In order for your PC to connect to the Internet, send and receive Email, faxes or communicate with other computers via telephone, it needs a device called a modem. Modem is computer jargonese for MODulator-DEModulator; it’s a typically obscure way of saying that it converts digital data into audible tones, (and back again), that can be squirted down an ordinary telephone line. They’re the squeaks and bleeps you hear when you dial up an Internet connection.

A word of warning, modem technology is completely out of hand! It is responsible for more baffling TLAs (three letter acronyms…) than almost another other area of computing. Don’t bother trying to understand what they all mean, it’s not necessary to use one and life’s too short…

It does pay to learn one or two terms though, so you can appear knowledgeable to PC salespeople, and not get ripped-off. There are basically three types of modem. Internal modems are plug-in expansion cards that live inside your PC. External modems are small boxes with lots of winking lights, that connect to a socket or Serial ‘com port’ (see Boot Camp 3) on the back of your PC. PC-Card modems are the smallest; they’re like thick credit cards and they fit into a slot on the side of laptop computers. 

Modems can be further sub-divided into data-only and voice-data types. The former is used for general–purpose Internet access and faxing; voice modems can process speech as well, and come with extra software, that can turn a PC into a sophisticated telephone answering machine. 

The next most important thing to know is that modems operate at different speeds, in other words, how quickly they can send and receive data. The simple rule of thumb is the faster the better. Modem performance can be measured in a number of ways but the figures you’ll see quoted most often, on PC specifications and adverts, are bits per second or ‘bps’. The current norm is 33,600bps, usually abbreviated to 33.6kbps; it’s really not worth bothering with slower modems, unless you’re very patient, and a BT shareholder.

In theory 33.6kbps is the fastest speed possible on the public telephone network, or at least down the wires and cables that link your home to the telephone exchange. After that connections between exchanges and the network of computers that make up the Internet, are via high-speed digital lines. That means data can be sent back to your PC faster than it can send it, which has allowed modem designers to increase speeds to 56kbps. However, this trick only works one-way, from the Internet to your PC, the computer can only send data at a maximum of 33.6kbps. The only difficulty with 56kbps modems is that there are two competing standards. A resolution is expected shortly and pretty well all 56k modems should be able to have their operating software upgraded. In any event all 56k modems will function at 33.6kbps.

It is possible for your PC to communicate at even higher speeds, if you’re willing to shell out for a digital telephone line or ISDN (integrated services digital network. Speeds of 64kbps and more are possible but it is expensive, both for the initial connection, and line rental, ISDN modems are a lot dearer too. BT is currently reviewing their charges, but it likely it will only make sense for business use for some time to come.

Setting up a modem on a PC used to be a nightmare but Windows 95 has made it a lot easier. Most new modems are designed to ‘plug-and-play’. Once connected they are automatically configured using the add/remove hardware utility in the Control Panel. This is accessed from the Start menu under Settings, simply click on the icon and follow the instructions.

Setting up an Internet account is also very easy. The installation disc (CD-ROM or floppy) normally supplied free by the Internet service provider or ISP will take you through the procedure step by step, identifying and testing your PC and modem as it goes. You will be asked to enter your name and address, and then it will call up the ISP’s server computer. Remember to have your credit card handy, you will have to enter the number, and you will be issued with an ID number and/or Email address, or you can choose one for yourself, provided no-one else is using it. If everything goes smoothly you can be surfing the net in about ten minutes.

We’re not going to get into the debate of which ISP is best – the main players are listed below -- the truth is the market has become fiercely competitive and they’re all much of a muchness these days. Charges vary but with moderate use it typically works out at less than £10 a month. That doesn’t include the cost of phone calls whilst you are ‘on-line’, they are normally charged at BT’s local call rate, costing from as little as 1p per minute at weekends.

Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations, and heed their warnings. Most companies offer free trials, so you can play the field. One word of caution though, Internet software is not very sociable, so make sure you completely remove any other access programs from your PC, before you install a new one.

Internet access opens up numerous possibilities, in addition to browsing the world-wide web and Email. Internet telephony is one of the most interesting, especially if you have friends or family living abroad. It only works PC to PC, and both parties have to be on-line at the same time, but you can hold a fairly normal two-way conversation, with someone on the other side of the world, for the cost of a local call. It’s possible to see them as well, with an Internet videophone link, though it might be a good idea to wait a while, as there’s still a lot of confusion over technical standards. 


AOL                            0800 2791234

BT Internet                0800 800002

CompuServe               0990 000200

Demon Internet            0181-371 1234

Global Internet            0181-957 1041

MSN                           0345 002000

Netcom                       01344 395600

Virgin Net                   0500 558800                       


Your PC and Windows 95 have a number of power-saving features that can help reduce the size of your electricity bills. From the Start button select Settings and then Control Panel, then click on the Power Icon, in the Power Management window, select the Advanced option and click OK. Open up the Display icon in Control Panel and select the Screen Saver tab. At the bottom you will see check boxes for the energy saving functions of your monitor. This only works with Energy Star compliant models, but that includes most monitors made in the past couple of years. Set the times for a reasonable period  – 15 to 20 minutes say – after which the monitor will go into a low power mode if PC is idle. The display returns as soon as you move the mouse, or press a key.

The BIOS (basic input output system) program, which loads immediately after a PC is switched on also has power management features. It’s not recommended for beginners but you can check on the settings by following the instructions outlined in last week’s Tip of the Week.

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