Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue
In this special issue, we present our general modem discussion (at least enough so you can judge among modems that have impressive sounding, but misleading, specs) and review two popular v.everything modems, the Practical Peripherals PM14400FXSA and the Supra's SupraFAXModem v.32bis. They're both inexpensive, capable, and reliable (although that's not to say that other modems may not be equally as good).
Copyright 1993 Adam & Tonya Engst. Details at end of issue.
Automated info: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Comments: <email@example.com>
[Archived as /info-mac/digest/tb/tidbits-163.etx; 25K]
In the last year we've seen the rise of several varieties of fast modems, which I jokingly call "v.everything" modems because they seemingly support every standard protocol in the telecommunications world, including such arcana as v.22bis, v.42bis, v.32, and v.32bis, none of which I'm going to explain here. I could do so, and if there's enough clamor I might consider it, but it's not that interesting and the major magazines have all done a decent job of it in the past. In addition, I feel you shouldn't give a hoot what protocols your modem uses; you should ignore it entirely because all modems should support all protocols. As we'll see, that's unfortunately untrue.
In any case, as enthusiasm grew to a fever pitch, I decided that in the interests of science I should review several of the most popular modems so I could pass on my findings. I chose two modems based on several criteria: price, features, company reputation, and the pitch of the online fever. The modems are the Practical Peripherals PM14400FXSA and the SupraFAXModem v.32bis. The Supra modem sells for around $360 discount, and the PPI 14400FXSA (they should shrink that name) goes for about $50 more, but you should find either affordable, assuming you can afford that much at all.
The testing took some time, and during that time I experienced numerous tangential problems: the night the demon fax machine from hell called every 15 minutes but could not connect, a trip or two to Macworld, and the ultimate decision about which modem to keep. As such, this review expanded to include information and opinions that arose during the testing.
Let's face it, you buy these modems for their speed. You want screamingly fast data transfers that leaves wisps of smoke coming out of your serial ports and burnt rubber on your phone lines. The good news is that you'll get that speed, and you can now download QuickTime movies without fear of tying up your phone line for a fortnight. The bad news is that you won't get that speed everywhere, and you'll start nagging other people to upgrade to faster modems.
The great fallacy of modems is that you need two to tango, and if the partners, say me and Ginger Rodgers, don't dance at the same speed, then the you'll see a pretty lame tango because Ginger can't dance with me the way she could with Fred Astaire.
Telecommunications takes this to the extreme, so your snazzy new v.everything modem will step down to the highest common speed it and a remote modem share. So you must think about the modems you connect with, and find out if they support the same protocols as the modem you want to buy. I say "protocols" specifically, because modem companies bat around the term "speed" in misleading ways, so you may see a "9,600 baud" modem that is really a 2,400 bps (bits per second) modem that also includes v.42bis compression protocols, thus increasing the theoretical throughput to 9,600 bps. (Although baud does not equal bps the two terms are often used interchangeably in the industry.) So make sure your modems share protocols, and the best one to share is v.32bis, which equals 14,400 bps. Next in line is v.32, which equals 9,600 bps. You can usually count on those sort of modems also supporting the compression protocols of v.42bis and MNP 5, and if something supports MNP 5, it will usually, if not always, support MNP 1 through 4 too, but you should almost never worry about those. Just take that v.32 or v.32bis number and compare it with all the modems you connect to on a regular basis. If it matches, good. If not, 2,400 is a nice even number that you'll get used to seeing after CONNECT.
One caveat to this. The commonly-used US Robotics line of modems uses a proprietary standard called HST, which is not v.anything. Thus, two HST modems achieve high speeds talking to each other, but a different v.32 modem must step down to the highest common speed of 2,400 bps. US Robotics also has a Dual Standard modem, which supports v.32bis as well as HST, and that one works fine with v.32bis modems from other companies.
That said, I tried these modems with a bunch of others that I normally work with. On the whole, both modems worked well, although I experienced more quirks than I would have liked, and I'm now fluent in the Hayes command set. I connected to (as far as I know, and with the highest speed I could reach after each one) a Telebit TrailBlazer Plus (2,400 bps), a Telebit T2500 (v.32 = 9,600 bps), a Telebit WorldBlazer (v.32bis = 14,400 bps), a US Robotics HST (2,400 bps), a US Robotics Dual Standard (v.32bis = 14,400 bps), and several other v.32 and v.32bis whose manufacturers I don't know. Both the PPI and the Supra connected equally well and transferred files equally well to all of these modems with one exception. For some reason I couldn't figure out, the Supra would not connect to the WorldBlazer at v.32bis. Instead I had to lock the connection speed at 9,600 bps (v.32), after which it worked fine with the WorldBlazer. That may be a quirk with my particular setup, or it may have been fixed by one of Supra's ROM upgrades since then.
In both cases, using ZMODEM to transfer files over the fastest possible connection satisfied my longing for speed. Uploading 30K issues of TidBITS, which used to take about 90 seconds at 2,400 bps now takes about 11 seconds. Massive QuickTime movies and HyperCard stacks might take fifteen minutes, but you'll be hard pressed to download anything for much longer than that. Gone are the days of hour-long downloads.
Software on the other end can play a role too. Connecting to CompuServe, which supports v.32, works fine, but you only enjoy a speed increase in uploading and downloading files. Transferring mail and forum messages in Navigator doesn't go much faster, and it's not worth the significantly higher connect charges for most people. If you download files from CompuServe regularly, work out a system for transferring files at a high speed, then hanging up and getting mail and messages at 2,400 bps.
Similarly, America Online (AOL) doesn't yet support speeds faster than 2,400 bps, partly from a software standpoint and partly because they probably haven't figured out how to charge for it yet. Users have been screaming for the faster lines and software on AOL's end to support them for some time, and Steve Case, president of America Online, has assured us that it will happen in the near future, although that was months ago. I don't use GEnie or Prodigy, but again, it doesn't matter what speed you can use if they can't match it in hardware and software. Check that, because the claims about a faster modem paying for itself in reduced connect charges may not apply to your specific situation. Sad but true.
If you connect to an Internet machine, I expect that you will have more luck in finding fast modems and appropriate software on the remote end. In addition, generic mainframes seldom have speed limitations on their dial-up lines because those dial-up lines essentially emulate a directly-connected terminal. Reading Usenet with nn or rn becomes a joy rather than a bore, and if your site has the latest and greatest software, you might be able to use SLIP and one of the many useful free or shareware programs that require a SLIP connection. I recently set up a SLIP connection, and have seen throughputs as high as 1,700 characters per second (roughly 17,000 bps) with compression on a v.32bis connection.
As time passes, modem companies become more aware of ways to ease telecommunication. Flashing lights have long been the modem's only interface to the outside world, but both the Supra and the PPI have gone beyond that, especially the PPI. Supra provides a two-letter LED display that lets you know what the modem thinks is happening, and after you connect, the display rotates between telling you about the connection speed, data compression, error correction, and the like. PPI raised the ante on this neat and extremely useful feature with a 12 character LCD display that shows more readable and verbose messages. I quickly became addicted to the PPI display, and my only quibble is that you have to orient the modem so that you can see it straight on. The PPI also has more little lights, but frankly, other than off-hook, and send and receive data, they don't tell me anything useful. Stick with these displays, modem makers!
Both modems report on their version numbers and all that, but PPI added an additional diagnostic, ATI6, which gives information about the last session, including number of characters, octets (close relatives of the ocelot), packets, and NAKs (related to the common YAK) sent and received, the last number called, the connection time, modes and protocols used, and finally, how the call was terminated. I don't use it often, but every now and then I refer to this information to figure out what happened with a connection.
Supra added a photocopied sheet to their package with tips and the best configuration strings for the common Macintosh programs. I'm sure PPI has the same sort of information around, and I would have appreciated a similar sheet with the PPI modem. For instance, it's going to take a while to figure out that you can't use hardware handshaking with Mike O'Connor's CompuServe Navigator, and it may take some time to find the &K4 string to shut it off.
Both modems come with dramatically improved manuals from previous modems I've seen, but even still, the bulk of each manual is devoted to listing all the various parts of the modem's command set and what the different variables do. I rate the manuals about equally because both provide useful information in normal English. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen more basic information about different protocols and compression modes. I know at least PPI has a free brochure on that subject, so why not put that information in the manual? If you are interested in getting the free brochure, call PPI at the number below and ask for it.
Both modems include fax and data software, MicroPhone 1.6 and FaxSTF for the Supra, and Quick Link II Fax for the PPI. I suppose that's good for novice users, but I feel that people who want a good simple communications program for the Mac will use the shareware ZTerm, and those who want more power will look to MicroPhone II 4.0 or White Knight. Nonetheless, it's good to have something to play with immediately if you don't already have a communications program.
You might like one neat little feature that the PPI has that other modems may share. It converts letters to numbers, so you can put numbers like 1-900/TAX-HELP into your automatic dialer and the modem will dial the appropriate numbers for those letters.
Incidentally, you need a special hardware handshaking cable for these modems to reach their true potential. This is something of a non-issue, since both companies bundle hardware handshaking cables with their Mac packages, but if your modem comes without one of those cables, you'll have to buy one separately (from the modem companies or from MacConnection) for about $15.
Modems are perhaps the most-trouble free pieces of common computer peripheral. I say that based on their incredibly long warranties, five years for the Supra and a lifetime warranty for the PPI. Nevertheless, I've seen a number of reports of modems being dead on arrival, so support carries a fair amount of importance. In addition, during the first few weeks of use as you gradually connect to more and more high-speed modems, you may need help in figuring out the best configuration strings. Finally, although a modem's programming is burned into a chip, modem companies do occasionally, or even frequently, update those ROMs to add features or fix bugs. Both Supra and PPI have issued several ROM upgrades since shipping the modems.
I had a doozy of a support problem that isn't related to either of the modems, but which gave me a good sense of the level of support. The day I installed both modems, my UUCP mail host upgraded its modems to Telebit WorldBlazers. Since that day, I have not been able to send to that machine with either of the new modems or with my old 2,400 bps modem, using any program or protocol. I've even tried it not only from my SE/30, but also from our PowerBook 100 and Classic. Receiving works fine, but sending fails, though not always in the same place, and slowing down the speed usually increases the time before the first packet time-out. Even stranger, other people with the same modems, the same computers, and the same software can send files to this machine with no trouble, and I even used a neighbor's phone line briefly to make sure my phone line hadn't changed. We're talking the communication problem from hell here, and we have no clue how to fix it, although we've determined it even happens when my Mac is directly connected to the Vax via a long cable. As I said, I now speak the Hayes command set fluently because I've changed literally every setting that could affect the connection.
First I called each company's tech support people, and received little help. Both technicians said that the problem obviously wasn't with their modem, so they couldn't help me. True, but I would have appreciated any suggestions they could have provided. Next I asked on CompuServe, where both companies offer support. PPI's tech support staff there, Paul Hansen and Marty Azarani, offered numerous suggestions and hints, and sent me a new front panel for the PPI modem (mine had a bad LED for transmit) and a new ROM to fix some fax difficulties among other things. The process was absolutely no hassle - just a message outlining what I needed and where to send it, and from the messages I've seen, everyone gets the same level of support. Though not quite at the level of the support I received from PPI, Supra's online support was good as well. The only drawback here is that you need a CompuServe account to easily receive this excellent service, although you can send Internet email to Supra and Paul Hansen of PPI will try to help via email as well, although without the thread context, he will have more trouble keeping what's happening straight. Paul said that he's in the process of setting up an Internet account (see below for addresses).
Well, not really. I include fax capabilities in my "v.everything" tagline, and both of these modems have it, and both come with appropriate fax software. That's the good news. The bad news is that my success rate with receiving and sending faxes has been low, although there are several reasons for that.
The Supra comes with FaxSTF from STF Technologies, and I have few complaints about FaxSTF. STF designed a decent interface, the software handles most things automatically (like bringing up a non-modal status window automatically when a fax comes in), and offers features you might normally want from a fax machine. My few complaints are that STF isn't great about sharing the serial port with other communications programs and that it includes a lot of pieces, including two DAs, an application, a Control Panel, an extension, and Chooser device. That's a lot to keep straight, and the fact that you have to configure most everything from within the Chooser device bothers me. I'd like STF to bring the number of pieces down to an extension that sends and receives and has a Control Panel interface for configuring the software, a single DA for feedback and sending quick text faxes, and the otherwise nice application for managing phone books and viewing faxes.
FaxSTF insists on taking over the modem if you turn on auto-answer, and not all communications programs deal well with making FaxSTF relinquish control of the serial port. My automatic mail sessions in America Online, uAccess, and Navigator all work, but often I come in to see that the modem is no longer auto-answering and that uAccess is complaining about not being able to access the serial port. Still, I could suffer with FaxSTF the way it stands, and in conjunction with the Supra modem it worked about half of the time. Perhaps one of the ROM upgrades will help.
QuickLink II Fax from Smith Micro originally had real problems. I can overlook the functional troubles for the moment, since I was working with a beta version and most of the functional problems seem to have disappeared, although when QuickLink II has Fax Receiving on, at least uAccess cannot access the serial port. (PPI owners on CompuServe can get the latest software by asking in the Practical Peripherals forum, GO PPIFORUM, or you can call PPI and order it, with disk and manual, for $34.95.) More serious in my opinion are the problems with the interface. QLIIFax has two basic interface problems. First, the fax software comes in the same program as a normal telecommunications program, so you can use it for calling BBSs as well as sending faxes. This may sound good, but the telecom part of the program is unimpressive, if functional, and doesn't support ZMODEM. Including menus with data and fax commands clutters and confuses the interface significantly. Second, although Smith Micro significantly revamped the interface when I and other complained about it, I'm still not impressed. It's prettier and there are fewer modal dialogs, but it still doesn't look or work as smoothly as FaxSTF.
In both apps, the procedure for creating a fax is simple - merely choose the fax driver in the Chooser and print the document. You can either send the document immediately or schedule sending for a later date. Of course, no matter what you do (even with using TrueType or ATM fonts, a necessity for faxing), the document will look ugly on the other end and in most cases will print on non-recyclable paper. Frankly, although I admit their utility, I think faxes generally waste paper. Although I don't know if they have released it yet, STF is working on a program that does optical character recognition on incoming faxes, turning them from disk-hungry bitmaps into usable, editable text files. More power to them, and if possible, we'll review it here.
I suspect that when all is said and done, both modems will eventually work equally well at sending and receiving faxes, although people I've spoken with say that fax modems are never as reliable as regular fax machines, which is a shame. I have had trouble primarily with receiving faxes, which currently arrive successfully about 10% of the time. At the moment, I have to give the nod to the Supra modem and its FaxSTF software, or to a the PPI modem with the additional purchase of FaxSTF (which you can buy separately, and it's included in MicroPhone Pro from Software Ventures), for those who anticipate using the fax features often. Others have also recommended the Global Village modems and their proprietary software, but I've never even seen it.
T/Maker sent me a copy of ClickArt for Faxes a while back, before I had a working fax modem (and they included candy with the review copy, an excellent policy that I recommend to the rest of the industry). It's a neat idea if you send a lot of otherwise boring faxes, because it's composed of a collection of cover sheets in various formats, including Word, WriteNow, MacWrite, and MacPaint. You can snazz up your faxes with these cover sheets, but you may not find all the sentiments entirely to your liking, although you can easily edit them. That's a personal decision and not something I can judge easily. I know that there were only two cover sheets with penguins on them, something I could use more of. :-)
My complaint about ClickArt for Faxes is that these fax programs already have a feature that automatically generates a cover sheet, so if you use these, you must remember to shut off the automatic cover sheet or you'll look dumb. Otherwise, ClickArt for Faxes is a simple and inexpensive ($69 list) way to have fun, and the world can use more of that.
T/Maker -- 415/962-0195 -- 415/962-0201 (fax)
If you want a new modem and you have an excuse to buy a fast one, I recommend either of these units. If you only connect at 2,400 bps, you can probably go for a cheaper 2,400 bps data/9,600 bps fax modem. Otherwise, the price is right for what these modems provide in terms of the fastest data transmission commonly available and the added send and receive fax capabilities that businesses find useful.
That doesn't answer your question, though, about which of the two to purchase. In most ways, the modems are similar, so it comes down to specifics. For my uses, the PPI gains a slight edge because of the one quirk with the Supra in talking to the WorldBlazer and the neat LCD display. I seldom use faxes if I can help it because I don't approve of them, so PPI's Quick Link II Fax software doesn't bother me as much as it would otherwise. Finally, I'm unlikely to travel with this modem at all, so the PPI's larger size doesn't bother me. In summary then, I think the PPI is a slightly better primarily-data modem for desk use. The Supra has far better fax software, is cheaper, and is much smaller (although it runs hotter because it uses the metal case as a heat sink). I took it to Boston for Macworld and found it a good traveling modem, though certainly not as small as some. You won't go wrong with either modem, but it might be worth checking into other modems that these two companies have released in the meantime. Supra has an internal PowerBook modem, and PPI introduced a tiny pocket modem, both of which might be better suited to travelling if you do a lot of it.
Practical Peripherals, Inc.
375 Conejo Ridge Avenue
Thousand Oaks CA 91361
Paul Hansen -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Marty Azarani -- email@example.com
Alan Engle of Smith Micro -- firstname.lastname@example.org
7101 Supra Drive SW
Albany, OR 97321
Jason Collins of STF Technologies -- email@example.com
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue