From the July 1998 issue of Startups

The modem market is abuzz these days, thanks to a new standard passed by the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva in February. The V.90 standard allows Internet users to fully capitalize on new 56 KBps technology.

Although 56 KBps modems have been around since 1997, users previously had to choose between two proprietary technologies: X2 from US Robotics (now 3Com) and K56flex from Rockwell and Lucent. Because there was no standard, modems of different types sometimes had difficulty communicating. The new V.90 standard enables modems compliant with the standard to interact with each other.

The 56 KBps technology allows the connections to begin as analog and then be converted to digital without being converted back to analog, as 33.6 KBps modems have to. By avoiding one of the conversions, these modems can download at speeds of up to 56,000 bits per second.

Unfortunately, the key words are "up to." Several factors can slow your transmission rate, including telephone line conditions, your distance from your local phone company building and your distance from your ISP. Thus, 56 KBps is something of a misnomer.

Despite the speed bumps, however, 56 KBps modems are faster and not much more expensive than their 33.6 KBps predecessors. In addition, they're loaded with more features than ever, so don't be afraid to invest in an upgrade. You'll probably have to eventually, so why not do it now?

All the modems featured here incorporate the V.90 standard or allow you to download the code from their manufacturers' Web sites.

One more choice: Do you want an internal or external modem? If you plan to use the same modem for several computers, or if you have a fear of installation, then an external model will work for you. Internal modems are less expensive, however, and also mean one less piece of equipment to clutter up your desktop. Whichever type you choose, be sure to ask about the rebates many companies are now offering to stay competitive.

Model: Cardinal Connecta Internal 56K Data/Fax Modem (internal)
Phone/Web site: (770) 840-2157, http://www.cardtech.com
Manufacturer's list price: $150
Features: port selection jumpers; Windows 95 software, including Internet Solutions CD-ROM with InterGo; plug and play
Warranty: five years

The Connecta comes with a smorgasbord of Windows software, including InterGo, a software application that combines useful features such as a browser, e-mail, a news reader and telnet, which allows remote access of a computer network. ViruCide software is also included to keep your system bug-free. The Connecta's speed and size have been compared to 3Com's Sportster 56K, a faster, more expensive modem. The port selection jumpers allow you to install the modem in older systems.

Model: Global Village Communication TelePort 56/x2 Fax/Modem (external)
Phone/Web site: (800) 736-4821, http://www.globalvillage.com
Manufacturer's list price: $119
Features: Global Transfer Light and FaxWorks fax/data software, plug and play, flash ROM, PC- or Mac-compatible
Warranty: five years

The TelePort is a rather basic model, lacking high-end features such as voice mail and caller ID, and even more common ones, such as distinctive ring. But its quick download rate and low price make this an attractive modem if you don't need all the fancy extras. The price is great for an external modem, and the company is one of the few to market equally to Macintosh and PC users.

Model: Multi-Tech MultiModem 5600ZDXV (external)
Phone/Web site: (800) 328-9717, http://www.multitech.com
Manufacturer's list price: $269
Features: Windows 95-based datacomm and fax software, plug and play, flash ROM, voice mail, caller ID reporting, four-number storage for automatic dialing, redial
Warranty: 10 years

Multi-Tech's ZDXV offers generous warranties, simple upgrades and all the extras. Built for the mainstream PC or Mac user, the 5600 fits in the palm of your hand and has plenty of status lights to let you know what it's doing--even lights that indicate whether you're connected at 56 KBps or standard analog speeds. The MultiModem has an internal speaker, and you can plug in external speakers and a microphone if you want to turn it into an answering machine or speakerphone. Installation is easy, and upgrades are available from Multi-Tech's Web site.

Model: NewCom 56Kifx(C) Data/Fax Modem (internal)
Phone/Web site: (818) 597-3200, http://www.newcominc.com
Manufacturer's list price: $99
Features: caller ID, plug and play, voice mail, remote message retrieval, communications software
Warranty: five years

Low price and easily accessible upgrades are the main attractions of NewCom's 56Kifx(C) model. It comes with most of the extras the others have, including voice mail and caller ID. The modem's architecture supports advanced features such as V.80 for videoconferencing, speakerphone and answering machine capabilities. All versions include modular phone cable, communications software and 15 free hours on AOL. And did we mention the low price?

Model: Shark Multimedia Leopard 56K (internal)
Phone/Web site: (800) 800-3321, http://www.sharkmm.com
Manufacturer's list price: $139
Features: Shark DialTone, Windows 95 software, distinctive ring, voice mail, speakerphone, microphone, caller ID
Warranty: three years

Shark proves modems aren't just for Internet access. The Leopard is loaded with neat stuff, such as the speakerphone that supports hands-free or handset operation, and the fax features, including automatic fax forward, pager notification, cover sheet customization, group faxing and fax scheduling. It also comes with many voice mail functions, including multiple boxes with password protection for each, automatic paging, voice/data/fax distinguishing, speed dial and remote voice mail access. Easy installation completes the picture.

Model: Zoom FaxModem 56K (internal)
Phone/Web site: (800) 631-3116, http://www.zoomtel.com
Manufacturer's list price: $159
Features: 16-bit ISA card, WinFax Lite and COMit fax/data software, flash ROM, plug and play
Warranty: seven years

This no-frills internal modem automatically connects to both V.90 and K56flex technology (in case your ISP hasn't upgraded yet). In fact, Zoom was one of the first manufacturers to offer modems with the V.90 standard. The 56 KBps model is videophone-ready and can plug and play with Windows 95. A standout feature is the ZoomGuard lightning protection (Zoom says lightning is the number-one cause of modem failures). This modem also boasts distinctive ring, tone detection, voice mail (a sound card is required), and flash memory for upgrades. Installation can be tricky, but Zoom offers extensive customer service hours.