Thoroughly Modern Modems

The time has come to replace your modem. True, it may be only a year old and work just fine. But it almost certainly has a top speed of 14.4 kilobits per second (KBPS). The good news is that you can double that speed for around $200. And prices are still plunging.

It has been less than a year since an international standard for communications at 28.8 KBPS known as V.34 was adopted, but already the faster modems have really taken off. Graphics-rich screens on the Internet's World Wide Web and online services seem to take forever to display at speeds less than 14.4, spurring demand for faster transmission. Service providers, scrambling to upgrade networks to handle 28.8, are also trumpeting discounts: Prodigy members, for instance, can order a 28.8 online for just $129.99.

You'll find plenty of selection. Nearly all of two dozen V.34 fax-and-data modems performed well in tests by National Software Testing Laboratories (NSTL), which, like BUSINESS WEEK, is part of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (BUSINESS WEEK Online on America Online has an extensive list with specific results.) While pricier units may provide extra features or superior performance over bad phone lines, someone who just wants a modem to hook up with CompuServe Inc. or the Internet isn't apt to notice much difference. That's hardly surprising: Most modems have as their guts the same set of chips from Rockwell International Corp.

So how do you choose? For starters, I strongly prefer external units that plug into a serial port, rather than internal cards that plug into a slot on your personal computer. (All Macintosh modems are external.) Internals are about $20 cheaper but require opening the computer for installation. Also, they lack those little lights that can be helpful in diagnosing problems.

I would stick to name brands. The commands needed to get the best performance differ from modem to modem, so you'll be happier if your software has built-in support for your model. The configuration section of your Windows communications programs will list supported modems. Older software may not list any V.34 modems, but you can usually download an updated file from the manufacturer's bulletin board.

LONG LIFE. Beyond that, it probably doesn't make too much difference what you choose. I have been using three relatively inexpensive V.34 modems from Practical Peripherals, Motorola, and Zoom Telephonics. The most expensive of the trio, at $239, the Motorola Power Series 28.8, has some extra features, including the ability to pass Caller-ID information to your computer and to upgrade its internal software. But basic performance of the trio has been comparable. For Macs, I've been impressed by the performance of Global Village Communication Inc.'s $239 TelePort Platinum, which comes with performance-enhancing software.

Will your new V.34 modem become obsolete as quickly as your 14.4 modem did? Unlikely, since 28.8 pushes the current standard phone system to the limit. No faster modems for standard dial-up lines are currently under development.

The next generation of communications devices will either use the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) or operate over cable-TV circuits. So-called cable modems remain mostly in the laboratory. While ISDN service has become more widely available and although the price of ISDN terminal adapters has dropped to as little as $300, ISDN support from online services and software publishers has come along much more slowly than I had expected (BW--Feb. 27). So, for now, 28.8 is the way to go.

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