Before you throw your first touchdown pass across the Internet, you'll have to set up your Sony PlayStation 2 or Microsoft Xbox for online play.
Don't panic. Setup is a painless process that took three minutes on each system.
To start, you'll need the right software and hardware. Also, make sure that you've bought a game that is online-enabled (which costs between $40 and $60). Without a game, you'll be limited to demos. Here's the rest of what you need to know:
Service is available now for broadband and dialup connections. There's no monthly fee, although individual game developers may charge for online play.
You will need a $40 PS 2 starter kit, which includes a rectangular black box - the Network Adapter - that attaches to the back of the console and offers ports that connect to an Ethernet adapter for broadband play and a 56K V.90 analog modem for dialup gaming.
The kit includes a setup disk and a coupon for a free online version of Twisted Metal: Black, a popular car-combat title.
In addition, you'll need an 8-megabyte PS 2 memory card, available for about $25, and an Ethernet cable for broadband play.
I ran a network cable from a DSL/cable router on my computer desk to the PS 2 next to the television. I inserted the startup disc, which guided me through installation with simple questions: user name, password, type of connection and Internet service provider. The controller enabled me to punch letters and numbers into a virtual keyboard displayed on the TV screen, with the information saved to the memory card.
Once I switched the startup disc for a game disc, I went to the game mode screen, clicked "online play" and started shooting people and throwing footballs - electronically, of course.
Setup for a phone connection was just as easy. I plugged a telephone cord into the appropriate port on the adapter. This time, the setup wizard asked me additional questions about my dialup connection - including the user name and password for an America Online account.
Service starts Nov. 15 for broadband Internet customers only; no dialup service is available. The first year's fee is included with the starter kit, which costs $50. Future pricing hasn't been determined.
The starter kit includes a headset that plugs into your controller (for talking trash to opponents) and a disc to configure the console's Internet connection. The Xbox itself is already equipped for online play with an internal hard drive and an Ethernet port.
The pre-release version of Xbox Live I tested offered virtually the same setup scenario as the PS 2. I plugged in an Ethernet cable stretched from my router and inserted the setup disk to configure the Xbox for online play.
My user profile and Internet connection information were saved to the hard drive. Then I inserted the game desk and went online.