Desktop Critic: Differently Cabled

I try not to be a bleeding-edge, early-adopting gadget freak, I really do. Yes, I admit that I bought an original Newton, and an early digital camera, and the very first Pilot organizer. But I'm not an addict–no way. I can stop any time I want. So when I learned that my area was to be the lucky recipient of a cable-modem trial, you can imagine my inner struggle.

A cable modem is one of those futuristic Internet technologies that promises to be 100 times faster than a normal modem. Only 350,000 were installed in the United States by the end of 1998, mainly because so few cable-TV companies offer them.

On one hand, the $35 monthly fee seemed steep, especially since I was already paying $20 a month for my Internet account and $25 for a second phone line. On the other hand, Macworld hasn't written much about this important new technology; I could get a cable modem as a noble journalistic experiment, making the financial sacrifice for the good of the Mac community. (Can you say "tax deduction"?) In all, I must have weighed the pros and cons for a good four seconds before calling to sign up.

Three technicians came to set up the thing, a black box about the size of a 1980s-era external hard drive. One end connects to your cable-TV jack (which I had to have installed near my desk–another $100 sacrifice in the name of journalistic pursuits). The other end connects to your Mac's Ethernet jack.

With my first e-mail, I discovered the greatest cable-modem benefit: you're spared the usual 90 seconds of dialing, connecting, and modem shrieking. You're online instantly; you're permanently connected to the Internet, 24 hours a day.

I yelled downstairs for my wife and dog to come watch my first attempt at turbosurfing the Web. But after they'd gathered around the screen, I was horrified to discover the dirty little truth about cable modems: they don't, in fact, make Web surfing much faster. I clicked on a link–and waited. Twelve seconds for, 23 for, 24 for My jaw hung open in disbelief. Where was the 100-fold acceleration? "Neat, honey," my wife reassured me before heading back downstairs. The dog was even less impressed.

The problem: even if your pipe to the Internet is a fire hose, the computers on the other end still dish out Web pages with a teaspoon. Instead of waiting for my Mac to receive each page, I now wait for the other end to send it.

The problem isn't quite as bad in the wee hours, when my neighbors aren't sucking away my bandwidth by using their cable modems or watching CNN. Still, I was bummed. "Up to twice as fast at certain times of day" wasn't quite the advertised 100[infinity] speed bump. Nor was uploading any faster; TV's cables are designed to carry data into your home, not out of it.

On the other hand, in my experience, downloading files with a cable modem is, for some reason, astonishingly fast. My first 3MB download wrapped up in under a minute–about 50K per second. You start to feel as though the Internet is one whoppin'-big external hard drive. Suddenly Internet video isn't a jerky, postage-stamp-size mess–you can actually watch TV-style video in a three-inch window without waiting.

It got better. One morning it hit me: I wasn't using my second phone line any more! See? I wasn't an out-of-control spendthrift gadget freak at all. I could cancel my second line and my ISP account, saving all kinds of money.

Furthermore–hold on a sec–no phone line, no modem. Why not sell my modem? And with no modem, my Mac's precious modem port was suddenly free to accommodate my PalmPilot cradle full-time. Yep, things were improving quickly around the Pogue Mac.

There was only one little glitch: how would I go online when traveling? Without a 3,000-mile-long Ethernet cable, my PowerBook clearly wasn't going to reap the benefits of the Internet monster machine back home. The cable company cheerfully offered its dial-up service–a toll-free number that lets me dial in to my cable-modem account from the road, for only $15 more a month plus $9 an hour. Riiiight. So much for canceling my ISP.

Still, here's how I look at it: I'm saving six minutes a day in connect/disconnect time. If my time is worth $25 an hour, that's $912.50 a year my cable modem saves me. And if that sounds like a gadget freak trying to justify another high-tech purchase, well, you're probably right. I promise to get rid of the thing–just as soon as my satellite-dish modem comes in.

April 1999 page: 164

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