Microsoft Unveils High-Speed Home WLAN

By Eric Griffith

September 16, 2003

Microsoft has returned to the wireless home networking market with new products using 802.11g -- including one tied in directly to the Xbox game console.

Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, has had great success over the years with small lines of hardware geared toward consumers. It was no different a year ago when they launched a line of 802.11b Wi-Fi products. For a while it looked like that might be all they'd ever do with Wi-Fi hardware.

Today, however, the company unveiled its Wireless-G line, a 54Mbps 802.11g-based line up of products for home networks that includes:

  • Wireless Base Station (model MN-700, $109 street price) -- a router with integrated 4-port Ethernet switch and 802.11g access point; it runs the embedded Windows CE .NET 4.2 OS, which Microsoft announced this year as a competitor to many routers running Linux and proprietary operating systems.
  • Wireless Notebook Adapter (model MN-720, $84.95) -- a PC Card for laptops
  • Wireless PCI Adapter (model MN-730, $84.95) -- an internal card for desktops
  • Wireless Notebook Kit (model MN-820, $179) -- includes the router and the PC Card for a few bucks less.
  • Xbox Wireless Adapter (model MN-740, $139) -- gets the Microsoft-made Xbox gaming console in on wireless head-to-head games (via ad hoc mode) or connected to the Internet for running the Xbox Live service.

All of the PC products will be available in stores as soon as this weekend, with some online outlets already taking advanced orders. The entire line of PC products will use Broadcom's AirForce 802.11g chips. The previous line of 11b products had chips from Intersil.

The Xbox Adapter -- which is using an Atheros chip -- won't be out until the first week of October. As of November, if it's purchased with the $49.99 Xbox Live Version 2 Starter Kit, customers can get a $40 rebate.

Major innovations are sparse on the computer unit. The real selling point, of course, is the Microsoft name. The use of CE .NET 4.2 will let the company's Auto Update service automatically patch upgrades to the unit just like Windows Update does to XP. Microsoft is proud of the software wizards for setup -- it's always a good bet Microsoft can get something to work well with Windows.

Security includes Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). In fact, Microsoft continues to be the only vendor that ships with WEP turned on by default. Users are forced to create a WEP key when running the setup wizard software. The firewall in the router supports stateful packet inspection (SPI) and network address translation (NAT), and includes parental controls which don't require any extra fee.

The Xbox Adapter goes further than its wireless-game-adapter competition, by linking directly into the Xbox on-screen dashboard. That's a perk of being a "first-party" product -- the Microsoft Wireless Broadband group created the product with help from the Xbox developers. Third-party adapters have to have the network SSID or security eky configured on a PC before attaching it to the Xbox, but this unit can be setup right on the TV screen. The Xbox adapter, however, only supports WEP, not WPA, at least for now. Future updates to the adapter can take place, however, using the Auto Update feature, just like with the PC products.

Most third-party Ethernet-to-wireless adapters support the Xbox, especially those meant to be "game console specific." Linksys has an 11g version out, D-Link's with 11g is on the way, and Buffalo Technology announced a unit today (the AirStation 54Mbps Wireless Ethernet Converter -g, model WLI-TX1-G54, $129 street) that also brings 802.11g to the Xbox and other Ethernet peripherals.

Microsoft's Xbox Wireless Adapter, however, can only be setup on an Xbox -- something the company says was requested by customers -- but once configured it can be used on other Ethernet-equipped products such as Playstation 2 or a network printer.

All of the Microsoft Wireless-G products will be for sale for slightly higher retail price at www.microsoft.com/broadbandnetworking and at major retailers including Best Buy, Amazon.com, Buy.com, Target, Staples, Circuit City, Radio Shack, and CompUSA.



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