of Actiontec's ECB2200, one for downstairs and the other for upstairs:

Over the next several posts in this series, I'll document my experiences (and results) benchmarking the Actiontec MoCA adapters against Wi-Fi (5 GHz "wide channel" 802.11n, to be precise), GbE Ethernet, and a pair of NETGEAR XAV5001 "500 Mbps" HomePlug AV powerline adapters. In each case, I'll be streaming both TCP and UDP traffic between a mid-2011 Mac mini and a mid-2010 13" MacBook Pro, in the process leveraging both the latter's Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet subsystems. The common benchmark suite in all cases will be Ixia's IxChariot; the endpoint utilities run on the Apple systems' native Mac OS 10.7 O/S, while the IxChariot client leverages a Windows XP virtual machine running on the MacBook Pro via VMware Fusion.

Brace yourself for a barrage of data, which I look forward to sharing with you (and getting your feedback on). For now, I've got a few thoughts on the ECB2200s; for more, see the user feedback on Amazon:
  • My particular units came with no instructions whatsoever. They weren't retail-packaged, so I'm not sure how closely this situation mimics the typical customer experience. And the omission wasn't a problem in my case; it was easy to figure out which coax connector was supposed to tether to the wall, and the two adapters found and began communicating with each other immediately upon power-up. But I have no idea, for example, what encryption password they're using or how to change it (which might be desirable, say, in some shared-video-feed multi-residence situations). And Verizon FiOS customers similarly will need to figure out how to reconfigure an adapter to mate with the MoCA transceiver built into the fiber modem.
  • The adapters came with two matching Ethernet cables, but strangely enough, no coax cable strands. Given the low incremental expense that such further feature set augmentation would have cost Actiontec, I'm not sure why the vendor dispensed with the coax, considering the potential consumer frustration factor due to the omission.
  • According to the Amazon reviews, the Actiontec adapters don't offer embedded web servers for configuration purposes, unlike competitive devices from D-Link and NETGEAR. Depending on the complexity of your setup (and your particular technical chops) this could be either a non-issue or a non-starter.
  • The Actiontec adapters, unlike the NETGEAR XAV5004 powerline adapter, don't embed a multi-port switch. This isn't a huge deal, but if I decide to migrate from powerline to MoCA, I'll need to purchase a separate five-port switch for the upstairs network node.
  • I didn't personally experience any degradation of Comcast television or Internet service due to the Actiontec adapter being in-line between the wall connector and both the CableCARD and cable modem. Some Amazon commenters, however, report that they need to install a coax splitter (with one split going to the MoCA device, and the other going to the other device(s)) in order to get everything working properly.
  • Finally, although MoCA 1.1 claims up-to-175 Mbps bidirectional speeds (along with an up-to-270 Mbps PHY rate), the adapters' wired Ethernet ports are only 10/100 Mbps-compliant. I've unfortunately run into this situation before ... "200 Mbps" powerline adapters and even some "500 Mbps" units, for example, include only 100 Mbps-peak Ethernet ports as a bill-of-materials cost minimization move. But every time I encounter this, it feels like a deceptive bait-and-switch, promising consumers "peak" speeds that will never be achievable in real life.

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