If your computer isn't equipped with a modem, you're missing a lot. A modem, the device that translates a computer's digital signals into sounds that can be transmitted over phone lines, can link your computer to others across the country.
Online information services such as CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online or Genie provide a wealth of information, including news, weather, sports and the ability to send electronic mail. Modems also let you connect to computer bulletin boards where you can "download" software for free and pay only if you decide to keep it. And, for an increasing number of people, modems serve as the link between their home and office computers.
But shopping for a modem can be confusing. A variety of relatively obscure "standards" can boggle a prospective buyer.
Of the hundreds of modem makers, the leading vendors include Hayes, Intel, Practical Peripherals and U.S. Robotics. You should also check around for bargain brands which, in many cases, are also reliable.
Speed is a major consideration. Modems are rated in bits per second (bps). Today, anything less than 2,400 bps is obsolete and an increasing number of buyers are opting for modems that run at 9,600 or even 14,400 bps (2,400 bps translates to roughly 300 characters per second or 3,000 words per minute).
If you plan to use a modem primarily to read information from online services, then 2,400 is fast enough. However, if you plan to transfer data or programs between computers, you can benefit from a faster modem.
Many people, for example, use their modems to connect to bulletin boards where they can download software. At 2,400 bps it would take about 28 minutes to download a 500-kilobyte program instead of seven minutes at 9,600 bps.
You can find 2,400 bps modems for under $100. Modems with 9,600 and 14,400 bps generally cost $350 or more.
If you're buying a modem for an IBM-compatible machine, you'll have to choose between internal and external. An internal modem is a card, or board, that plugs into one of the PC's expansion slots. An external modem sits on your desk and is connected by a cable to the computer's serial port.
Internal modems are generally cheaper and they don't take up any desk space or require cables.
But external modems have advantages, too. You don't have to take the PC apart, they don't take up an expansion slot and you can move them from machine to machine. What's more, most external modems have lights or displays that provide visual feedback regarding their status. U.S. Robotics, at (800) 342-5877), and Macronix, at (800) 468-4629, make battery-operated, pocket-size modems that work with both portable and desktop machines.
Whatever modem you get, be sure it has a speaker so you can hear the dial tone and connection. Without that feedback you may not be sure whether you've gotten through.
A growing number of data modems are also able to transmit and receive fax messages. Most fax/data modems come with the required facsimile software. The extra cost for fax capability is sometimes quite low, so it's worth considering.
Performance can be affected by the modem's ability to compress data. By compressing data, the modem automatically reduces the size of files so that there are fewer bytes to transfer. The modem on the other end then decompresses the file so that it's identical to the original.
There are a number of compression methods available, but the current international standard is called V.42 bis. "Bis" is French for encore or second try. That method, under ideal conditions, is able to increase data transmission by a factor of four so that a 9,600 bps modem, in theory, could transmit files at 38,400 bps. But both sender and receiver must have the V.42 bis modem for that to occur.
Many bulletin board services and corporate computers support V.42 bis, but most online services do not. You can still communicate with them, however.
Don't confuse V.42 bis with V.42. V.42 (without the bis) refers to the modem's ability to detect and correct errors. Two modems with the same error correction protocol are able to verify whether the data received is identical to what was sent. You don't need an error-correcting modem for reliable data transfer. Just about all communication programs handle error detection and correction via software.
Another set of numbers indicate compatibility with international standards. For 2,400 bps look for V.22 bis. The current standard for 4,800 and 9,600 bps is called V.32. V.32 bis supports up to 14,400 bps.
Don't get too bogged down with these standards and numbers. While knowing the differences can help you better understand a sales pitch, just about any modem will be fine for most users.
Books can also help you in your search for the perfect modem. Jim Kimble's book, "How to Get Started With Modems," for example, covers choosing the best model for you, installing a modem on your computer, saving money while on line, getting free communications software, starting a bulletin board and connecting to your work computer. For more information on "How to Get Started With Modems," call Computer Publishing Enterprises of San Diego at (800) 544-5541.