iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Buyers' Guide: Modem

When looking for a new modem, users usually don't pay due attention to the choice. But while other components of a computer (for example, a latest and expensive video card or a processor) become obsolete very soon and require upgrade, the right modem will serve you many years. The quality work and whether a user is satisfied depends on how he is choosing a modem.

Types of modems

As for a type of usage modems are divided into external and internal, and as for types of a function realization – they can be either hardware or software.

External modems

The device looks like a small plastic box with LEDs or Liquid Crystal indicators of the status. The modem is connected to a computer with an interface cable (RS232, LPT or USB, depending on the model), and is powered from the electricity supply network via an external power supply unit. Some external modems with a USB interface, unlike those with the RS-232, don't require an external power supply unit – they are powered from the computer via a USB cable.


  • Possibility to work with any computer which has the required type of an interface connector;
  • Status indicators allow controlling the modem's work;
  • Its own power supply unit gives minimal pickups and noise from the internal devices installed in the computer;
  • In case the modem hangs, it is not necessary to reboot the computer, you are only to restart the modem itself;
  • You don't need to open the system block, what is important in case of a warranty label on it, plus it is simple to install.


  • Higher price of the modem due to the external case and a power supply unit;
  • It is desired to use a UPS: power supply units of modems don't ensure the quality work in case of severe changes in the voltage. Pulsed power supply units ensuring such work are used rarely in modems;
  • Additional mains for connection;
  • Necessity in a place in the system block, and sometimes obstructing interface and power supply cables;

Internal modems

Internal modems produced today are designed for ISA or PCI connectors and implemented in the form of a usual expansion card to be inserted in a slot of a mainboard. Besides, today you can find some models intended for a AMR/CNR connector.


  • A lower price due to a lack of a case, a power supply and status indicators;
  • No need in additional connectors and power supply, and interface cables;
  • A free port for connection is not necessary;


  • Modem don't have indicators of the status and working modes, what can bring about difficulties when defining possible problems of the operation;
  • You have to make settings for the additional port to prevent possible conflicts with other devices in the system;
  • A power supply of a computer, as well as neighbor cards create additional noise which can prevent correct operation of the modem;
  • For a modem installation you are to open the system block and set (with the help of jumpers) a required port address and interrupt numbers if a modem is not compatible with the Plug-&-Play specification for modems via an ISA bus;
  • In case the modem hangs you have to reboot the whole system or even restart the machine;

Telephone line quality

As you know, the quality of your telephone line can be estimated only during the operation of the modem you‘ve purchased. But you can always make a preliminary crude estimate.

If you always hear noises, cracks and rustle, as well as strange conversations while you are talking to somebody, or your have to listen very attentively or ask an interlocutor to speak louder, then you have to pay attention, first of all, to relatively expensive models.

If you hear interlocutors loudly and clear, noise is absent and a voice timbre is not distorted  - then you must be a lucky person, you can achieve the appropriate results with a smaller sum of money.

Expensive or cheap?

Modems can be symbolically divided into 3 price categories:

1. Modems up to $200

They are semiprofessional modems from USRobotics and ZyXEL. As a rule, apart from ăsual modem functions, they have additional properties and options, be it a password protection or a dedicated line modem (including a synchronous mode). Sometimes such modems can even have their own protocols working with modems of the same type.

2. Modems for home and office use up to $100

It is the most popular group of modems. Typical models are Inpro IDC-5614BXL/VR, modems of the USRobotics Faxmodem series (former Sportster) and a series of Internet-modems from ZyXEL - Omni 56K. They provide high quality of operation on different types of telephone lines. It should be noted that in some models manufacturers provide a possibility to disable an additional phone connected to a modem. But quite often manufacturers save on a relay for this function to make the production cheaper. Sometimes even brand-name companies (for example, the ZyXEL Omni PCI model) can't disable an additional phone during the session, this can worsens the connection quality.

3. Program modems (Win-modems, Softmodems) up to $50

In these devices modem's functions are implemented by the CPU (completely or partially), and the modem card in fact coordinates a telephone line to be agreeable with a PC. Such modems are not intended for lines of poor quality, and installation of drivers necessary for these modems can bring about some problems, especially for an inexperienced user. You should refrain from a purchase of such modems if you are working with operating systems different from Microsoft Windows. However, there are exceptions, but for the majority of program modems drivers for other OSs are not developed.


A modem is one of a few devices, when you can't be sure how it's going to work with your telephone line. That is why it is necessary to have a possibility to return the device during one or two weeks. Unfortunately, not all companies understand it and give a possibility to return money or replace a product. In any case you have to stipulate that you can return the modem if you are not satisfied with the quality of its operation. If sellers refuse of doing it, then you'd better buy a device somewhere else.

Additional functions


Modern modems have nearly the same quality of fax receipt/transfer quality. EIA Class 1 and Class 2 are standard systems of operations. Some modem manufacturers (for example, USRobotics) realize their own systems - Class 2.0, which has to have the corresponding support of the program for working with faxes.

Automated telephone number identifier

Some hardware modems can define a number of a calling person. At present, there are not many models of such modems. They are all from Inpro, modems of the Courier series from USRobotics (in the official firmware versions for new models of the U.S.Robotics Courier V.Everything 56K xx3453-00 series), and modems from ZyXEL (except the ZyXEL Comet series and ZyXEL Omni 56K PCI model).

Voice possibilities

The majority of modems have Voice support and can be used as an autoresponder  with the required software installed. Only semiprofessional modems in the price category up to $200 lack for such functions since they are primarily aimed at quality data transfer.


If you are not a budget-tight consumer then I recommend to take modems from the category up to $200 – they ensure excellent quality of connection on lines of different quality and can be adjusted for the definite conditions.

In the most of cases, if you can't afford the above models, modems up to $100 make a good choice – they provide the acceptable connection quality on any lines and can be adjusted for the definite one. Inpro modems can even successfully compete against those from the first category. Both for these modems and above ones you can get the statistics of operation after the session, which will help you to solve the problems, in case of such, applying to representatives of the companies.

As for modems from the category up to $50, I recommend you to be very careful. Moneyback, in this case, is an obligatory condition. In case of troubles you can hardly get help from other users – such modems either have not or have limited possibilities for adjustment or receiving statistics of the session. So, I would recommend such modems only in the following cases:

  1. Rare usage of a modem: working with e-mail once-twice a day, seldom WEB-site navigation
  2. High quality telephone line and absence of a time rate for the Internet.
  3. Tight budget

You should be careful when buying external modems with a USB interface of a small size (like a cigarette pack). Today the most of them are program, and a small size and tight positioning of components on a card prevent from receiving a high quality analog part, and quality of operation of such modems can turn out to be unsatisfactory, and a price can be too high, like in case of any new products.

You shouldn't save on a modem – it may bring about different problems like breaks in connections, reloading of files after breaks and noticeable wastes of money in case of a time rate for a telephone and Internet; it will bring to naught what you have saved on a modem and even can exceed your expenses.

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