TP-Link = TP-Stinks

High speed internet gives me the ability to select and watch movies without having to put on pants. It offers more than that, of course — I use it to check my email, to browse the internet, and perform other online activities — but I did all of those things years ago when I had dial-up internet. I can rent movies from Red Box or Family Video, but those places require pants. If I were to draw a Venn Diagram of the two (“Things high speed internet allows me to do without putting on pants” and “Places to rent movies”), the overlap would be my living room.

When we purchased this house almost four years ago I called the cable company had the cable modem installed before we moved in. When I met the installer he asked me where I wanted the jack installed. I showed him a very specific spot; not “somewhere on this wall,” but “right here.” The man went into the attic alone and a few minutes later a drill bit poked through the wall nowhere near where we had agreed upon. Later when I asked the man why he had asked me in the first place where I wanted the jack installed, he laughed and then handed me the bill.

If high speed internet allows me to watch movies in my home, wireless internet allows me to watch them anywhere within my home. Unfortunately due to the location of my cable modem jack my wireless router sits in an upstairs bedroom, which is great if you happen to be watching movies in the upstairs linen closet or while in the bathroom, but not so great downstairs (which is where we spend the majority of our family time). Wireless internet still works downstairs mind you, and the difference in speed is hard to tell, but the little icon on my phone that shows four bars when I’m standing next to my wireless router only shows two bars when I’m downstairs. This can all be filed under First World Problems, but it really pisses me off.

I don’t know how to run wires in between the walls of a two story house. In our old house, it was easy — I just climbed up in the attic, drilled a hole, and fed some cable down in between the walls. In this house I can’t even access the attic above my living room. A friend of mine suggested I call the cable company and have them add another access port downstairs. Calling the cable company to have them put a new jack in the wall because they put the last jack in the wall in the wrong place seems counter intuitive.

This is where the TP-Link Wi-Fi Range Extender comes in.

The TP-Link is a network-expanding device that comes with two modules. The first module gets plugged in to your wireless router. The second module gets connected to any other power outlet in your home. This somehow allows network traffic to traverse across the electrical wiring inside your walls. As a kid I always wondered how aspirin knew where to go in your body to stop the pain; apparently it uses the same method of traversal as the TP-Link. It sounds a little like black magic, and a lot like “too good to be true.” (Spoiler alert…)

As we all remember from grade school, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. In the world of networking, this translates to a single network cable. The most efficient path between two devices is a single network cable. The TP-Link is almost like the opposite of that, a device that blasts network traffic into the electrical wiring of your home. It doesn’t sound terribly efficient and based on my short experience with the device, it isn’t. The idea reminds me of those old network hubs that broadcast traffic to every single port, except in this instance the hub is your entire house.

The TP-Link comes with two modules, a master and a slave. Both devices need to be plugged into wall sockets (and not extension cords or power strips), and the master has to physically connect to your router. In my house, that meant plugging the one half of the TP-Link to my wireless router upstairs, and the other half downstairs in the living room. The second module offers both wired and wireless connections. With the second module installed in the outlet next to my downstairs television I planned on using a short ethernet cable to connect the device to my television, allowing me to stream movies across the network. The wireless signal in the downstairs living room is good enough for streaming most movies, but everything grinds to a halt whenever I stream high definition videos. My hope was that the TP-Link would solve this problem.

Physically installing the modules was simple. Once both modules have been plugged into the wall, you have to push a button on the slave module that advertises its existence (“Here I am!”) followed by a button on the master module to finish the connection (“Here I come!”) If you’ve been paying attention, in my house this meant running downstairs to press one button and then back upstairs to press the other. Once the network connection has been established you can log into the system using your computer and make changes to the configuration. After you make changes you must reboot the device, which breaks the connection. Each time the connection breaks you have to go back to the slave module and press the button and then back to the master module and press the other button. I also found that if your power flickers (ours does a couple of times a week) that also resets the connection, which means another trip downstairs and another trip upstairs. In the 24 hours I tried using the TP-Link I had to do this six times.

So let’s get down to the brass tacks, shall we? Let’s say that the speed of my internet while plugged in directly to the upstairs router is 10/10, and a wireless connection while standing in the same room is a 9/10. My wireless internet connection prior to hooking up the TP-Link in the downstairs living room was probably a 6.5/10. With a physical network cable connecting the slave TP-Link to the television, I would say the rate was approximately 3/10, and wireless speeds were 1/10. The connection was so slow that for a while I was convinced it wasn’t working at all.

I’d like to put this in perspective for just a moment. Imagine sunglasses that actually magnified the sun’s rays instead of shielding your eyes from them, or a winter coat that makes you feel colder rather than warmer in the winter. I’m not talking about a product that doesn’t do anything; I’m talking about a product that actually makes things worse, a product that does the opposite of what it advertises. This isn’t a case of being confused about how a product is supposed to work, or having trouble configuring it. This is a case of a product not delivering on a promise.

After deciding my wireless wasn’t all that bad in the first place, I tossed the TP-Link thing in the garbage.

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