These days it's a simple matter to plug a phone line into the back of your PC and hook up to an internet service provider (ISP). Have modem, will surf - and so, you might think, end of story. But have you ever considered what else you could do with that hissing, howling appliance? It's smarter than you might think.
Here, we lift the lid on the mysteries of the modem and show you how to speed it up, troubleshoot connection problems, tweak its most intimate parts, and use it for everything from faxing to voicemail.
Modem: what does it mean?
The term modem serves as a neat little acronym for modulator/demodulator, which tells you precisely nothing. Essentially, all a modem does is convert the digital data that your computer uses into a sound signal that can be transmitted through normal telephone lines. At the same time, a modem can receive and re-convert any data that is sent to it from another modem (usually the one at your ISP's end of the connection).
Not so long ago, two new but utterly incompatible modem standards - called x2 and K56Flex - engaged in the Great Modem War of 1998. A machine from one stable simply wouldn't chew the fat with one from across the paddock and buyers were in an impossible situation - uncertain whether today's thoroughbred racehorse would be tomorrow's dead donkey.
But against the odds, peace broke out in the industry and all modern modems now get along just fine, working to a unified standard called V.90.
A V.90 modem downloads data (web pages, email, newsgroup messages or anything else) from the internet at a theoretical top speed of 56,000 bits per second, which is a considerable improvement over the previous best of 33,600bps. We use the term theoretical advisedly, as any number of factors can and do conspire to cobble your V.90 modem's best efforts, including crackles on the telephone lines, internet congestion and the distance between your house and the telephone exchange.
An operating speed of around 40,000-44,000bps is about the norm in practice. If an on-screen message suggests that your modem is running considerably slower than this, then check the notation used. It's not uncommon for speeds to be displayed in kilobits or even kilobytes per second, so 44,000bps might be shown as either 44Kbits/sec or a 'mere' 5.5Kbytes/sec, as there are eight bits in a byte.
Internal and external affairs
Until recently, modems were predominantly external affairs - dinky little gadgets with lots of flashing lights that plugged into your PC's serial port and absorbed dust, coffee spills and regular impacts from falling box files. The blinking display often proved useful from a troubleshooting point of view - you could tell at a glance if and when your modem stopped receiving data, although not necessarily why - and we tend to feel we've got more for our money when the result is a tangible asset perched on our desks. However, internal modems are just as efficient, cheaper, less prone to accidents and need no separate power supply. Most new PCs on the shelf now come with an internal modem fitted as standard. Some even come with software that mimics the lighting display of an external modem (not as exciting as it sounds, in all honesty).
The modem as fax machine
While this preponderance of internal models has undoubtedly made getting online easier, we as buyers have lost the knack of comparing specifications. One V.90 modem may be much like any other when it comes to connecting to an ISP, as any superstore salesdude will tell you, but that's not the end of its abilities.
Rarely is the modem incapable of working as a fax machine but equally rare, perhaps, is the owner who puts it to such a use. This is a shame because it really is remarkably simple to both send and receive faxes with your PC - all you need is the right software. Chances are you already have a fax application lurking at the bottom of that drawer stuffed with all the paperwork and disks that you didn't quite understand when your computer was delivered, or it may even have been set up on your machine during manufacture.
Failing that, Windows 95 comes with an application called Microsoft Fax which could get you started (it's also available in Windows 98 although you have to install it manually from the original CD-ROM). Alternatively, there are plenty of free or inexpensive fax programs available on the internet, while any full-blown communications suite will have full fax functionality included.
The concept of paperless faxes may take a bit of getting used to, but the process is as easy as printing and carried out in exactly the same way. First, you create a document on screen as usual. Then, instead of printing out a hard copy for a fax machine to chew up, you use the Print command to select the fax application's special driver. This fires up a dialogue box into which you enter the fax number, and your modem then sends the file down the telephone lines in a series of shrieks and howls that any fax machine in the land can understand.
Incidentally, one of the least pleasant noises known to man is a modem in full screech, so if yours sounds like it's being murdered, turn off the volume. Click Start, Settings, Control Panel and Modems, and then select the General tab and move the volume slider to the Off position. Ah, that's better.
Receiving a fax is even more straightforward, and merely requires that your computer is switched on with the software running in the background and your modem is connected to the telephone line. Incoming faxes are stored as image files (i.e. pictures) which can be read, printed and forwarded at will.
The modem as answering machine
While fax modems are commonplace, those capable of functioning as answering machines are rather thin on the ground as manufacturers frequently save a few bucks by sticking in basic data-only or data-plus-fax modems.
A 'voice' modem kitted out with the right software - SuperVoice, PhoneTools and CallCenter are popular options - can receive and store simple messages in digital format (no more tape to wear out and snap) or, with a bit more legwork, can be configured to operate as a fully fledged voicemail system.
You know the kind of thing: callers are greeted with a recorded announcement and guided through a menu of options accessed by the buttons on their telephones ("If you wish to leave a message of a particularly personal nature, press 3 now ..." and so on). This has the merit of sorting your messages into a number of convenient mailboxes, perhaps one per family member or maybe one for sales enquiries and another for complaints. Just bear in mind that many people have a peculiar loathing for such perceived gimmickry.
While internal voice modems can only work as answering machines when your computer is switched on, some external models, like 3Com's Message Modem (£85), receive faxes and voice messages even when your PC is unplugged. Also worth considering is the SupraExpress 56e (£70) from Diamond.
Is your modem fit for the job?
If all this talk of V.90 has you thinking that your older modem must be fit for the scrap heap, pause for just one moment. The first step is to ascertain which model you actually have. Windows 95 or 98 users can click on the Start button, then Settings, Control Panel and Modems. There, in the General tab, you should find a helpful description.
If your modem is an old 28,800bps (or 28.8Kbps, which is the same thing) workhorse, get thee to a modem shop pronto - you'll see a dramatic difference in your surfing by swapping it for a V.90. If, however, you've got a 33,600bps (33.6Kbps) modem, all is not necessarily lost.
While the Modem War was raging, some manufacturers sensibly built in a technology called 'flash ROM' which meant that the modem could be converted to whatever standard eventually won out. To see if you're a winner in this particular lucky dip, pay a visit to your modem manufacturer's website and see what it says about your particular model. If an upgrade is available, just download the program, follow the instructions and indulge in some high(er) speed surfing at no extra cost.
Been there, DUN that
Every time you connect to your ISP, Windows uses a program called Dial-Up Networking, or DUN. If you click on My Computer and then Dial-Up Networking, you'll find an icon for each ISP you have an account with. A right mouse button click gives you the option to view its properties and it's worth having a look around.
DUN is a complicated creature and the slightest anomaly in its configuration - which can occasionally result by accident when you install a new piece of software - can throw your internet access off kilter.
In fact, it's possible to tweak DUN yourself to improve your internet connection speeds. Results are not guaranteed but the intrepid fiddler can have fun trying and may see a significant boost in performance. A word of warning: arm yourself with a pen and pad and make a careful note of all the existing settings before you start meddling, just in case it all goes horribly wrong.
The first thing that Windows 95 users should do is upgrade to DUN 1.3. This enhanced version of Dial-Up Networking, available as a free download from Microsoft, may by itself fix any problems you're experiencing or speed up your access. Those running Windows 98 already have DUN 1.3.
The chip that does the unscrambling
Connection speed is in part determined by a microchip called a UART (it stands for Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter) which is either part of the serial port to which you connect an external modem or, in the case of an internal model, built into the modem itself. It operates between the modem and the computer's processor to make sure that data is not scrambled, and it needs to be fast to do its job properly.
The magic number to look for is 16550. You can check the UART speed by clicking Start/Settings/Control Panel/Modems/Diagnostics tab and then More Info for each of the COM ports listed. All modern internal modems are suitably equipped, but if your computer is a few years old, you may see the number 8250 instead of 16550. If so, a serial port upgrade may speed up an external modem.
Assuming all is well with the UART, you can try adjusting the FIFO buffers. This is the means by which the UART chip controls data on behalf of your modem - First-In, First-Out. This time, click Start/Settings/Control Panel/Modems/General tab/Properties/Connection tab/Port Settings and then move both sliders to their highest positions.
Conversely, reducing the buffer speed may cure a dodgy connection, particularly in systems with slower processors. The only way to find out is by experimenting.
Another option is changing your modem's initialisation string. This is basically a code that controls how your computer, modem and ISP communicate with one another. Playing around with the code can in certain circumstances improve or fix a connection - enthusiasts swear by this method - but once again the only way to be sure is by trying it out for yourself. Initialisation strings for every modem under the sun are listed on a variety of websites.
The hands-off approach - utilities that will fiddle for you
If you're not comfortable with such a hands-on approach - and who can blame you? - there are many utilities around that will happily delve deep into your system's settings and do all the fiddling for you. The most popular is TweakDUN, an advanced application that makes significant changes to the Windows Registry and a host of other system settings with mind-boggling descriptions in order to fine-tune your internet connection.
NetOptimiser offers a similar service but you pay more for the friendlier interface. It also comes with a handy tool that graphically monitors your modem's performance, which helps to see whether all your tweaking is making any difference. A free utility called Modem Monitor Graph does the same job but its design is confusing.
AOL users should note that you won't find a DUN connection for love nor money. AOL software installs and uses a completely different connection method which is far less amenable to the meddling we've described here.
Current modem technology
If you want to really push the boundaries, dual-modem technology enables you to connect and operate two modems simultaneously to (theoretically) double your access speed. You need to be running either Windows 98 or the second edition of Windows 95, have an account with an ISP that supports the technology (called Multilink Point to Point) and also allows you to dial up simultaneously under separate accounts. And you need two telephone lines. In practice, this is a little-used option.
More promising are Simultaneous Voice and Data (SVD) modems that allow you to send and receive data (i.e. surf the web) while talking on the telephone at the same time. The most likely uses for SVD are online gaming and ecommerce customer service departments. But, for now, SVD modems are not generally available and they only work when there's a compatible modem at both ends of the connection.
Missing telephone calls while online is a modern curse but you can expect to see Call Waiting modems on the market soon. In their current form, these alert you to an incoming call and give you a few seconds to answer without dropping your internet connection. Like Dual Modem and SVD, however, you won't easily pick up such a machine in this country just yet.
One final development worth a mention is the appearance of the first modems that eschew both internal COM port and external serial connections in favour of USB. Such modems, if suitably equipped with flash upgradability to cope with changes in connection standards, have the best chance of outliving your current computer system.
Speeding up your surfing
Upgraded your modem to V.90, tweaked all the settings but still bored with the world wide wait? Well, help of a sort comes in the shape of so-called internet accelerator software. It works in two ways: on one hand, it keeps your modem busy by pre-fetching web pages so that, should you click any links on a web page, the resulting pages are ready to spring up instantaneously; on the other hand, it stores frequently visited websites in a special cache from which they can be plucked next time you come a-calling. Only content that has changed on the site in the meantime, such as news headlines, needs to be updated directly from the internet, thereby making for speedier surfing.
You stand to gain most from such software if you browse the same sites regularly, and in practice much, if not most, pre-fetching of linked pages is just a waste of time. That said, there's no doubt that the right software to suit your habits can make a significant difference over time. We'd recommend SurfExpress (£24, though free to try out) and NetSonic (also £24 after free trial) for starters.
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