Spirit II: Inexpensive, easy-to-use modem


November 16, 1992|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Communicating by phone with a computer is losing its time-honored hacker's mystique.

Thousands of kids are logging onto Prodigy to play games. Mom and dad are hooking up with the office computer, checking their electronic mail on MCI and paying their bills online. Salesmen with laptops are filling orders from their customers' desks, thousands of miles from the home office. College students are tapping into the campus mainframe, delivering their term papers electronically.

Not surprisingly, there has been a boom in the modem business, as manufacturers turn out gee-whizzz black boxes that not only communicate much faster than the models available a few years ago, but also can turn your PC into a fax machine.

I've been using one of these do-it-alls for a couple of weeks now, and I've had great fun with it. The QuickComm Spirit II is an inexpensive, external 14,400 bps modem that supports CCITT V.32, V.42, V.42bis and MNP-5 transmission, error checking and data compression standards, as well 9,600 baud Group 3 send and receive FAX capabilities.

I know -- that's easy for me to say. It does seem like a bowl of alphabet soup, but if you want to communicate in the fast lane, it helps to understand a little terminology. First, the speed. The speed of a modem is measured in the number of bits (digital ones and zeros) it can transfer in a second. Abbreviated "bps," the speed is frequently referred to as the baud rate of the modem.

It takes 10 bits to send a character of text, so a 14,400 bps modem can theoretically transfer the equivalent of 1,440 characters a second. In reality, most large host computers and many older PC's can't handle transfers any faster than 9,600 bps, but it's nice to have the extra capacity for the future.

Unfortunately, phone lines are often "dirty," which means there's external noise that can scramble those ones and zeros. When affordable modems were limited to 2,400 bps, this problem could be handled by software that checked for errors. But higher speeds require hardware to do the job.

While 9,600 bps modems have been around for a years, until recently they relied on proprietary transmission protocols and error checking. That meant they could communicate only with other modems from the same manufacturer. But in the last year, most new modems have come off the assembly line sporting a lot of those "V" numbers.

These are symbols for transmission protocols, error checking and data compression standards set up by the International Consultative Committee for Telegraphy and Telephony, or CCITT.

Faxing documents requires an entirely different set of hardware and transmission protocols. The current FAX standard is known as CCITT Group 3, which describes fax machines that can send a standard page of text in about 20 seconds.

Not long ago, a modem with all these features was a $800 to $1,500 proposition. Today, you can find plenty in the $300 to $500 range. The Spirit II, which lists for only $250, is the least expensive I've seen. You can probably expect to find it on the street for as little as $200.

Frankly, I was expecting to spend some time tweaking my communications software to get the Spirit working properly at high speed. But when I started my communications software, it worked right out of the box without requiring that I change the basic setup I'd been using with an old 2,400 bps modem.

Using several different communications programs, I dialed the office and a variety of bulletin boards and on-line informations services. Some use error correction and some don't. The Spirit figured out what was on the other end and what speed the host was using, and made the connection perfectly.

With an extended version of the industry-standard Hayes "AT" command set, you can change all of the modem's settings to enable, disable or adjust the transmission protocols and error checking. The 154-page manual explains the settings clearly for those who understand communications, but it's hardly a document for beginners.

The modem comes with three different software packages. There's a registered copy of Mustang Software's Qmodem, a competent DOS-based, shareware communications program that can handle most communications tasks with aplomb.

For faxing, you'll find Delrina Technology's WinFax Pro Lite, which operates under Microsoft Windows, and DosFax Lite, which handles faxing under DOS.

WinFax Pro is easy to install and makes it possible to send faxes from any Windows application by "selecting" the fax modem as a printer.

DosFax is a different animal. It operates as a memory-resident program that captures printed documents and then transmits them to another fax machine or modem. But it's awkward, uses too much precious RAM, and requires more finagling than I personally want to do.

The only real problem I encountered with the Spirit involved another Windows fax program called Bitfax/OCR from Bit Software. It wouldn't control the Spirit properly, resulting in aborted transmissions and line errors. The technicians at QuickComm were aware of the problem, and as I checked around elsewhere I learned a dirty little secret of this new industry -- not all fax programs will work with all fax modems. If you stick to the software bundled with your modem, you'll be OK.

All things considered, the Spirit II is a state-of-the-art modem at yesterday's prices. If you want to move data fast and get a fax surrogate in the bargain, it's worth a look. For information, contact QuickComm Inc., 2290 Ringwood Ave, Suite K, San Jose, Calif. 95131.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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