Multipurpose modems

Multipurpose modems<@VM>These modems connect with a bevy of features<@VM>These modems connect with a bevy of features (cont.)

With the right protocols, sending data, voice and fax transmissions is easy

By J.B. Miles

Special to GCN

If you want to use the Internet to send e-mail, broadcast faxes or set up an automated telephone answering service, there's a full-featured multipurpose modem out there for you.

A dial-up 56-Kbps V.90 plug-and-play modem with data, fax, voice and telephony features can cost as little as $30 and no more than $200'a bargain if you want to build your PC into an all-in-one communications device using ordinary telephone lines.

3Com's USR 56K Voice Faxmodem Pro, in external and internal versions, supports caller identification, distinctive ring and voice mail. Prices start at $150.

Enhanced communication software from manufacturers or third-party vendors can help voice-enabled 56-Kbps modems to act as fax machines and telephone answering machines, with voice mail and other sophisticated telephony features. Some new models also include point-to-point and Internet videoconferencing capability'also transmitted over standard telephone lines.

Don't let the low price tags fool you. All the modems listed in the accompanying chart are powerful modems'either external serial or Universal Serial Bus devices, or ISA or PCI internal modem cards'that would have cost a lot more a year ago. But advances in modem technology, along with competition among vendors, has produced a variety of offerings at good prices.

In or out

The first choice you're likely to face when buying a modem is between an external or internal model.

External modems go outside your PC and easily plug into serial or USB ports. Most of them also have LED status lights for diagnostics and keeping track of signal traffic.

Internal modems plug into the PCI or ISA slots. Although they are slightly more difficult to install compared to external models, Microsoft Windows Plug and Play removes most setup and installation problems by providing automatic configuration. Internal modems eliminate the need for packaging, cables and other hardware associated with external models, so they tend to be less expensive.

Although 16-bit ISA modems have all the features of PCI versions, manufacturers are rapidly phasing them out in favor of those based on 32-bit PCI technology.

The MicroLink 56K PCI internal modem from Elsa supports voice mail and broadcasting, digital recording and playback. It's priced at $69.

It's nice outside

I prefer external modems. They are a bit more expensive than internal modems and use up a serial or USB port, but they are easier to install and offer a wider range of features.

Telephony-optimized units also come with built-in speakers and speakerphones, while many internal units rely on the host PC's sound card to manage these functions.

Serial port modems offer more voice and telephony features than USB modems. But the technology is coming on strong, and USB modems may soon dominate the market.

The fastest and best-performing modems are hardware-based and have on-board controllers and digital signal processors for processing commands and handling such tasks as error-checking and data compression.

So-called software modems'also called Win or Windows modems'lack controllers and shift much of the processing responsibility to the host processor. These inexpensive, controllerless versions can be fine for typical e-mail applications and simple Web browsing tasks, but they can bring multimedia transactions to a crawl.

There are a number of factors to consider when selecting a modem:

V.90 protocols. Since the International Telecommunications Union's V.90 standard for 56-Kbps dial-up analog modems was ratified over a year ago, old issues of incompatibility between products have been settled. Many of the modems listed are still classified as dual standard, but the V.90 standard is what counts.

Automatic speed setting. Typically, advanced multipurpose modems incorporate a large list of transmission protocols, including V.90, K56flex or x.2 for 56-Kbps modems, as well as V.34, V.32bis, V.32 and on down the line for governing modems with rated speeds of 33.3 Kbps, 28.8 Kbps, 14.4 Kbps and slower.

The importance is in the ability of the modem to automatically negotiate between maximum speeds and slower speeds to maintain good connections across noisy lines.

Data compression and error-checking. The V.42bis and Microcom Networking Protocol 5 standards enable the compression of data for faster throughput at any speed. V.42 and MNP 2 to 4 are common error-checking standards. Every modem is likely to include these protocols. MNP 10 is an error-checking standard for adverse conditions and cellular transmissions and is often used with modems for portable PCs or notebooks.

Faxing. Protocols for most data and fax modems generally include the V.33, V.29, V.17, V.27ter and V.21 standards.

It's not necessary to commit these or any of the above protocols to memory; what's important about them is that your modem should send and receive fax messages at speeds of at least 14.4 Kbps when line conditions permit, with drop-back capabilities in case of poor line quality.

Caller ID. V.90 modems with Caller ID can identify and display the area code and number of incoming calls. If equipped with the correct software, users can use associated tables to screen calls and block unwanted calls.

Distinctive ring. A V.90 modem with the distinctive ring feature, which must also be supported by the local telephone company, can distinguish incoming data, fax or voice calls and route them appropriately.

Simultaneous voice and data messaging. Modems supporting the V.70 messaging protocols can, in theory, support the simultaneous transfer of voice and data messages on the same phone line. Digital SVD handles this process digitally and must be supported by the local telephone company.

Videoconferencing. Modems with V.80 protocols are compatible with the H.324 standard for point-to-point videoconferencing over standard telephone lines. H.323 support means that your modem supports videoconferencing over the Internet.

Keys to a good connection

  • Find the V.90 specification on the modem or in the product literature before you buy a 56-Kbps modem.
  • Do not buy an ISA modem unless your PC has at least one ISA slot.
  • Buy a hardware modem with its own controller and digital signal processor if you are in doubt about your PC's multimedia processing capability.
  • Understand that flash memory or flash ROM is a sure sign that your modem is hardware-based.
  • Make sure your external serial or Universal Serial Bus modem comes bundled with a connector.

Flash memory. Flash memory is a hardware-based memory chip that can be erased and rewritten, but it maintains its content even if the host device is turned off. In a modem, flash memory holds software updates, usually drivers.

Clearly, advanced multipurpose modems employ basic hardware connections to provide voice and telephony features. These include such features as RJ-11 ports for telephone lines and phones, speaker and microphone connections, built-in speakers or connections to a PC sound card.

But in all cases, advanced fax and voice and telephony capabilities depend on the software programs that come with the modems or are bought from third-party vendors.

If you already own a Telephony Application Programming Interface voice modem, you can buy a third-party software program such as FaxTalk Communicator from Thought Communications Inc. of Saratoga, Calif., QuickLink MessageCenter from Smith Micro Software Inc. of Aliso Viejo, Calif., or Call Attendant from ObjectWorld Inc. of Ottawa. The programs enhance the modem's fax and voice messaging capabilities. A handful of free shareware programs are also available.

Basic needs

At a minimum, your modem and software combination should provide you with a fax system that is compatible with any Group 3 fax system and all PC-based fax systems. It also should provide background faxing, scheduling and broadcasting. The system should provide personalized cover sheets, a fax phone book and the ability to offer fax-on-demand responses to inquiries.

The same modem and software combination should power a telephone answering machine with crisp, customizable prerecorded messages, high-quality voice storage and playback, and user-friendly message review. Voice mail should include multiple private mailboxes that are password-protected and should allow remote message retrieval and remote pager notification.

Most modems also come with either a Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator browser'some include both'but in most cases you'll have to download a more recent version of the browser from Microsoft or Netscape.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.

VendorProductData standardsConfigurationBus or port connectionV.80 video- conferencing interfaceTelephony/ voice featuresPrice
Acer America Corp.
San Jose, Calif.
AME-RA56V.90/K56flexExternalUSBYesTelephone answering machine, speakerphone, voice mail, built-in speaker, microphone$136
AMU-AA00V.90External USBYesTAM, voice mail$76
ActionTec Electronics Inc.
Sunnyvale, Calif.
56K Internal PCI Call Waiting ModemV.90/K56flexInternalPCIYesCall waiting, TAM, voice mail, auto-self-paging, Internet phone$105
56K External Call Waiting ModemV.90/K56flexExternalSerialYesSame$105
56K USB Call Waiting ModemV.90/K56flexExternalUSBYesTAM, Internet phone$105
Aopen America Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
F56-SV.90/K56flexInternalPCINoTAM, speakerphone, voice mail, distinctive ring, ACPI Modem Wake Up (requires sound card)$27
FM56-SMV.90/K56flexInternalPCINoTAM, speakerphone, voice mail, distinctive ring (requires sound card)$20
FM-EX (2MB ROM)V.90/K56flexExternalSerialYesSame$65
Best Data Products Inc.
Chatsworth, Calif.
Smart One 56K External Modem with SpeakerphoneV.90ExternalSerialYesTAM, password protected mailboxes, remote pager notification, remote message retrieval, voice mail, speakerphone$110
Smart One 56K Internal Modem with Speakerphone (PC and Mac versions)V.90InternalPCIYesSame$80
Smart One 56K Internal Windows Voice ModemV.90Internal PCI or ISAYesTAM$50
Boca Research Inc.
Boca Raton, Fla.
56K Tidalwave ModemV.90ExternalSerialYesVideoconferencing-ready$100
56K Tidalwave Modem USBV.90ExternalUSBYesVideoconferencing-ready$100
56K Winstorm ModemV.90InternalPCIYesVideoconferencing-ready$40
CNet Technology Inc.
Milpitas, Calif.
CN5614XEV.90ExternalSerialNoTAM, voice mail, speakerphone$99
Creative Labs Inc.
Milpitas, Calif.
ModemBlaster Flash 56II ExternalV.90/K56flexExternalSerialYesVoice, speakerphone$80
ModemBlaster Flash 56IIV.90/K56flexInternal ISAHSPYesVoice, speakerphone (requires sound card and speakers)$70
ModemBlaster USBV.90/K56flexExternalUSBYesSame$90
Digicom Systems Inc.
Milpitas, Calif.
DI5630V.90/K56flexInternalPCIYesAnalog SVD, Caller ID, distinctive ring, TAM, voice mail, speakerphone (requires Sound Blaster- compatible sound card)$40
DE5620V.90/K56flexExternalSerialYesAnalog SVD, Caller ID, distinctive ring, TAM, voice mail, speakerphone$80
DE5670V.90/K56flexExternalUSBYesVoice mail, speakerphone$90
Elsa Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.
MicroLink 56K Internet V.90 ModemV.90/K56flexExternalSerialNoTAM, voice mail, voice broadcasting, digital recording and playback$69
MicroLink 56K PCIV.90/K56flexInternalPCINoSame$59
Hi-Val Inc.
Santa Ana, Calif.
56K Data/Fax/ Speakerphone ModemV.90InternalISANoTAM, voice mail (requires sound card)$45
56K PCI Data/FaxV.90InternalPCINoSame with speakerphone$45

VendorProductData standardsConfigurationBus or port connectionV.80 video- conferencing interfaceTelephony/ voice featuresPrice
Jaton Corp.
Milpitas, Calif.
Traveler V.90 Ex SPV.90/K56flexExternalSerialNoCaller ID, distinctive ring, Tad, voice mail, speakerphone$75
USB CommunicatorV.90ExternalUSBYesCaller ID, distinctive ring, TAM$64
Modulator V.90 SPV.90ExternalSerialNoCaller ID, distinctive ring, TAM, speakerphone$50
Lasat Networks Inc.
Alexandria, Va.
Safire II 560V USBV.90/K56flexExternalUSBNoAnalog SVD, speaker and microphone, TAM, voice response$100
Safire I 560 VoiceV.90/K56flexExternalSerialNoSame$88
Multi-Tech Systems Inc.
Mounds View, Minn.
MultiModem DSVDV.90/K56flexExternalSerialNoVoice mail, digital SVD, handset and headset compatible$219
MessageSaverV.90/K56flexExternalSerialNoTAM, voice mail, Caller ID, speakerphone$219
MultiModem MT5634ZBAVV.90/K56flexExternalSerialNoAnalog SVD, voice mail, speakerphone$209
Milpitas, Calif.
HSP56 ModemV.90/K56flexInternalPCINoOptional HSP speakerphone upgrade with audio chip$20
Phoebe Micro Inc.
Sunnyvale, Calif.
Lunar ExpressV.90/K56flexInternalPCINoVoice features (requires sound card)$25
S3 Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
SupraExpress 56e PCV.90ExternalSerialYesTAM, voice mail (requires sound card and speakers)$65
SupraExpress 56e MacV.90ExternalSerialYesSame$65
SupraExpress 56i SPV.90/K56flexInternalISAYesCaller ID, distinctive ring, TAM, voice mail, speakerphone$69
Shark Multimedia Inc.
Fremont, Calif.
Leopard Pocket USB 56K ModemV.90ExternalUSBNoTAM, voice mail, voice broadcasting, auto paging, remote voice mail access, distinctive ring$80
Leopard Win56K PCIV.90/K56flexInternalPCINoCaller ID, TAM, voice mail, pager notification, speakerphone, distinctive ring$25
3Com Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
USR 56K Voice Faxmodem Pro External Model 5605V.90/X2ExternalSerialYesCaller ID, distinctive ring, speakerphone, voice mail$200
USR 56K Voice Faxmodem Internal PCI Model 5609V.90/X2InternalPCIYesSame$150
Zoltix Multimedia Inc.
Newark, Calif
Zoltrix FMVSP56e2 (Rainbow 56K)V.90/K56flexExternalSerialYesTAM, voice messaging, auto routing, analog SVD, message log, turns computer (with speakers) into a speakerphone$62
Zoltrix FMVSP56e3V.90/K56flexExternalSerialYesSame, with built-in speakerphone$62
Zoltrix FMHCF56i (Spirit)V.90/K56flexInternalPCIYesVoice mail, speakerphone$39
Zoltrix FMSFT56i (Cobra)V.90/K56flexInternalPCIYesSame$29
Zoom Telephonics Inc.
56K PCI DualmodeV.90/K56flexInternalPCIOptionalVoice mail, Internet videoconferencing (requires sound card)$50
Zypcom Inc.
Hayward, Calif.
C-Series Model Z34-SCV.90/x2ExternalSerialYesTAM, voice mail, speakerphone$199
C-Series Model Z34-PCV.90/x2InternalPCIYesSame$179

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.