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Choosing a Modem

By Rob Kay

Internet surfers can now jump into the fast lane with "56k" modems that are capable of sending and receiving data at a rate of 56 kilobits per second (kps)--roughly twice as fast as the standard that existed only a few years ago. Due to federal restrictions the actual download speeds will never exceed 53 kps. Other structural impediments often restrict speeds even more. If you can get speeds of up to 48 kps, you're doing very well. Anyone considering a purchase of new modem should definitely consider this class of hardware. Unless you are just using your modem for email, it's guaranteed that if you purchase anything slower you won't be happy.

Battle of the Standards

56k modems were introduced about a year ago amidst enormous hype. Unbeknownst to the general public was that manufacturers hadn't agreed upon an industry standard. Consumers had to choose between the X2 technology advocated by 3Com and K56flex, pursued by Lucent/Rockwell. The marketing war, which created compatibility uncertainties for the entire industry, finally ended in a compromise this February when a new "V.90" standard was agreed

Which Modem to Buy?

With dozens of brands to choose from and prices sometimes lower than $100, it might seem that you're dealing with a commodity. In some ways that is the case but like so many other things in life, there's more to it than meets the eye. Before you run out to Computer City or CompUSA and look for the least expensive, consider the following issues:

Upgradability-The first thing we suggest is to make sure the box you buy allows you to upgrade your system at a later date. The upgrades are done with software patches rather than purchasing a new part or component. With an upgradable system, for a nominal fee (say $50 or less) you'll be in a position to have the latest technology just by downloading software from the Internet. Both 3Com and Diamond Multimedia provide this option.

Return Policy-It is not unusual to find that your modem's speed will be affected by infrastructure problems (such as bad phone lines) which might cripple the effectiveness or usability of your modem. The upshot is that because of your situation you may not be satisfied with the performance of your modem and may need to buy a better one. Make sure that if you're not happy with your purchase you have the option of a refund.

Connectivity Problems in the Aloha State

A big issue in Hawaii (as on the mainland) is that owners of the newer, faster modems won't be able to take advantage of the latest technology because their phone lines are not capable of supporting dependable data communications. According to our figures up to 10 percent of homes may fall into this category both here and on the mainland. The strange thing is that it's entirely possible that your neighbor can get excellent, dependable Internet connections whereas the connectivity at your house is slower and not as dependable. Unfortunately one of our homes (as we found out when doing the research for this story) fell into this latter category. This was one of the first things we noted when testing one of the better modems on the market, The Supra Express from Diamond Multimedia. Despite glowing reports in the media about this product we had quite a few problems staying online with this modem. After several weeks of tinkering and late night calls to the excellent tech support people at LavaNet we determined that it was not the modem but rather the phone line that was the issue.

So what can you do when you're stuck with a crummy phone line? The first thing we did was call GTE. To their immense credit and to my pleasant surprise, the phone company came out the next day to check the lines and went so far as to replace the line leading from the pole to the home. They tested the phone line and found it good enough for voice communications but as the technician admitted, he didn't really have any way to test the quality of data transmissions. Unfortunately even with the GTE technician's valiant efforts, the problems with my phone line persisted. (We then tested the Supra Express modem on a proven, cleaner line at a friend's home and it performed admirably, averaging speeds of up to 43 kps and holding on to the connection like a champ. Thus if you know from experience that you have a good clean phone line, this is a good product to consider. The street price is around $120. However, this still did not solve the problem of what to do about getting a good connection at a home with a bad line.

The Solution--Buy a More Expensive Modem

Fortunately, there was a solution. If have a crummy phone line and you absolutely, positively have to have a dependable connection for your home or office business you're going to have to spend more money (around $250) and purchase a "Courier V.Everything" modem from 3Com. Though the V.Everything is roughly two and a half times more expensive than the bargain basement specials, as they say, you get what you pay for. This modem proved to be the silver bullet for our bad connection and we highly recommend it. Not only did interruption become much less frequent, the connection speed was as high as 49 kps, which is pretty much as fast as you're going to get. Another advantage of this manufacturer is that they have excellent technical support available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

Setting Up Can be Hard To Do

Keep in mind, even for those technically adroit, setting up a modem rarely occurs without at least one phone call to a company's technical support facility. Though Bill Gates and his ilk tell us that technology is getting easier and more "user friendly"-don't you believe it! As technology evolves it inherently gets more complex and often times takes a great deal of "tweaking" before it's operational. Those who expect to simply take your modem out of the box, plug it in and jump on the Internet will be sorely disappointed. For example setting up both the Supra Express and the Courier V. Everything involved downloading software off the Internet and a series of rather complex adjustments. We ended up spending a great deal of time with the technical support staff at our ISP and in some cases with the manufacturers of the modems. The bottom is that unless you know what you're doing, consider hiring a consultant or computer guru to assist you. (We've had good luck with John Shalamskas who has a company called MLH Consulting and can be reached in Honolulu at 566-6742).

Pacific Business News - Monday June 8, 1998

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