It wasn’t my first choice. That’s an odd way to start a review, but I was not planing to purchase a PSI modem. I was, though, planning to leave on a trip and since at the time the other PowerBook modem manufacturer was still promising a release date of Real Soon Now [of course, now there are several internal PowerBook modems to choose from -Adam], I settled for the PSI PowerModem IV (currently about $360 mail order).
Hardware — The PowerModem IV is a 14,400 bps data, 14,400 bps send/receive fax modem with v.32 error correction and v.32bis compression that provide a maximum theoretical throughput of 57,600 bps. [Not that that ever happens in real life. -Adam] The modem uses the standard Hayes AT command set and features auto-negotiation of normal mode connections. Normal mode means that the Mac-modem and modem-modem communications can occurs at different speeds (asynchronous operation). Ideally one can leave the serial port speed alone and let the modems automatically negotiate the highest bps rate and the best error correction. In my experience it wasn’t always that simple.
The modem itself is a single card that installs in the PowerBook modem slot. The modem is entirely internal; the only visible sign of installation is the modular phone plug on the back panel. Installation should be performed by an Apple technician, but if you already know how to void your warranty, have fun.
Software — During my review of the PMIV, the bundled software went through several revisions (and should go through another change by the time you read this). The things that did not change much are the bundled "trial memberships." An America Online membership package (with software) is included, as is a CompuServe membership and mail-in offers for other services. PSI also includes the required CCL files for AppleTalk Remote Access.
The fax software went through a major revision during this time. The modem originally came bundled with FaxSTF. PSI has bought the rights to FaxSTF and re-worked the package into FAXcilitate, which features an extension that adds a Fax menu to the menubar of all applications. All the features of the fax software can be accessed through this menu, though access is also possible by running the individual programs in the package.
In day-to-day use I found FAXcilitate’s menu easier to use than the previous software (which required several different programs and command-key sequences). To send a document, just select Fax from the Fax menu. FAXcilitate then presents an expanded print dialog. The list of fax number entries in the current user phonebook appears in a scrolling field on the left. To select a destination, drag the desired recipient into a field on the right (appropriately marked "Drag Destinations Here!"). If you need to send the document to more than one destination, drag the additional ones over as well (according to the manual, you can enter up to 2,000 destinations, but that seems like overkill). You may then send the fax immediately or delay sending to a later time or date, which is particularly useful for the PowerBook since I often work away from a phone line. Unfortunately, the software isn’t able to wake the PowerBook (except for the PowerBook 100) to send a fax .
I found the software’s performance adequate, though receiving faxes in the background did slow the computer slightly. The software supports viewing (with multiple magnification levels), printing, or forwarding faxes. It also features an OCR engine (licensed from Caere) that can translate faxes into editable text files. I have mixed feelings about the OCR feature. The results were only accurate when the received fax was high resolution, which wasn’t usually the case. Likewise, smaller point sizes tended to reduce the accuracy of the OCR translation. Though it might be useful in a pinch, its day-to-day utility seems dubious.
The modem originally included MicroPhone 1.7 for data communication. Beginning on 01-Jun-93, PSI instead bundles MacIntercomm Lite (MIL), a large improvement over MicroPhone 1.7. MIL supports X, Y, and ZMODEM transfers and features "preemptive" multi-tasking so that the transfers can run in the background even when running CPU-intensive foreground tasks. It supports terminal emulations through VT-102 and has a phonebook that stores the numbers, settings, and ten user-definable macros for each service. The upgrade to the full version of MacIntercomm (which adds a scripting language, VT-220 emulation, and Kermit transfers) costs $49. I won’t trade in my copy of White Knight for MIL, but I would not hesitate to recommend it as someone’s first telecom package.
Support — Technical support was easy to reach via email or toll-free call. The staff was always helpful and prompt with replies. When I called pretending to be completely ignorant of modems, the tech explained several things to try and faxed me a seven-page document that walked me through the setup procedures for connecting to several of the commercial service providers (AOL, CompuServe Information Manager, CompuServe Navigator, Prodigy) and low speed modems inside and outside the U.S. I cannot speak highly enough of this support, especially since I eventually needed it for real.
PSI also maintains a customer BBS and ARA server. The ARA server contains several files useful to modem users (such as a table listing the types of connection adapters required to use a modem in other countries).
Overall — What do I think of the PMIV on the whole? As I said at the beginning of this review, the PSI PowerModem IV was not my first choice for an internal modem. But at the time my first choice was vaporware. So I settled.
Having now stated my bias, YES, the PSI modem works well in both fax and data modes. I am a heavy modem user (three or more hours a day) and have experienced little difficulty connecting to modems from 300 bps to 14,000 bps, long distance and local. The few services I did have difficulties connecting to were older modems/muxes. I fixed the problems by manually setting the speed/protocol in the modem initialization string. It should be noted that I have yet to use a modem that could connect to these services 100 percent of the time without modifying the init string.
Fax results have been equally good. Having fax support built in proved much more addicting than I planned. I find it convenient to type up a quick letter and fax it off when I get near a phone line rather than go hunting for a printer, envelope, and stamp. The faxes I sent also look much better than ones sent from a regular fax machine. In 40 or so sends, I have yet to have a connection problem. Receiving faxes works just as well, though I don’t get many since my PowerBook constitutes a moving target. [I’m jealous – I’ve never had anything but mixed results from fax modems. -Adam]
Problems — What do I dislike? Well, PSI’s quality control seems a bit lax. My first PMIV was dead on arrival and eventually had to be replaced. My first FAXcilitate upgrade came with an incorrect disk. This is obviously only anecdotal data, but I can’t be the only one that these things happen to.
The documentation could use help. The current documentation is by no means bad and is much better than the original documentation. It contains an excellent tutorial and installation/configuration sections, but falls down in the technical details, not even listing the full AT command set. It also fails to mention some of the software’s features at all, such as what the AnyFax engine is. Much of this is addressed by the online documentation included on the installation disk, but online documentation isn’t a good substitute for a printed manual.
Finally the FaxMenu extension conflicts with any extension or control panel that attempts to display the PowerBook’s battery status in the menubar. I tried three different one; all butted heads with FaxMenu. I found no other major extension conflicts, but working without a battery icon is a real bummer when working away from an outlet.
All things considered, I would still recommend the PowerModem IV to anyone looking for an internal PowerBook modem. It performs well and the tech support and bundled software is first rate. PSI also seems to be improving the software on an almost weekly basis. The only question remaining is will you be happy with "only" data and fax when several other manufacturers offer options such as cellular connectivity and voice messaging?
[Yup, I would be. I’m getting more and more into a reality kick, in which I continually ask myself, "Will I really use this feature?" Too many of these new features will be wonderful for a small subset of users, and frills to the rest. On a more serious note, I just received a press release from Supra indicating that they purchased PSI after the Silicon Valley Bank foreclosed on PSI’s secured assets. Supra indicated that they would retain the PSI name and product line along with core PSI personnel. In other words, although the original PSI is gone, customers will theoretically see little or no difference now that Supra has taken over. -Adam]