modems' last stand

Even at a top speed of 56 Kbps, today's fastest modems can't compete with digital technologies such as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), and cable modems–all of which can give your Internet connection a huge speed boost because they don't have to rely on the slow, noisy analog phone lines we use for voice communication.

While 56K modems are on their way out, they're definitely not dead yet. Modems still are essential for faxing and remote access from hotels and other outback locations. No matter who you are, you'll likely still have a 56K modem in your life for the foreseeable future. That's why, in addition to testing today's digital technologies, Macworld Lab tested five 56K modems to find which one is the best (see the sidebar, "The Last Modem You'll Ever Buy?").

But we also wanted to make sure you're prepared for a telecommunications future that's becoming more real every day. Which high-speed technology should you choose? Each of these three fast Internet technologies has its own particular strengths and weaknesses–not all of them may be available in your area, each offers its own set of technical challenges, and one may be better suited for your particular needs. Let Macworld be your guide to the new frontier of high-speed Internet access.


ISDN Rides Again

Having been around for years, ISDN is the most widely available digital Internet service. It's the high-speed technology most closely related to analog-modem technology and is well understood by Internet providers, meaning it may cause you less of a headache to set up than some of the newer connection technologies.

ISDN is different from analog-modem technology and DSL in that it uses a digital phone line, not a standard analog phone line. (You can't just plug your regular phone into an ISDN jack and expect a dial tone.) Unlike analog modems, ISDN doesn't modulate an audio signal in order to send data–it can send digital data directly, making ISDN much faster than analog modems and virtually error-free.

Two-Way Speed

ISDN offers symmetrical bandwidth–you can upload at the same speed as you can download, an important consideration for business users, telecommuters, people who plan on running Web servers, and anyone else who transmits a lot of data. Of course, typical Internet users tend to download a whole lot more data than they upload.

ISDN operates at speeds from 112 Kbps to 128 Kbps, depending on the type of equipment you use, and you're assured of getting that speed all the way to your Internet provider. To use ISDN, you must be within ten miles of your telephone company's nearest central office.

What It Costs

An ISDN line costs about twice as much as an ordinary phone line: between $25 and $50 per month. Add to that another $25 to $50 for Internet service, and you're looking at between $50 and $100 per month for a complete package. However, in most areas, you must also pay a penny or two per minute to the phone company for ISDN usage, plus normal long-distance rates if you're dialing an ISDN number out of your area. Those usage charges can add up to significant expense–$100 or more per month on top of your flat monthly rates–if you're online a lot.

However, ISDN does give you a great deal of freedom of choice. Because you can place ISDN calls anywhere in the country, and even to many international destinations, ISDN gives you complete flexibility in choosing an Internet provider. Because you can dial up different ISDN numbers, just as you can different phone numbers with an analog modem, ISDN has also become popular for companies offering telecommuting services to their employees.

Getting Connected

To use ISDN, you must have an ISDN terminal adapter (sometimes called an ISDN modem) or an ISDN-capable Ethernet router. The terminal adapter connects to your Mac through a serial port (the same type of port used to connect modems and printers), while an ISDN router uses the Mac's Ethernet port. Terminal adapters are less expensive, but the Mac serial port's inherent limitations peg top throughput at about 100 Kbps. Routers cost more, but they let you exploit ISDN's full 128 Kbps and let several Macs and PCs share a single Internet connection.

You also must order a special ISDN phone line from your local telephone company. Most ISDN Internet providers offer a package deal where they order the line for you and supply an ISDN terminal adapter or router. One caveat: be certain that your ISDN Internet provider is a local call from your location. Otherwise, you'll have to pay per-minute charges in addition to all your other fees.

Over the years, Macworld has tested virtually all the Macintosh-friendly ISDN devices (see "Connect with ISDN," October 1997); a visit to the product-review archives at http://www.macworld.com will help you choose the best ISDN gear for your needs. Our favorite is probably the $550 Pipeline 75 from Ascend ( http://www.ascend.com ), a reliable, inexpensive, and easy-to-configure ISDN router. Prices range from $300 for single-user devices to $600 for multiuser ISDN routers.


DSL Comes of Age

As local phone companies and their competitors have rushed to deploy DSL service in major metropolitan areas, DSL has been the subject of a lot of recent hype. DSL works by adding digital-data-transmission capabilities to an ordinary phone line–if you get DSL, your phone wire will carry both analog voice signals and digital data. A device called a splitter, installed by your DSL provider where your phone lines enter your house, separates the analog phone line (which then connects to the ordinary phone jacks in your house) from the DSL line. The DSL line then runs from the splitter to a DSL modem.

Slower Up than Down

The variation of DSL that you'll most likely encounter is ADSL, or Asymmetrical DSL–so named because upload and download speeds can differ, unlike with ISDN. DSL requires that you be within about three miles of your telephone company's central office (in contrast with ISDN's ten-mile limit)–and DSL's maximum speed drops as the distance increases. At its fastest, DSL can deliver an impressive 6 Mbps for downloads and 640 Kbps for uploads–more than forty times faster than ISDN for downloads; at its slowest, it's about as speedy as ISDN for downloads and can be slower than an analog modem for uploads.

What It Costs

DSL line costs vary by speed. Expect to pay between $30 and $50 per month for low-end service (384 Kbps for downloads, 128 Kbps for uploads) and between $100 and $200 per month for high-end service (1.5 Mbps for downloads, 384 Kbps for uploads). In addition to installing the DSL line, you'll have to subscribe with an Internet provider that's supported by your DSL provider. Some single-user connections cost as little as $10 per month for low-end speeds. You must also pay for a local phone line over which the DSL service rides, but that may well be your existing analog phone line.

Because DSL uses ordinary phone lines, it's available to businesses as well as homes. However, don't expect to serve your 50-user LAN with a $100-per-month 1.5-Mbps DSL connection. Most Internet providers add a surcharge for multiple users, and business connections incur even higher surcharges.

As a bonus, Internet and DSL providers often offer telecommuter and branch-office services that let you use DSL to interconnect remote users with your LAN. Although you'll likely pay more for these services, you'll still save a bundle over the cost of a private wide-area network.

Since most DSL connections are asymmetrical, it's impractical to run high-volume Web or FTP servers via DSL. However, low-volume servers can be run via DSL without much trouble.

Getting Connected

The DSL modem connects to your Mac via the Ethernet port, because the serial ports available on most computers simply can't accommodate DSL speeds. DSL-modem prices run between $500 and $1,000. As with ISDN, most DSL providers offer package deals in which they order the DSL line for you and supply the necessary DSL gear. Some will even offer and install an Ethernet card if your Mac lacks an Ethernet port. If you sign up for a year or more, providers often discount start-up costs, reducing your equipment outlay to $300 or less. (Be sure to check to see if your prospective DSL provider supports the Mac–recently, the Internet has been teeming with horror stories about ignorant DSL providers refusing to support Macs for no clear technical reason.)

The bottom line is that DSL gives you the widest selection of Internet providers of any Internet-connection technology besides the analog modem. And unlike ISDN, which incurs per-minute usage charges that can be high when you're calling a distant Internet provider, DSL is a dedicated connection that's always online with no per-minute or distance-sensitive costs.


Not Your Father's Cable TV

Perhaps the best bargain of high-speed-connection options is the cable modem, which uses your coaxial television cable and delivers speeds of up to 10 Mbps for downloads and often 50 percent or more of this speed for uploads. However, that speed can be quite variable–because that television cable must deliver traffic simultaneously to a few hundred or a few thousand users, speeds can slow if lots of people in an area are using the Internet at once.

The Cable Guy

Cable modems are undeniably fast, but the nature of cable Internet services has some drawbacks. Virtually all cable Internet providers exclude competitors, so if you want a cable modem, you're stuck with your cable company as your Internet provider. Think about that for a minute. No matter what happens to your service, no matter what complaints you have about support or performance, and no matter how much the provider raises prices down the road, you won't likely have the recourse of switching to another cable provider. Business users in urban locations or in office buildings may have to pay exorbitant installation charges. Most cable suppliers currently treat their subscribers as "viewers" rather than users and don't cater to the special needs of businesses by offering such services as dedicated IP addresses, telecommuting, and secure interoffice connectivity.

What It Costs

Cable Internet service typically runs $25 to $50 per month in addition to whatever you pay for cable TV service. Currently, most cable providers offer only a single speed of service, don't guarantee a minimum data-transfer speed, and charge extra for multiple computers. You may need Ethernet wiring to connect your cable TV box to your computer; most cable providers ask that you arrange the installation of that wiring yourself.

Getting Connected

The provider supplies you with a cable modem–costing between $300 and $600 but often rented as part of the service–which you connect to your computer, either via Ethernet or using a special adapter card installed in your computer. Often, the card-based methods don't support the Macintosh–check with your cable company to see if it offers a Macintosh-friendly option, such as a cable modem that uses Ethernet as its connection scheme.


Full Speed Ahead

Macworld Lab ran performance tests on the gamut of modern connectivity technologies: 56K modems using the V.90 standard, ISDN, ADSL, and cable modems. The results show just how much faster the all-digital technologies are than analog modems (see the benchmark "The Digital Age").

The 56K Modem

Compared with 33.6-Kbps modems, which usually reach their rated 33.6-Kbps throughput, 56-Kbps modems disappoint. The best speed we saw among 56K modems was 41.4 Kbps on an FTP download and a mere 27.5 Kbps on an FTP upload–and those numbers were not from the same modem (see "Maxed-Out Modems"). Achieving a full 56 Kbps depends on extremely clean phone lines and isn't something you can even expect to regularly achieve. (For the whole 56K modem story, see "The Last Modem You'll Ever Buy?")

ISDN

ISDN dynamically connects at two possible speeds based on demand–either 64 Kbps for one channel or 128 Kbps for two channels–and Web browsing often doesn't move enough traffic to keep both channels dialed up. So when Macworld Lab tested ISDN's speed at Web browsing, we got results that hovered around 64 Kbps. File transfers, however, took full advantage of both channels, achieving an average throughput of 104 Kbps.

DSL

We tested a typical Ethernet-based DSL modem over an ADSL connection that promised a download rate of 384 Kbps and an upload rate of 128 Kbps. We obtained consistent download speeds of 100 Kbps (Web) to 200 Kbps (FTP). Upload speeds were slower due to the connection's asymmetrical bandwidth: top upload speeds were about 100 Kbps. That's still much faster than the speeds we achieved with the notoriously slow-to-upload 56-Kbps modems. And because our tests were on a type of DSL connection that's commonly available for home users, they don't show the upper limits of DSL's speed–you can get much higher speeds by simply paying more for a speedier DSL line.

Cable Modems

At first blush, cable modems seem to win any speed contest. Macworld Lab obtained a Web-browsing speed of 134 Kbps–faster than any other high-speed option but still a far cry from the 10 Mbps (10,000 Kbps) the technology can potentially deliver. Still, these speeds are much faster than you can get with an analog modem; our file-transfer tests hit more than 350 Kbps on download and 300 Kbps on upload.

Note, however, that the speed you see with a cable modem can vary widely based on cable-modem usage in your area. Unlike ISDN and DSL, both of which guarantee a fixed data rate to your Internet provider, cable modems suffer performance drops as more of your neighbors start surfing. Moreover, cable providers can't easily address congestion problems by adding equipment–the broadcast wiring for cable subscribers is already installed and expensive to modify.


The Last Word

The high-speed Internet service you choose depends largely on what you can get. For light-duty home use, nothing beats a cable modem for convenience and low cost. You already have the wire coming into your house, and cable Internet service costs the least of any of the high-speed services out there today, while delivering the best performance–at least for now.

If your cable company hasn't begun to offer Internet service yet, consider DSL. It's only a few dollars more per month than a cable modem for home users. If both are available in your area, you may still want to consider the long-term advantages of DSL: higher guaranteed throughput and more freedom of choice.

For small-office/home-office connectivity, where you might need to connect a small LAN of several users to the Internet, DSL is a better choice. The competitive nature of the DSL market helps minimize costs. DSL offers a range of Internet providers from which to choose, as well as enhanced business services such as telecommuting, branch-office connectivity, and low-volume Web hosting.

If you're in an area not yet served by DSL or cable modems, consider ISDN as an interim service until higher-speed access becomes available. Telephone companies and cable providers are rolling out new services at a prodigious rate in large metropolitan areas, with many forecasting complete coverage within 12 months. So if you're not far from an urban center, you may have to stick with ISDN only for a year or so.

For users in the frozen wastelands of modemsville, take heart. Today's 56-Kbps modems are the pinnacle of analog communications technology over phone lines. You'll never have to buy another analog modem for your desktop Mac after today, because the quality of the analog telephone network simply won't allow them to get any faster. And as DSL and cable technologies seep out of the metropolis to rural highways and byways, faster access will be coming your way soon.

Contributing Editor MEL BECKMAN is a consulting network engineer who helps Internet providers implement high-speed digital access.

May 1999 page: 86

The Last Modem You'll Ever Buy?

When Macworld last tested 56-Kbps modems (see "The Modem Showdown," April 1998), the modem world was in horrible upheaval. Two competing standards, K56flex and x2, had torn the modem community apart. Different service providers supported different standards. Users were confused. And even worse, the modems we tested were often inconsistent, unreliable, and just plain slow.

All of that bad mojo is gone now, replaced by a unified modem standard, V.90, that will probably be the last analog-modem standard you'll ever need. This time, the modems Macworld Lab tested were all well behaved, compatible with one another, and faster than the last batch when it comes to surfing the Web.

All five of the Mac-friendly V.90 modems we tested performed comparably. FTP download speeds varied by less than 2 Kbps, and all five modems performed virtually identically when it came to sending data. As a result, the choice of which modem to buy hinges much more on price and features than it does on raw speed.

If you do a lot of uploading, however, it's important to note that these modems are still quite poky when it comes to sending data upstream. Not one of the V.90 modems we tested could keep up with the speed of an old-fashioned 33.6-Kbps modem when it came to uploading files.

Software Choices

Of all the available fax software bundled with these modems, Global Village's GlobalFax (bundled with Global Village's $150 TelePort 56K V.90 Mac Modem) is the most user friendly, powerful, and convenient to operate. STF's Faxstf (bundled with Zoom Telephonics' $139 Zoom/FaxModem 56Kx) is a close second, with most of the features of GlobalFax but offering a less polished user interface. Diamond Multimedia's Faxcillitate software (included with the company's $120 SupraExpress 56e Mac) includes a Mac-native voice-mail application but has mediocre fax capabilities. The worst fax software we tested was Smith Micro's MacCommCenter (included with both 3Com's $120 U.S. Robotics 56K Faxmodem and Viking Components' $120 Viking 56K External Modem), an outdated, feature-poor package with compatibility problems under Mac OS 8.5.

All of the modems also incorporated voice-, fax-, and data-call sensing to automatically direct incoming calls to a phone or the fax software as appropriate. The modems from Zoom and Diamond offer integrated voice mail, but Zoom's modem unfortunately requires a PC sound card, making that particular feature incompatible with the Mac.

Paying Up

The price you pay for a modem largely determines the level of support you'll receive. The vendors of the most-expensive modems have Macintosh-savvy support staff and Mac-centric Internet connectivity assistance. Again, Global Village excelled at Mac-oriented service, and Zoom Telephonics also offered excellent technical support. Diamond Multimedia's support came in a close second to Global Village's. Viking Components' technical support was the least helpful; when Macworld called to ask some common tech-support questions, its telephone technicians knew nothing about the Mac product's features or software. The Viking Web site also offers little Macintosh-specific support information.

Macworld's Buying Advice

If you use your modem for day-in, day-out Internet access, the extra dollars you spend for a Mac-proficient modem is a worthwhile investment. If you use your modem for faxing as well as Internet access, get a modem with good fax software: either Global Village's or Zoom's will do. Global Village's TelePort 56K V.90 Mac Modem won our Editors' Choice award. While not the cheapest or fastest modem–its list price of $150 was the highest of all the modems', and it was a tiny bit slower than our speed champs–we feel that Global Village's excellent Mac-friendly software and support more than make up for those slight differences.

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