V.90 modems

The 56-Kbps modem standards wars are over, and users are the winners.


The ratification of the V.90 standard last September by the International
Telecommunications Union stopped the squabbling between modem vendors supporting the
incompatible x2 or K56Flex protocols for 56-Kbps analog modems. Now, any x2 and K56Flex
modem with V.90 protocols works with any other. Feature-rich V.90 products flooded the
market as prices ebbed.


A V.90 modem might be the last analog modem you’ll ever have to buy. All-digital
communications services such as Integrated Services Digital Network, digital subscriber
line, cable and others are making fast inroads into those based on plain old telephone
services lines. 


But until telephone companies, cable companies, satellite companies and Internet
service providers get their digital acts together, a V.90 analog modem on a relatively
clean telephone voice line is likely to be as good as it gets for some years to come.


This Buyers Guide features 111 V.90 modems from 33 modem makers. They are priced from
less than $50 up to $695. The typical internal ISA or PCI cards cost about $80, external
models average $150, and PC Card modems for notebook PCs average $200.


Almost all new V.90 modems are dual-standard—they support x2 and K56Flex protocols
in addition to V.90. This is important for offices that rely on a service provider that
does not yet support V.90 protocols, as the modem can then fall back and use x2 or K56Flex
56-Kbps standards when V.90 isn’t available.


This look at client, rather than server, modems features ones that provide drivers for
Microsoft Windows 3.x, Windows 9.x, Windows NT and Mac OS, although several listed also
support OS/2 and various flavors of Unix.


The simplest, cheapest units tend to be Windows software-based fax-modems that have
little, if any, support for voice and telephony features. Most new V.90 modems bundle fax
and data communications software, but it varies widely in sophistication and quality.


Look first at a V.90 modem’s basic design characteristics. PCI and ISA internal
modems with Windows Plug and Play capability dominate the market. Because internal models
eliminate the need for external packaging and cabling, they are cheaper than external or
PC Card models. Newer PCs have more PCI slots available than older computers with ISA
slots, so check your machine first.


Plug and Play makes installation a snap, especially compared with the old days of
fiddling with interrupt request (IRQ) switches, ports and drivers. If your installation
software lets you choose, select the driver provided by the modem maker rather than the
one provided with Win9x as it’s probably newer.


External modems have features that are not available in internal models, such as LED
lights for diagnostics, built-in speakers and a speakerphone. 


Although more and more PCs come with Universal Serial Bus ports, most external V.90
modems cannot take advantage of the new port. Most come with standard serial RS-232
connections for hooking up to the host computer; a handful come with parallel connections.
USB connections don’t improve connection speed but can cut down on installation
hassles of RS-232 port settings. Not all external V.90 modems come with USB, parallel or
serial cables.


PC Card modems, usually more expensive than PCI/ISA or external modems, offer great
flexibility, particularly for notebook PC users. They easily fit into a notebook’s
Type I, Type II or Type III PC Card slot and are easily configurable via Plug and Play and
drivers provided by the modem maker. Many V.90 PC Card modems also come with drivers for
Apple Macintoshes.


Many modem makers use the inherent flexibility of PC Card architecture to build in
Ethernet and ISDN functionality with V.90 protocols. Such capability doubles or triples
the communications functionality of an analog-only PC modem, often for little more than
$100 over the cost of a fax-data only PC Card.


New modem design goes further. Many new V.90 internal PCI modems are controllerless
software-driven products that take advantage of the powerful microprocessors available in
desktop and notebook PCs.


Host signal processing technology, developed by PC-Tel Inc. of Milpitas, Calif.,
eliminates the need for a dedicated digital signal processor and microcontroller on the
modem. The hardware of a controllerless modem consists of a data access arrangement,
digital-to-analog converter and bus interface. The execution of modulation and modem
controller functions, such as error-correction and data compression, takes place on the
host processor with the help of Win9x software.


Other V.90 modems, including most internal ISA and just about all external models,
contain a controller chip and don’t rely on the host CPU for signal processing.


Proponents of controllerless modems claim they are cheaper to make and thus cost less
than other types. The makers also maintain that for all except the most data-intensive
transactions, controllerless modems are as robust and reliable as those with built-in
controllers.


Modems with controllers of their own are probably slightly faster because they remove
most of the processing burden from the host processor.


One more V.90 design feature to keep in mind concerns the original x2 or K56Flex chip
set, around which the modem was built. V.90 is a blend of x2 and K56Flex protocols, and
most V.90 modems were simply upgraded from their x2 or K56Flex origins to meet the V.90
specification.


Offices that depend on a service provider should find out whether the provider is
moving to V.90 protocols but is still heavily invested in x2 or K56Flex, and get a model
that supports the appropriate protocol in addition to V.90.


Most V.90 modems come with data communications and fax software, allowing you to make
asynchronous connections to online services and bulletin boards. Most include Internet
browsers. Check the browser version; it probably isn’t the most up-to-date.


Most V.90 modems bundle fax software that lets them provide basic 14.4-Kbps
fax-send-receive services, using the host PC’s memory and print services for message
storing and creating and designing cover pages. Most fax programs also let the modems
schedule, broadcast and forward faxes.


If your modem supports the V.70 protocol it can also support the simultaneous transfer
of voice and data on a single phone line, a function known as digital simultaneous voice
and data.


A V.90 modem that supports Caller ID can identify a voice caller’s area code and
telephone number, displaying it on the host PC screen.


Voice mail and answering machine capabilities are functions of software bundled with
the modem. Effective third-party programs such as QuickLink MessageCenter III from Smith
Micro Software Inc. of Aliso Viejo, Calif., integrate voice, data and fax functions. Other
V.90 modem makers have created their own programs, which range from terrific to terrible,
depending on your requirements.


Support for speakers and speakerphones varies from vendor to vendor. As with most
commodities, price usually determines the quality of add-ons such as speakerphones. A $50
V.90 internal modem card might include basic voice mail and a speakerphone but little
else. If high-end answering machine functions are important, try before you buy.


If your users only need a basic V.90 for hopping onto the Internet and sending and
receiving an occasional fax, an inexpensive PCI card priced at less than $60 could be just
the ticket.


How the modem is used will be your final criteria.


Maintenance costs can mount if you add Caller ID or Distinctive Ring support. V.90
voice mail and answering machine capabilities often require an additional IRQ on the
user’s PC and that the PC be left running. For those users, a bare-bones V.90 modem
paired with a low-cost fax-answering machine might be a better answer.  


Zippy as they are, V.90 modems have some significant speed limits.


The V.90 protocol’s top theoretical speed is only 64 Kbps, far less than the
3-Mbps potential of cable and 1.5-Mbps speeds of Digital Subscriber Line connections and
less than half the 128-Kbps throughput rate of Integrated Services Digital Network.


Realistically, you won’t get even the 64-Kbps rate.


Most modem makers won’t spend the R&D dollars to tweak a mere 8 Kbps of speed
from 56-Kbps products—at least not in the looming shadow of coming all-digital
services.


And there’s that pesky Federal Communications Commission ruling that limits the
download speed of 56-Kbps modems to 53 Kbps. Upload speeds are 31.2-Kbps or less.


Line conditioning, noise and distance between a customer site and a telephone
company’s central office can trim a V.90 modem’s performance to that of a
28.8-Kbps or 33.6-Kbps V.34 modem.   Because V.90 modems cannot tolerate more
than one analog-to-digital signal conversion without dropping speed, they won’t work
better than a V.34 model in environments with multiplexed lines or with hotels’
private branch exchanges.   


Lots of companies produce families of V.90 modems, but few offer a suite of products as
diverse and full-featured as the ModemBlasters from Digicom Systems Inc.


I looked at six in the line, a few ISA and PCI internal cards, a cellular-ready PC Card
and an external unit.


All are dual-protocol—K56Flex and V.90. They ranged in price from a low-end $49
model to $79 to $100 models that add full voice mail and speakerphone function to data and
fax handling.


Of the pack, the ModemBlaster Flash56 II External modem stood out. My preference is for
an external unit; I like the flexibility that external modems provide. They’re
exceptionally easy to install and move among multiple PCs in departments or workgroups.


This external unit is a good choice for organizations requiring an easily installed
V.90 K56Flex modem that can handle everything from simple fax and data messaging to
high-end voice, telephony and video services.


The unit provides full voice functionality with multiple mailboxes and Caller ID,
simultaneous voice and data, and a full-duplex speakerphone. Like most other external
modems, the Flash56 II came with a full range of LED indicators for connection
troubleshooting. It also offers virtually plug-in Internet capability.


Its tough, steel-blue case and smoked-black LED cover make it a not-unattractive
addition to most computing environments. And it won’t crowd your desktop; it’s
the size of a small paperback—1- by 5.25- by 7.25-inches.


Documentation that comes with the units was generally excellent, although it paid scant
attention to the bundled software.


Modems in the line are bundled with a good assortment of useful software, including
Creative Video Webphone and Creative Inspire from Creative Labs Inc. of Milpitas, Calif.,
Microsoft Internet Explorer and NetMeeting, and QuickLink MessageCenter III voice and fax
package from Smith Micro Software Inc. of Aliso Viejo, Calif.


Officials at Digicom said that beginning this spring the company will also bundle Smith
Micro’s new Internet CommSuite with all its modems. CommSuite is a high-end package
for Internet telephony, videophone calls and Internet faxing.


Digicom is a subsidiary of Creative Technology Ltd., owner of Creative Labs, Cambridge
Soundworks Inc. of Newton, Mass., and Ensoniq Corp. of Malvern, Pa.—sister companies
that can only enhance Digicom’s already solid reputation as a modem builder.


The Flash56 II External modem, which costs $100, would make a good basic productivity
tool for larger offices or a full-featured device, offering data, fax, voice and video
services for smaller offices.


Visit Digicom’s Web site at www.digicomsys.com
 


Contact Digicom at 408-262-1390.   


J.B. Miles writes about communications and computers from Carlsbad, Calif.


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