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Turn on the wireless

Now that everyone has huge MP3 and Windows Media libraries on a computer in the den, they’re craving the comfort that Depression-era radio fans had–to listen to the tunes while camped out on a soft couch.

When I was growing up, the only time you ever heard the word wireless was when grandma was talking about listening to the radio. People born at the turn of the 20th century never got the hang of using the word radio. It was always “the wireless” to my grandma.

Weirdly enough, though, her way of thinking seems to be back in fashion. The only radio waves she cared about were the ones that brought music into your living room. And now that everyone has huge MP3 and Windows Media libraries on a computer in the den, they’re craving the comfort those Depression-era folks had–to listen to the tunes in a soft couch.

Luckily, things are looking up. With two newfangled products, you can turn a computer with a USB port into a digital radio station, and direct your own broadcast on any stereo in the house. The receiver is Creative’s Wireless Music ($249), a receiver and remote control that plug into your stereo and channel the tunes from the airwaves. If you already have a wireless network, you don’t need the second component for this musical extravaganza–but you could still use it to shuttle data and expand your wireless network. It’s SMC Networks’ EZ-Connect Wireless USB Flash Drive ($69.99), a USB device the size of a Bic lighter that doubles as a 32MB USB flash drive and an 802.11b wireless LAN receiver.

It’s a drive! it’s a network card!

A piece of hardware that does two things for the price of one is always attractive. SMC’s EZ-Connect Wireless USB Flash Drive (SMCWUSB32 to its friends) is just such a creature. Plug it into any Windows XP computer and it’s a 32MB memory key for shuttling data around. Install the right drivers, and it’s an 802.11b Wireless LAN network card, ready for hooking up to any wireless hotspot or creating ad-hoc wireless networks with its host computer as a server.

In multiple tests, I found it painless to install and hook up to wireless networks. The only gripe I had was that it makes you enter any WEP encryption keys twice (full strength-encryption uses more than 20 random hex codes, which are devilishly hard to type in even once). But that gripe aside, it did a tolerably good job of sending and receiving network traffic across two floors of an 80-year old timber-framed house. Sure, it’s slower than the .11g cards around, but it’s compact, and for really bad connections, the package comes with a three-foot USB extension cord so you can mess with the antenna till the reception gets good. (Something else that my grandmother used to do with her wireless set, come to think of it).

For around $70, the EZ-Connect Wireless USB Flash Drive is a cracking good idea for any light data shuttling and wireless network needs. But in my more specialized wireless digital music scenario, it was exactly what I needed to broadcast music through my house. All it needed was the right receiver.

Receiving loud and clear

Creative’s Wireless Music is a three-piece combo. The receiver that plugs into your stereo is about the size of two DVD cases, and it’s worked by a hefty remote with a large backlit LCD screen. Controlling the whole shebang is media server software that you install on your Windows-based PC, and which streams digital audio through your wireless network. It supports 802.11g or .11b networks, and in our tests, it had no trouble streaming even larger high-bandwidth MP3 and WMA files.

You set up the unit by temporarily plugging it into a USB port while you install the software. At the end of the setup process, the software scans for wireless networks and you select the right one from the list of available ones in your neighborhood. You can then unplug the receiver and take it to your music center. You can use either digital audio or yellow-and-white RC jacks to hook it up, and the unit ships with a Y-cable that converts RC jacks to Walkman-style mini-jack.

To play your tunes, you use the chunky remote control to scroll through alphabetical listings of artists or songs. There’s a four-second lag between selecting a song and hearing it, but it comes through loud and clear, and the mute button works instantly. Better yet, the remote uses radio frequency controls, so it works more reliably than most TV and stereo remotes, even from a different room.

Of course, it’s not like the old days, when stentorian announcers would interrupt to tout the benefits of Lady Esther Face Powder and other products from the underwriters. But I suspect that won’t be coming back into fashion anytime soon. Some things are best left in the early 20th century.

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