Broadband support makes Dreamcast dreamier

The unit lets you plug your Dreamcast into your cable or DSL modem or any network for high-speed gaming. Currently only Quake III Arena, Pod Speedzone, and the still-in-beta Unreal Tournament support broadband, but Sega says it is considering broadband support for any games that would be enhanced by the higher bandwidth.

In fact, Sega may be shifting its support to games, according to reports in Japan that the company is discontinuing production of Dreamcast this spring. The publication Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports this week that Sega plans to stop accepting orders for Dreamcast consoles on 1 April, but will manufacture units until it runs out of components. Sega reportedly expects to continue to sell Dreamcast software.

"We expect quite a few titles this year will support the broadband adapter," says Gwen Marker, a Sega spokesperson. She commented before the news broke about Sega's Dreamcast decision.

The broadband adapter plugs into the side of the Dreamcast after you pop out the existing 56K modem. You can buy it now at Sega.com, and it will be available from retailers in the US in March.

"Response so far has been really good. We kind of expected the Quake fans would be particularly excited," says Marker.

Calling all twitch freaks

And that's the audience that will really help broadband take hold in the console market, says Mike Goodman, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group.

"First-person shooters will see the greatest impact of broadband versus dial-up," he says. "If you have two players of comparable skill--one on dial-up, the other on broadband--99 times out of a hundred, the broadband player will win."

Gamers are getting hooked on speed, agrees Schelley Olhava, senior analyst for IDC. "A lot of gamers believe that they can't have a good gaming experience without broadband," she says.

In the end, broadband is the way the online world is turning, Goodman says. "Right now, 10 per cent of the US online market is broadband; by 2005 it will be 40 per cent," he says.

Broadband is also the next step for the console makers that claim their products' role will stretch beyond gaming machines, and right now Sega's got exclusivity.

Competitors gear for Sega

Sega dominated the market from the 1999 launch of the Dreamcast until Sony's PlayStation2 made its debut last October. But Sony is still promising a broadband connector, as are Nintendo for its GameCube and Microsoft for its still-unreleased X-Box.

Sony may be a bit preoccupied with other issues, suggests Yankee Group's Goodman. "Given their difficulties in getting systems out, some of Sony's focus may have slipped off the broadband adapter," Goodman says.

IDC's Olhava expects Sony will have a broadband adapter available by the time Microsoft ships the X-Box (with broadband support). A year from now, four competing consoles may be sporting high-bandwidth Internet access, she notes.

A hands-on look

So, how well does Sega's broadband adapter work? Impressively, once all the settings are in place. I had to move my Dreamcast from the living room to the den where the PC and its cable access reside before connecting to the Net. This means you need a TV within reach, or at least the video and audio connections to plug your Dreamcast into your PC.

Snapping out the 56K modem and popping in the broadband adapter took less than ten seconds. That's good, because the next step took extra time.

I thought tweaking Internet settings on a PC was painful until I had to enter my static IP address, gateway, subnet mask, and primary domain name server settings into the Dreamcast via the controller. That requires punching one character at a time on an online keypad. Ouch. It might be worth the $US25 for the Dreamcast keyboard.

Luckily, the Dreamcast saves these settings, even transferring them across games, so you only have to do it once. People with dynamic IP addresses have a much easier go of it, because the adapter automatically picks up dynamic settings.

Beware keyboard envy

Once up and running, though, the speed of play is impressive. Quake III Arena ran seamlessly, letting me frag other gamers without having to invite them into my house or sacrificing screen space.

The first couple of Pod Speedzone races ran a bit choppy, with other drivers appearing and disappearing from view. Then I discovered this was because I joined a server 1000 miles away in Canada. Broadband is fast, but it's not infinite. When I switched to a game hosted in my own time zone, game play smoothed out.

Chatting with other players again had me wishing for a keyboard. It took frustrating minutes to type out "R U using a keybrd?" as the other racer entered entire paragraphs just for cruelty's sake.

Despite the $US60 price tag and some limitations of the adapter and the Dreamcast, gamers will love having a broadband door finally opened for consoles. All the benefits of PC broadband have come to Dreamcast. As Goodman puts it, "It's always on, gives you a fast connection, and makes playing those fast twitch games that much better."

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Joel Strauch

PC World

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