As the latest wave of gaming consoles have offered more powerful hardware and more sophisticated online experiences, PC gaming has seemed on the defensive. The first-person shooter, once the exclusive denizen of the PC, is already firmly entrenched on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, while role-playing games and even real-time strategy titles are popping up on consoles as well. But Microsoft is hoping to breathe new life into PC gaming. The company's Vista operating system and a new Games for Windows drive is a one-two punch aimed at making the free-for-all of PC gaming a more standardized plug-and-play experience--in other words, a lot more like playing games on a console. The Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows ($20 list) is the latest salvo in that campaign. It's a tiny peripheral that lets you use your any of your wireless Xbox 360 accessories on your Windows XP or Vista PC.
The biggest thing about the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows is its mouthful of a name. The device itself is a sliver of white plastic that's smaller than the tiniest of cell phones. It's featureless except for a single green LED and a button, and connects to your PC with a 6-foot long USB cable (once again, going "wireless" always seems to require wires). As such, the Gaming Receiver is not much different from a dongle that might have come with your wireless mouse or keyboard, except that it's designed to communicate with any and all Xbox 360 wireless peripherals. To date, that's a pretty exclusive list: the standard 360 wireless gamepad, the Xbox 360 Wireless Headset, and a wireless racing wheel for racing games. If and when additional 360 wireless peripherals are released, however, they should also be compatible.
We loaded the software package from the included CD and then plugged the Wireless Gaming Receiver into our Windows XP machine. After installing the software from the included CD, just plug in the dongle. We tried syncing the two wireless controllers and a headset by pressing the Xbox 360 Guide button on the former and the power button on the latter. At first they didn't connect--but then we heard our Xbox 360 power up in the next room over. Lesson learned--after unplugging the 360 (leaving the PC as the only compatible device in the area), we tried again, but the green lights just spun on and on. Thankfully, hitting the wireless sync button on the receiver and the devices--that little key with the three wavy lines--got them talking to one another. Once synced, tapping the Xbox 360 Guide button will show a small status icon on the computer screen, similar to the Xbox Live pop-ups on a 360. It reveals how many controllers are connected (up to four will work, but we only tried two), as well as the battery status and any other relevant info.
Not content with a single PC, we also tried the wireless receiver on a second XP machine and a brand-new Vista box as well. On the second XP PC, we were unable to get the wireless headset working. It was recognized, but Windows kept asking us for a compatible driver--which we could neither locate on the disc nor download. We did find an updated version of the software on Microsoft's Web site (version 126.96.36.199, versus the version 1.00.81.0 that ships on the CD), but the problem persisted after installing that version as well. Truth be told, that particular XP machine has quite a few issues, so the fault is likely attributable to the PC more than the wireless receiver. Still, we did notice quite a few complaints on Microsoft's own forums while investigating the issue.
When we went to install on a Vista machine, the new OS pre-emptively warned us that the newer software was available, so we were able to install that one straight off the bat--and it worked perfectly. But we did find it strange that the "check for updates" function that pre-installs with the CD version did not notify us that the newer version was available on the XP machine.
On older games, however, your options will be limited. If the individual title supports gamepads, you won't have a problem, but otherwise, you'll be out of luck. We tried configuring F.E.A.R. and Quake 4 to work with the 360 controller using the in-game control menus, and had mixed results. Some of the hard buttons were usable in F.E.A.R., for instance, but we weren't able to map the analog control sticks for movement. Quake 4 was a total bust--we couldn't map any of the controls to the pad. Yes, Microsoft wants to position the Xbox 360 compatibility as a forward-looking feature for new games, but it would've been nice if the company had provided some way to support legacy titles. One poster in the aforementioned Xbox forums suggested that the Pinnacle Game Profiler was a good workaround. The third-party software is free to try, but it'll cost you $20 to buy the full version.
The wireless headset is a bit more flexible--it should work in pretty much any situation where headphones or headsets would. It worked fine for all PC applications and games, so it's a worthwhile option for everything from Skype to Counter-Strike. Newer games such as Flight Simulator X will let you split the radio chatter on the headset while the environmental audio stays on the PC speakers.
The rated range on the Wireless Gaming Receiver is 30 feet, and it was still working for us when got far enough away that we could no longer see the screen. In other words, even if you have your PC connected to a projector or a big-screen TV, you should have no worries in terms of keeping a connection.
Is the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver worth getting? Considering the $20 price tag, it may well be hard to resist for gamers who ping-pong between Xbox 360 and PC titles on a regular basis. For now, it's hardly a must-have PC gaming peripheral, but as more Games for Windows titles are released--titles like Shadowrun and Halo 2 are due later in 2007--that may well change. In the meantime, we hope that Microsoft continues to tighten up some of the software and driver issues that seem to have affected some users.