Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 5 / DECEMBER 1988

Online With START

What to Look for in a Modem

by Gregg Pearlman,
START Assistant Editor

As Assistant Editor for START, I'm lucky enough to have a Supra Modem 2400 at my workstation. I've found that working at 2400 baud is much more fun than 1200 baud--to say nothing of 300 baud. ("Baud," put simply, is a measure of how fast information is transferred between two computers.)

A modem is very much like a baseball umpire, an offensive lineman in football or your television set: if you don't notice it, it's doing its job. In judging modems, we at START use a fairly short list of criteria (aside from such trivial items as price).

Modem Checklist

If you're running a bulletin board system (BBS), you'll need a modem with auto-answer (ATA) and auto-hangup (ATM) features. You sure don't want to have to do this manually, thus babysitting your BBS.

You want a direct-connect modem--you don't want to have to place cups over the ear- and mouthpieces of your phone. Antic Publishing's Tandy Model 100 laptop computer, which we bring to out-of-town trade shows, has a built-in modem that isn't direct-connect and is a royal pain.

Hayes is to modems what Epson is to printers--it's the industry standard.

Your modem should let you change the baud rate through software. Luckily, most modems do. It's inordinately inconvenient otherwise.

BBS or no, the following features are strongly recommended, if not absolute musts:

Hayes compatibility: Hayes is to modems what Epson is to printers (and, sadly, what IBM is to personal computers): it's the industry standard. Even if your modem is fairly Hayes-compatible, it's much better than not at all.

A speaker with volume control: It's best to know what things sound like on the other end. If you hear a busy signal, incessant ringing or a "Hello?" instead of a high-pitched whine known as a connect noise, you know something's wrong. A modem without a speaker is--not merely "is like"--a telephone without an earpiece.

Status lights on the front to let you know what's going on: You'll never know whether you've really connected unless the CD (Carrier Detect) light is lit. Others include the baud rate indicator and receive data and send data lights.

A stackable cabinet: Modems must sit wherever you can fit them. It's convenient not only to stack modems on top of other things, but also to stack other things on top of the modem--well, little things, anyway, because the modem probably will be your smallest piece of computer equipment.

Wires leading to and from one place, preferably the back of the modem: It's just easier to store the modem this way.

An RS-232 connector: You want to connect the modem to your ST easily.

Autodial capabilities for pulse and tone dialing: Otherwise, you're extremely limited.

Long, continuous use doesn't slow down the modem or hurt transmission: If you use a modem constantly as part of your work, you don't want to have it "throw up" because it's become too hot or tired.

Complete documentation: The benefits of this should be obvious.

2400 Baud

Happily, the Supra 2400 meets all of these conditions, and it's fun to use. Alas, the volume has but three settings--the quietest is still loud--but things go much faster online at 2400 baud. One thing you didn't see in the above list is the absolute necessity for 2400 baud capability. It isn't necessary; it's just nice. If you don't have it, you won't miss it.

The main problem with 2400 baud is a larger possibility of data transmission error than with 1200 baud (and especially 300 baud). If your data line has any interference at 2400 baud, there'll be trouble. Also, many commercial online services charge more per hour for 2400 baud users, so if you have several transmission errors and must retransmit, you'll be nickel-and-dimed to death.

In practice, 2400 baud is not twice as fast as 1200 baud (or eight times as fast as 300 baud), but it is much faster. Keep in mind that modems are "downwardly compatible": you can use a 2400-baud modem at 300 baud but (obviously) not vice versa.

Finally, there's a question of price. You can find a 1200 baud modem for under $100, or a 300 baud modem for less than some florists charge for a dozen roses. You won't have that kind of luck with a 2400 baud modem--or any Hayes modem. (Antic Online Editor Charles Jackson says, "You're paying for the Hayes name as well as the modem--plus the fact that you can drop it from a 20-story building without hurting it.")

What follows is a brief look at some of the modems we've seen here over the last two years. This is a cross-section of typical modems, not a be-all and end-all compendium.

Atari SX212

The SX212 is Atari's first 300/1200 baud, Hayes-compatible direct-connect modem. In a review in the June 1988 issue of Antic, Charles Jackson said that it works fine--it had no problems with any terminal program we tried and we also created and ran a BBS with it--but since then, it seems to have given up the ghost without explanation. We hope it's an isolated case.

The SX212 met most of the above criteria. A glaring exception is the "long, continuous use" item. Charlie put the SX212 through some pretty heavy paces, though, which indeed may have caused its demise. Also, the documentation that came with the modem was a bit thin. Some minor inconveniences include a nearly inaccessible speaker volume control and dim, hard-to-read status lights. Even so, the SX212 still has a suggested retail price of $99.95, and it's an excellent bargain.

Patriot 2400E

The Patriot 2400E, available from Anchor Automation, uses the standard Hayes AT command set--which is not to say that it's exactly Hayes-compatible, but it's a start. It does have a speaker volume control knob and status lights, as well as DIP-switches that you can (but don't always have to) adjust to make the modem work with your terminal program. The Patriot 2400E is compatible with any computer, as long as you have the necessary interface. The comprehensive documentation includes a quick-reference sheet and several self-tests.

Volks VM520

Before the Supra showed up, I used a Volks VM520, a Hayes-compatible 300/1200 baud modem that really did the job.

On a dirty line the VM520 tended to drop the occasional character at 1200 baud, although there was no problem at 300 baud. The manual told us all we needed to know, however, and the package included a 6-foot modular telephone cable to connect the modem to a telephone or wall jack.

Good luck finding the VM520, though. You can buy it directly from Anchor Automation, but via special order only.

Hayes Smartmodem

The Hayes Smartmodem is Charlie Jackson's standby. So far, he hasn't given it the sidewalk-impact test, but that's largely because he likes the modem so much. This 300/1200 baud modem certainly meets all the above criteria and probably gets more use here than the rest of the other modems combined--with the help of the Smartmodem, Charlie built not only Antic Online, a Herculean task in itself, but our searchable online index, soon to be available, which already is at least twice as large as Antic Online. This modem is a workhorse, and we've never had any problems with it. For $399, we'd better not.

ST Forum News

Next month, "Online With START" will be written by Ron Luks, Chief Sysop of the Atari Forums on CompuServe, who'll give you the low-down on the drastic realignment of the ST forums.

Products Mentioned

Supra Modem 2400, $179.95 ($219 including cables and software). Supra Corp., 1133 Commercial Way, Albany, OR 97321, (503) 967-9075 (orders), (503) 967-9081 (technical support).

Atari SX212, $99.95. Atari Corp., 1196 Borregas Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94086, (408) 745-2000.

Patriot 2400E, $229; Volks VM520, $199. Anchor Automation, Inc., 20675 Bahama Street, Chatsworth, CA 91311, (818) 998-6100.

Hayes Smartmodem 1200, $399 (estimated retail). Hayes Microcomputer Products, P.O. Box 105203, Atlanta, Norcross, GA 30048, (404) 449-8791.