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by SMC Networks

It’s been 50 days since Microsoft released Xbox LIVE. It’s been three days since January 1st when MechAssault reset the top score boards compiled through online play. To be exact, at the time of this writing, it’s been two days, twenty hours, and forty-five minutes since the scores were wiped clean, yet at this very moment the highest ranking player has 3739 kills to his (or her) name. By my rough calculation, at let’s say 20 kills per game, 15 minutes average game length, not counting the time it takes to boot the Xbox, load the game, and join a team – it would take 46.73 hours of gameplay in order to reach that score. Put another way, a person would have to have been playing roughly 16 hours a day, every day since midnight January 1st. Put yet another way, that would mean that you’d actually spend only 7.33 hours of each 24-hour day not playing MechAssualt on Xbox LIVE. You think that’s bad? Before the scores reset, the top-ranking player had over 20,000 kills. Run the numbers on that one, taking into account when Xbox LIVE was released, and you’ll realize that some poor fellow has been hooked online for 5.4 hours per day for forty-six days. If we pretend that they take the weekend off, and sleep five hours a night, they’ve been playing 9.56 hours per day, five days a week, for almost a month and a half. If those poor souls had paying jobs (which they probably don’t anymore – damn you Xbox LIVE) that paid $10.00 per hour for similar hours, they’d have made nearly $2,500 before taxes, or 12 cents per kill. Fully 40% of their waking weekday hours went into this one game. What does that mean to you? It’s simple. If you meet these guys online, prepare to have your butt seriously walloped. In the words of immortal Tin-Tin, "Oh, crumbs."

But what if you can’t get online? What if you don’t even have the option of becoming addicted to Xbox LIVE? What happens if all your computers are connected to broadband through an 802.11b wireless network? Microsoft can’t help you. When I called and asked for assistance using my Windows ICS ability to connect my console, Xbox LIVE tech support quite forcefully informed me that they didn’t support wireless, that 56k was fast enough for surfing, but not for LIVE (they were under the mistaken impression that I was talking about a satellite service, such as DirectPC, as opposed to a wireless network within my home, which certainly is fast enough). Thankfully, my editor saved the day. The SMC Networks EZ Connect Wireless Ethernet Adapter SMC2670W

arrived on my desk with a note from Santa Clause, talking crap about how I no longer had any excuses for turning down all of his challenges to whoop me in a game of MechAssualt. Eager to prove myself a worthy challenger, I skipped home early, plugged the device into the back of my Xbox, and found myself in a fierce battle with the best, fighting for that coveted position, that all powerful rank in the MechAssualt boards – number 5237.

For the most basic of functions, the SMC Networks wireless adapter is a truly plug and play device. The instant you plug in the power, three little lights appear for easy diagnostics. One light comes on when it has power. The other comes on when it’s plugged into the Xbox (and the Xbox is turned on). The third comes on when it automatically detects and logs into your wireless network. In the most basic of levels --meaning no security, no MAC address screening, nothing – I went from being severed from humanity (roommates, wives, husbands, and live-ins don’t count) to fully connected and blowing them up in the 31st century without doing more than matching up the right plug to the right hole. It was only after a few hours, when I decided that I’d activate a few security features, that things began to go hairy.

Aside from a bit of difficulty reading the Xbox LIVE MAC address information (you can find that in the network setup area of Xbox LIVE), the adapter was able to log onto the network on the first try. The little device adapts the MAC address of the device it’s connected to, as opposed to retaining its own, so that you only have to enter the MAC address of the computer or Xbox it’s attached to. In this respect, it’s a remarkably invisible device.

Unfortunately, trouble reared its head when I activated WEP encryption. Oh, sure, the system ran, and is currently running, beautifully once successfully set up. That, however, is often easier said than done. You access the adapters setting through one of two ways. The first is a Windows based utility that you install on your computer and subsequently use to log into the wireless adapter. The other is web based, in which, according to the manual, you use a standard web browser in order to access the setting via an HTML based interface. Supposedly, you simply type in the IP address of the device into the menu bar, and press return (or enter, as you like). I was never able to successfully use the HTML based feature, and not for lack of trying. I tried with three computers – two IBMs and one Apple ibook – and three different major web browsers. I tried connecting the device directly using an Ethernet, in case what it really meant is that it would log in through the cable of a connected computer. No luck. I tried accessing the little guy in every conceivable way. Wireless network plugged in; wireless network unplugged. Wireless network unplugged after the adapter has been reset to default. No success. Luckily, the Windows based adapter is another story all together.

Upon initial setup, when the adapter was successfully logged into the same wireless network as the IBM, the EZ Connect program was able to detect it and log in without a problem. However, as far as I can tell, the instant the adapter is no longer able to connect to the 802.11b network for any reason (including having the wrong WEP key), the software loses track of the little guy. That translates into a rather substantial problem. When setting up your WEP encryption keys, you have to get it right the very first time. If you have a setting slightly off, and the EZ wireless adapter can no longer log into the network, you won’t be able to re-log onto the adapter to correct the error until you’ve disabled WEP security on your wireless router, and the adapter itself has undergone a slightly confusing reset process to restore it to factory defaults (meaning it wipes the WEP key from memory).

The instant I entered the wrong WEP key, I would lose the ability to detect the adapter – and it would remain that way until both of the above had happened. This was a repeatable development, with consistent results – I could tell without testing in which conditions the computer would be able to find the adapter, and when it wouldn’t. I can only assume that means that had WEP been activated when I first brought the device into the house, it would not only have had difficulty logging into the network (naturally) but I would also have been completely unable to access the adapter’s setup features without first disabling my WEP security. What you end up with is sort of a chicken before the egg problem. You can’t adjust the settings without it being able to access the network. You can’t access the network without adjusting the settings.

The biggest problem with that is that there is no mention of it in the manual, not even when it explains the basic purpose of WEP encryption. As far as I can tell (based on this unit) you must disable all WEP before you can configure your adapter, in which case the problem goes away. Just as I can assume that the HTML based setup feature either doesn’t work, or that the manual doesn’t explain how to access it well enough, I can only conclude that the device is working properly, but that the manual is severely lacking. Had I not been willing to dismantle my network in order to figure out the problem, disabling WEP on my own, my only recourse would have been to call tech support with a non-functioning piece of equipment. While I can think of several reasons the system may be designed the way it is (including issues that are not related to the adapter, but instead related to how my wireless network is configured), the lack of detailed documentation would be crippling.

Finally, I was able to get the system up and running by basically following a specific sequence. First disable all WEP on the network. Then login and configure the WEP settings on the wireless adapter. Then login and re-enable WEP on the wireless router using the right key. Then set up your computer. That done, you can expect trouble free access. Once up and running, the adapter continues to do so without fail – and without notice. As with all computer equipment (keep in mind, the EZ Connect is designed to connect any Ethernet enabled system – not just Xbox – to a wireless network) things went very smoothly until they went wrong. That’s a ‘"duh" statement. Without WEP, the adapter is nearly seamless plug and play. With it, you have to know a bit about what you’re doing, and expect a little time during setup.

So now Xbox LIVE is at my fingertips. The power to communicate rests in a tiny microphone balanced on my head, an ever-useful mute button, and the stream of information flowing through my skull to the router directly behind me (cancer, anyone?). I sent an e-mail challenging my editor to join my friends list. And you know what? He wrote back to tell me he was on vacation -- out of town. I’m convinced he’s merely cowering in some dark corner, dreading the day he gave me access. But that’s ok. Everything’s running fine now. I can wait. In the mean time, it’s back to blowing up anyone with a voice mask I can’t understand. Besides, I’m falling behind in my hours.

Aaron Stanton   (01/12/2003)


Ups: On a simple, no-WEP network this is a true plug and play device; fast connection; invisible MAC assignment; reliable once configured.

Downs: Inadequate documentation; difficult working with WEP setup.

Platform: PC / Consoles