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Buying a 56k Modem? Updated 27-Mar-05
If you're buying a new system, you might have a choice on modem (Dell, Gateway, HP, Compaq, etc.), or one might automatically be included (most notebooks and many pre-configured desktop PCs). Rarely will they tell you what you're really getting (chipset, DAA, and drivers), and I recommend that, if you have a choice, you get no modem and purchase it separately.
Almost all modems being manufactured today support the latest V.92 as well as all the popular older modem standards. (Any modems that don't support V.92 should be considered outdated surplus and should be had for next to nothing.) V.92 modems with V.44 compression might provide slightly better performance (throughput) than V.90 modems - and add improved call-waiting compatibility: if your ISP supports V.92, and you have call-waiting service, you may place your Internet connection on hold while taking the call, then resume your Internet session. To V.90 servers, most V.92 modems also offer the ability you to incoming call and allow you to decide whether to ignore it or disconnect and take it. (Some V.92 modems - apparently including Smartlink - do not offer this capability calling V.90 servers.) See this page for more information on the V.92/V.44 standards.
If you are thinking of a new modem because the one you have is disappointing, I recommend some troubleshooting first - do some throughput and diagnostics and save the results so you can compare with any other modem you try. Also - make note of the driver version and chipset of the modem you have, and save your throughput and diagnostic results along with a modem log. (Print them out, or save in a file in case the new modem is even more disappointing!)
Attempts to rate or review modems based upon performance aren't worth much: every phone line is different, (not to mention differences in call routing and the type of modems that answer your call), and there isn't a modem made that's perfect or even best for every single phone line and other variables. Beyond the basic design (discussed below), the actual performance you get will be determined in part by your phone line conditions, the ISP's modems, and the ability of the modem driver or firmware to deal with your line conditions and the ISP modem. And, finally, you can't look at modems and compare CONNECT speed to get a real picture of relative performance: it is throughput, not connect speed, that matters! (Some modems will report much higher speeds than they actually deliver!)
Modemsite sells a PCI modems that I think provides excellent performance/value combination for most users: Agere-chipset SoftModem.
BASIC MODEM DESIGN CHOICES:
SOFT, Winmodem, or Hardware Modem? There's a widely held belief that "Winmodems" (modems with a DSP but no hardware controller) and Softmodems (modems without a DSP or hardware controller) are inferior to hardware-based or controller-based modems. Actually, the reverse is closer to reality. The 115.2k COM port speed limit applicable to most "true hardware" modems is really a 92.16kbps data limit, and V.92/V.44 dial-up modems (and even V.90/V.42) are capable of delivering instantaneous speeds of more than 92.16kbps. A well-designed soft modem (winmodem, DSP, controllerless, HSP) can perform better than the most expensive "best" hardware modem. Forget about the nearly $300 USR Courier - this is 2005 and modems have become a commodity. The Winmodem/DSP modem places less of a load on your PC's CPU - but, once you've got a processor speed of 200-300mhz or more, the Softmodem's CPU use becomes insignificant.
A major difference among modems is the software (driver/firmware). While there are hundreds of modem "models", there are only a few chipsets. The load placed on the CPU by drivers associated with DSP or softmodem chipsets can vary - while I haven't done load testing, I believe Agere's DSP and Softmodem drivers are very efficient.
DAA - The modem is connected to the phone line, and also the electric line via your PC. There are several variations in DAA (data access arrangement: the phone line->modem interface and on/off-hook control) design: line transformer with electro-mechanical or solid-state relay; or, solid-state (including optoelectronic) switch. Everything else being equal, I would pick the line transformer with electro-mechanical relay. (My sense is that field failures of the solid-state and hybrid designs are much higher. Failure in this area can result in modem staying on or off-hook.) Most modem specs don't include information on this - you'll need to visually inspect the board (inside case on external models) or listen for relay clicking to know what kind a modem has.
It often is not possible to tell what chipset and what type of DAA any particular modem has - on store shelves the retail boxes rarely disclose this. Online and direct marketers often don't give this info either. If the modem is an internal, and you can see the actual modem or close-up picture thereof, you should be able to see chipmaker markings, and spot whether there's a relay & transformer.
DATA/FAX/VOICE/SPEAKERPHONE - My attitude is to forget about using your PC as an answering machine or speakerphone - it's there to connect to the Internet, and maybe send or receive some faxes. If you insist - data/fax/voice modems may severely disappoint you - many will not support (type 1) caller id, full-duplex sound (talking and listening simultaneously), and may have volume or clarity problems in voice mode. How well this works depends on the modem, driver, your particular phone line, your soundcard. The same voicemodem that performs well on one line in one PC may produce awful sound on another phone line and PC. A data/fax/voice/speakerphone may solve some of these issues; but, the modem may not perform as well with data depending upon the chipset.
If you don't have a 56k modem, should you buy one?
If 56k technology will work on your phone line(s), it can provide a boost in performance compared to v.34 and older modems. The catch being IF. And it's a heckuva IF!
First, if your modem is older than v.34 (28.8k-capable), I'd go for a 56k modem: it should allow you to connect at a higher speed than the 14.4 of v.32bis or 9600 of v.32 modems - even if you don't get 56k rates. So, go for it.
If you have a 28.8 (or 33.6) modem, I would suggest buying a 56k modem only if it has a money-back return privilege. You can try it, and if it doesn't work well - return it. Even if it does work at 56k rates, you should keep in mind that (a) it could stop working at any time; (b) you need to compare throughput, not the CONNECT speed reported as 56k modems can give "false" connect rates (c) performance can vary from call to call due to telco routing; and (d) retrains, errors and speedshifts can result in a 56k connection providing poorer throughput than a v.34 connection. Also see: What is a 56k-compatible line?
If a 56k modem came with your system, should you replace it?
Many new computers come with a bundled 56k modem. Often, the vendor will select the modem based upon cost - not quality, reliability or performance.
Many vendors bundle the least expensive modem they can find without regard to performance. It's possible a different modem will do better - but, without actually trying different modems, no one can say for sure.
If you have a better modem but aren't satisfied with the performance, there's no way to tell how a different modem will perform on your line without trying it. Unlike most computer products, reviews and tests of these products cannot give an indication of how the product will perform for you.
If you've got a 56k modem, but don't get 56k, I suggest you try to determine whether you have a 56k-compatible line.
Should you upgrade to V.92? V.92 is supported by a growing number of ISPs. The promise of improved upstream rates - supposed to be as high as 48k - hasn't materialized: most V.92 ISPs don't support PCM upstream at all, and those that do currently provide a best-case maximum of 34k upstream. (V.90 modems support a best-case maximum 33k V.34 upstream.) V.92 adds Modem-on-hold capability to V.92 ISPs, and call-waiting handling to all ISPs which can be a plus for anyone with call waiting. (Here - evolving interoperability and functional MoH handling varies among chipsets. I think Agere's 'LT Win' and 'Soft' are the best for MoH support. V.44 compression may add a boost in performance for some types of data. Most V.92 servers also support V.44. No V.90 servers support V.44. Most V.92 client modems (with the notable exception of USR Hardware modems) support V.44.
#1 - Agere Softmodem - This is a low-cost modem that gives excellent performance on most phone lines. It's good for Windows-based PCs only (no Linux support - although I have received report that this modem is supported in Suse Linux). The Agere Softmodem chipset is used by a number of OEM manufacturers and there are differences in design - I prefer the electro-mechanical DAA. (Jan 05: I've replaced the LT Win as #1: it is becoming less available, and as driver development has and continues to focus on Softmodem, the Softmodem often delivers better performance than the DSP.)
If you want a "full" hardware-controller modem -
USR External Fax Modem (5686-03/04) - This is an external modem that will work with any PC with any operating system. You need a serial modem cable to connect it to a COM port on your computer. The modem will perform well on the widest range of line conditions to the widest range of ISP modems. It provides good diagnostics, and can identify if your line is not 56k-compatible. It is one of the most expensive modems you can purchase. 5686-xx modems are capable of V.92, but not V.44. You might get the 'best deal' on a used (auction) or sale of older (non-V.92) USR model. Beware: Not all "USR" modems qualify for USR warranty and support - and a new "pay-to-troubleshoot before we'll consider any warranty issue" policy is in effect: see USR Warranty.
20-Jan-02: I no longer recommend buying most USR Modems. See the 20-Jan-02 V.92 update for more on why.
What Not to Buy & Other Considerations:
I recommend avoiding:
Most HSP, AMR, or USB modem. (Includes all PCTel, ESS, Cirrus/Ambient/Intel, Motorola, Conexant Soft56, and Lucent AMR). (Notable exception - the Agere SV92P - the Modemsite Softmodem is based on Agere SV92P.)
Any OEM-USR modem. (The OEM, not USR, is responsible for support of the modem - including any firmware/driver updates and warranty issues.)
Lucent Wildwire DSL/Winmodem. Forget this modem. Lucent/Agere is forgetting it: a discontinued product that won't work in Windows 2000 or XP, and won't support most DSL providers.
Also consider that most "good" 56k connections are actually in the mid-40k range. Connections at or above 50k are fairly rare. Don't expect "twice" the performance: going from 28.8k to 44k is more like a 1½ improvement. If you do a lot of uploading, beware: the 56k rate is downstream only (from the ISP to you); while 56k modems support up to 33.6 rates upstream, they often will connect at a lower upstream rate on 56k connections than you will get with a v.34 connection. The promised boost of V.92 PCM Upstream is almost 100% unfulfilled: no combination of V.92 client and server modem is getting any better upstream results than are obtained with a good V.34 upstream - and this is unlikely to change in the near future. If you are doing heavy uploading, you may actually get better results disabling 56k and going for a v.34 (28.8k) connect. See the Troubleshooting Page, and the Throughput Page for an idea of what you might run into.
Mail Order vs. Local purchase: If you haven't tried the exact brand, model & firmware of the modem you're planning on buying, and you have a local retailer that's giving you a 'no penalty' 100% money-back guarantee, that's a big plus. Most mail-order deals are going to involve less than 100% back if you want to return it. This is like no other purchase in your life: imagine buying a brand new car and finding it won't do more than 33.6mph on the interstate.... but, if you give that car to your neighbor, and it comes out of his driveway - he hums at 56+ with