Configuring WLAN devices has gotten decidedly easier with each new generation of product, but until now, just about every product out there has required some degree of interaction with a computer-based configuration utility or an interface accessed via a Web browser in order to get the device functional. The $79 Linklsys Wireless-B Game Adapter WGA11B may be the first product to buck that trend — at least in many usage scenarios.
The physical design of the WGA11B is light, short and squat, resembling a child’s walkie-talkie or an FRS radio. There’s a toggle to switch the LAN port between crossover and straight-though mode, which means you’ll never have to carry a crossover around with you (and who does?). Unlike many wireless Ethernet adapters I’ve worked with, the WGA11B runs fairly cool, and is only slightly warm to the touch.
The WGA11B sports a fixed position, inch-and-a-half long antenna, and the face of the device is dominated by a large, bright two-digit green LED display, which displays either the unit’s operating mode or the active wireless frequency. (My display’s clear cover kept coming unattached on one side, but a dollop of superglue took care of that.)
If the LED is what in large measure makes the WGA11B look different, then the blue button on the unit’s side is what makes it work different(ly). The button can be used to set the device for infrastructure mode operation, as well as cycle through all eleven WLAN channels in ad-hoc mode.
Incidentally, there is a setup utility included on CD-ROM, but in many cases you may not need it. Specifically, if you’re willing to use basic network settings–in this case meaning WEP security encryption turned off and SSID broadcast turned on — then you can get by without the utility entirely.
If you can function within these two limitations, using the button to move between modes and channels is quite easy. The display begins flashing and there’s about a one second delay before the numbers start heading north. You can cycle through the 11 ad-hoc channels and infrastructure mode (plus additional network profiles, which will be explained in a bit) by pressing the button repeatedly or simply holding it down.
Out of the box (well, plastic bubble pack, actually) I was able to set the WGA11B participate in my existing infrastructure network using nothing but the select button on the side of the unit. It participated in a network with a D-Link DWL-614+ wireless router and worked without incident attached to both Xbox and PlayStation 2 consoles, and there were no performance problems apparent during extended play with either one. The WGA11B automatically clones the MAC address of the Ethernet port it’s connected to.
I did not have the two WGA11B devices necessary in order to truly test a head-to-head ad hoc scenario, but the use of a site survey application confirmed the operation of the WGA11B in ad-hoc mode, as well as the numerous channel changes I invoked via the button. When you switch between the different channels in ad-hoc mode, the WGA11B automatically changes the SSID (e.g. ‘linksys3’ for channel 3, or ‘linksys8’ for channel 8) to ensure that you’ll be able to successfully connect to another WGA11B. An indicator light illuminates solid to indicate that the WGA11B is communicating with an access point or other WLAN device, eliminating much of the “Am I connected?” guesswork.
As easy as setting and changing the WGA11B configuration may be, it’s utility would be somewhat limited if it forced a user to forgo even the limited security benefits of WEP encryption and a masked SSID. Fortunately, the WGA11B offers a way for you to have your cake and eat it too.
Through the use of the setup utility, you can pre-define up to three network profiles which allow you to enable WEP encryption and a specific WEP key. You can then use the button to toggle through the profiles– P1, P2, and P3, which are of course retained in non-volatile memory when the device WGA11B is unplugged.
My only regret about the product is that it doesn’t support 802.11g, so including it in an 802.11 g infrastructure mode is going force you into mixed mode and knock down your overall WLAN performance. Linksys indicated that the WGA11B’s selector button and digital display features will likely find their way into future 802.11g-based products.
Oh, there are two plastic stand that come with the product to keep it upright, but there was no obvious way to attach them to the unit and they’re not mentioned in the manual. It turns out that you can pull out the built-in rubber pads and substitute the plastic bits.
Overall, the WGA11B Wireless Game Adapter is an innovative product which pays real convenience dividends, especially if you’re an avid online gamer that needs to repeatedly configure and reconfigure a WLAN device as you move between venues. Even if you don’t need that kind of convenience, the WGA11B is a good choice for gamers.