How to choose the best modem. (Compute's Getting Started With: Online Communications)
by Richard M. Mann
Before you can log on to any of the online services we're going to discuss in this Getting Started with Online Communications section, you've got to equip your PC with an appropriate modem. In today's market it's hard to buy a bad modem, but you'll be more comfortable choosing a modem with just a little basic information under your belt. (Incidentally, any modem you buy today will most likely be a fax/data modem; for simplicity's sake, we'll just call them modems.)
Even if you already have a modem, if it runs at 1200 bps or 2400 bps, you may well want to upgrade to a faster model. Prices are low (some under $200) for 14.4K-bps models, which will soon be old technology.
Speed Kills, Doesn't It?
Why would you need extra speed? As speeds double or quadruple, your online time is cut by the same multiple--or is it? Aside from the technical truth that noisy lines and other physical factors often slow the effective speeds, you'll quickly realize that except for downloading files, only a small fraction of your connect time is spent actually passing data--at any speed. Instead, you're dealing with menus, reading screens of information, typing responses, and doing similar tasks while the modem sits idly by, waiting for you to initiate the next tiny spurt of data.
However, when uploading, downloading, and working with the graphical services (which have to send large quantities of data to paint a single screen), the modem's speed is critical and will indeed save you significant time and money.
The Jargon Jungle
Modem ads and reviews are full of exotic technical terms such as V.32bis, which is the current standard for 14.4K-bps transmission. Don't concern yourself with the lower V-dot numbers; they're history. Other current standards include V.42bis data compression and MNP-3 error correction, both of which are good to have.
You're going to see references to V.34 standards for 28.8K-bps speeds, also known as V.FAST or V.TURBO. The international committee that issues these standards hasn't yet agreed upon and issued specifications for V.34 and its 28.8K-bps speed. Yet vendors are selling V.FAST modems right now. What's going on?
These vendors, which include the big names, are confident that their implementation of the proposed standard will end up working with the final standard. Right now, however, don't expect to use 28.8K-bps transmission unless you're sending to another modem from the same manufacturer. A clean phone line and a rabbit's foot will help, too. The online services will eventually support this higher speed, but they're just now taking their first hesitant steps into 14.4K-bps lines.
Both U.S. Robotics and Supra are dealing with the uncertainty of the unissued standard by guaranteeing a V.FAST upgrade for some of their 14.4K-bps and 21.6K-bps modems.
We don't have the space this time around to test modems and make specific recommendations, but we can tell you that all of the major modem manufacturers are selling quality products. Your purchase decision will depend on features, price, availability, and software bundles. You can count on modems by Hayes, U.S. Robotics, Practical Peripherals, Supra, and any of a dozen or more other leading modem makers to be reliable, good performers.