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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | COMPUTER BASICS / KIM KOMANDO

Cheap Modem Could Put You in the Slow Lane

November 11, 1996|KIM KOMANDO | Kim Komando is a Fox TV host, syndicated talk radio host and founder of the Komputer Klinic on America Online (keyword KOMANDO). She can be reached via e-mail at komando@komando.com

Whether you're a PC pro or novice, you need a modem. Not just any modem, but a good, fast modem to surf the Web, connect to an online service and send and receive faxes using your PC.

When modem shopping, pay close attention to the modem's talk speed, or data-transfer rate. It's measured in bits per second, or bps, which is the speed at which information travels from computer to computer. Data-transfer rate is analogous to a car's speedometer: The higher the transfer rate, the faster the information moves between computers.

For now, the speed limit on the information superhighway for all but the most serious online users is 28,800 bps, or 28.8-Kbps. Go modem shopping and it's easy to become confused. You'll find internal modems priced from less than $80 to well over $200. External modems are about $20 to $40 more.

Like PCs, modems come in different package deals that include the modem itself and extra software. Generally, the better the modem and more goodies included, the more you pay.

An inexpensive modem usually doesn't have the best parts inside. This becomes a major factor if you have less than a Pentium-based machine and like to work in a few software programs while downloading a file in the background. The PC will become bogged down and everything slows, including software response time and the time it takes to download a file.

Less expensive modems generally include marginal communications and fax software programs. They work, but if you plan on really faxing or connecting to a local BBS, you'll need to spend about $100 or more on software.

If that's not enough to convince you to spend more money on a modem, go ahead--try to install it. Most times, you need to tweak your PC's settings to get the modem to work, and the installation instructions are minimal at best.

Up the ante on the modem price and you're better off in the long run. You can get a modem that is Plug and Play-compatible; you put it in your PC and it works.

More expensive modems include software that goes beyond communications and faxing. They include voicemail and data-conferencing programs and can take advantage of the phone company's distinctive ring and caller ID services. Newer units, such as Motorola's LifeStyle, have one more feature: When you're using the modem, the phone line temporarily shuts off so no one else in your home can use the line.

You might be tempted to get a higher-speed modem, say 33.6 Kbps, or even wait until next year for the arrival of 56-Kbps units. For now, modems work at the mercy of the phone network. Poor line quality prevents even 28.8-Kbps units from connecting at full speed.

In addition, many Internet service providers and commercial online services are still unable to even accept users connecting higher than 28.8-Kbps. My advice: Wait until mid- to late 1997 when commercial online services, Internet providers and phone networks catch up with high-speed modems. If you buy a good 28.8-Kbps modem now, you'll be able to upgrade it when the time comes.

An alternative to traditional modems is to go digital for online connections. Here, your choices are ISDN technology, direct-broadcast satellite systems and data-cable modems, to name a few. Of all of them, digital satellite systems are getting the most attention in the marketplace.

You get satellite television bringing you HBO and Showtime and a 400-kilobit-per-second Internet link from a 24-inch satellite dish for about $700. There's an additional Internet access fee that depends on your usage.

Note that the 400-Kbps speed is only for information you're receiving from the Internet, such as browsing Web pages and newsgroup postings. Information is still sent at 28.8 Kbps using a modem and a phone line.

This leaves 28.8-Kbps fax modems as the most affordable choice. When shopping, be sure the packaging mentions V.34 compatibility. This is a standard for compressing data. The V.34 modems can compress data, or shrink it, by as much as a 4-1 ratio. The process usually works without a hitch.

Problems arise when you're using an older computer, a 386-based PC or lower. Unfortunately, older serial ports (the things inside your PC to which your modem is connected) can't keep up that pace, and the data gets bottlenecked. It's similar to driving on the 405 Freeway at 5 p.m.

One option is to buy an internal modem rather than an external one. With an internal modem, you're assured that everything it needs is right on board. If you want to stick with an external unit, you have to replace your I/O card (the expansion card with all the ports on it) with one that supports the 16550A UART chips.

The UART chip provides reliable information transfers. It becomes very important on an older, slower machine on which the computer itself is not capable of handling the incoming data quickly enough. The UART chip has a small amount of internal memory it can use to hold this data temporarily.

On the Mac side, if you have a PowerMac or a late-model Quadra, you don't have a problem. On an older Mac, you can still use a 28.8-Kbps modem; you just won't be able to realize the full benefits of the 4-1 data compression.

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