USB 56K Modems

Most configurations of Apple's Power Mac G3 suffer from a common malady: the lack of a built-in modem. Because those systems also lack a traditional serial port, you can't simply plug in your existing serial-port modem. A slew of vendors have come to the rescue with USB modems that not only solve the missing-modem problem but also have some advantages over older serial-port modems: they get their power from the USB port rather than from a clunky external power brick, so they're easy to install and help reduce desktop clutter. And because USB's data rate is 12 Mbps, USB modems allow higher throughput (up to 200 Kbps) with data compression than do serial-port modems, with their speed limit of 115 Kbps.

All the modems we tested–Best Data's Smart One USB 56K, Boca Research's TelePort USB 56K, Diamond Multimedia's SupraExpress 56 USB, and Viking Components' Viking 56K USB–work with G3 Macs and support the latest V.90 56K standard, making them compatible with virtually all 56K Internet services. Where they differ is in their packaging, software, and support.

Each of the modems we tested comes bundled with a quick-start guide and a CD-ROM containing software and additional documentation. Each modem has two telephone ports, one for the line from the wall and one for a phone, fax machine, or answering device; a single USB cable connects the modem to a USB hub or directly to a Mac USB port. The units vary in size, with Boca's TelePort being the smallest overall. Viking's device stands vertically and is easily twice the size of the others (perhaps because it displays eight status lights, invaluable for troubleshooting).

You'll find the software easy to install from a CD for any of the units. The installers also load the accompanying fax software: Best Data bundles STF Technologies' Faxstf 3.2; Boca, its excellent GlobalFax 2.6.5; and Diamond, its own Faxcilitate 2.5.2. All these packages work well, although GlobalFax has the most convenient Macintosh user interface. Alas, none of the fax programs support OCR, once a standard feature with bundled fax software. The Viking ships with Smith Micro's MacComCenter 1.3, an outdated, feature-poor package that periodically crashed our test Macs.

In online tests with several ISPs, the modems all performed well, managing connection speeds of up to 53 Kbps and hitting 200-Kbps throughput on highly compressed data. When products such as these perform almost identically, tech support is a critical distinguishing characteristic.

To test technical support, we asked each vendor to solve a problem involving its modem connected to an iMac. Boca's tech support was extremely helpful and gave us the solution we were looking for–we needed to install an iMac firmware upgrade from Apple. Diamond's tech support went one better, diagnosing the problem correctly and pointing out that the necessary firmware upgrade was included on the SupraExpress's CD. Both Boca and Diamond offer Mac-specific support resources on their Web sites.

Best's phone-support technicians couldn't diagnose the problem; they acknowledged that they didn't understand how Macintosh models differed from each other. Viking simply said that its modem wasn't compatible with the iMac, even though it ended up working after we installed the firmware upgrade. And the two companies' Web support is minimal, limited to marketing information.

External USB modems make Internet and fax connectivity easier than ever. If your fax use is limited, save money by going with the bargain-priced Best Data Smart One or Diamond SupraExpress. If you're a faxing fiend, go for Boca Research's TelePort, with its first-rate fax software. Whether or not you're a frequent faxer, we can't recommend Viking Components' modem; its buggy software and poor Mac support aren't worth its higher-than-average price.

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October 1999 page: 36

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