If you want to extend your Wi-Fi network to the far end of a large home, the best way is to run a network cable there and connect it to another access point (or Wi-Fi router). But running network cables in an aesthetically pleasing way is a challenge, so the second-best way is to get a pair of power-line adapters, such as the recently reviewed Actiontec PWR511K01, and another access point. Or you can get the ZyXel PLA4231 500 Mbps Powerline Wireless N Extender.
The ZyXel PLA4231 is basically a two-port power-line adapter that comes with a built-in Wi-Fi access point. This means apart from being able to host two other wired network devices in some remote part of your house, it can also create a new Wi-Fi network there for wireless clients. Per the HomePlug AV IEEE 1901 standard, the ZyXel PLA4231 should provide data speeds of up to 500Mbps. In reality its speed is, unfortunately, much lower than that, both for wired and wireless clients, due to the lack of Gigabit Ethernet and dual-band Wi-Fi support.
To add injury to the insult, at a street price of around $120, without a second power-line adapter included, the ZyXel PLA4231 is not cheap.
If your home network is already power line-ready, the ZyXel PLA4231 is a decent addition thanks to its two network ports and built-in Wi-Fi. First-time power-line buyers, however, will find it a better deal to get an Actiontec PWR511K01 kit, which costs just $50, and a separate budget Wi-Fi router or an access point.
Design and features
The ZyXel PLA4231 is not the first power-line Wi-Fi extender kit I've seen. A couple of years ago I reviewed the Netgear XAVNB2001, which offered a similar feature. The Netgear, however, supported only the HomePlug AV Powerline standard, which caps at just 200Mbps, while the ZyXel PLA4231 supports the HomePlug AV IEEE 1901 standard (also known as Powerline AV 500), which offers up to 500Mbps.
In reality, however, the ZyXel PLA4231 is not much faster than the older Netgear XAVNB2001 because its network ports are regular Ethernet, which is capped at 100Mbps. This means that at most a wired connection using it will have a speed of 100Mbps, not 500Mbps. The situation would improve a great deal if the PLA4231 supported Gigabit Ethernet, instead. In its defense, the Actiontec PWR511K01 doesn't support Gigabit Ethernet either.
The ZyXel PLA4231's built-in Wi-Fi supports the 300Mbps dual-stream single-band 802.11n standard and works only in the 2.4GHz frequency. For this reason, the real-world output speed is also much lower than 300Mbps. I wish it supported dual-band to also offer a Wi-Fi signal on the faster 5GHz band.
Unlike the Netgear XAVNB2001, which comes in a kit that includes a second power-line adapter, the ZyXEL is a single unit. This means it's useless just by itself, as you need at least two adapters to create the first power-line connection. For this reason, first-time power-line users need to purchase another power-line adapter with the ZyXel PLA4231. You can get basically any power-line adapter on the market but it's better if you get that supports the same standard, such as one on this list. I tried the new ZyXel with a few power-line adapters from different vendors, including the Actiontec PWR511K01, and it worked with all of them. Most existing power-line adapters come in a kit of two, however. ZyXel also has a Powerline AV 500+ adapter of its own, the PLA4205, that will be reviewed later.
The PLA4231 has a snap-on design and is relatively compact but not compact enough to keep the power socket area clear, so it might obstruct access to adjacent receptacles. On top is an array of small LED lights that show the statuses of power, Wi-Fi, power-line connectivity, and the two Ethernet ports. The two network ports are located on one side of the device. As mentioned above, they don't support Gigabit Ethernet (1000Mbps), just regular Ethernet (100Mps), so it can't take full advantage of the 500Mbps Powerline AV 500+ standard it supports.
On other side of the PLA4231 are a power on/off button and two smaller buttons. One of them is to reset or change the device's encryption, and the other is for the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) feature that helps with the setup process.
Setting up the ZyXel PLA4231 is either very easy or a challenge, depending on your situation.