BOOT CAMP 206 (18/12/01)




Connecting a PC to the Internet via a modem and an ordinary telephone line remains one of the few black arts and it can easily become a major source of frustration. The trouble is you may be lulled you into a false sense of security and quite often on a new PC the initial setup goes smoothly and the connection may even work perfectly for weeks or months, but when a dial-up connection goes wrong it can do so in a spectacular fashion.


Hopefully, after reading the next two episodes of Boot Camp you’ll be able to get your PC back online in double quick time the next time gremlins strike. Next week we’ll deal with common faults and how to fix them but we’ll begin this week with a brief look at what’s involved in getting your PC connected to the Internet.


The most important component is the modem. This is your computer’s gateway to the Internet and its primary job is to convert digital data flowing into and out of your PC into audible tones that can be sent down a conventional telephone line. It’s also responsible for ‘compressing’ and ‘decompressing’ data, which helps speed up the flow of information. These days most modems are in the form of plug-in cards inside the PC or incorporated into the motherboard but you can also get ‘external’ models that plug into the serial or USB ports.


In order to use the modem your PC requires a small piece of software called a driver. This tells the PC everything it needs to know about the modem – maximum operating speed, type of compression etc. -- and the commands required to control and communicate with it.


Dial Up Networking (DUN) is a bit like your PC’s internal telephone exchange. It’s where key settings are stored (dial-up phone number, your log-in name and password etc.) and it allows other programs – such as your browser and email software -- to share a connection and access the Internet.


Finally there’s Networking, which looks after the language and protocol side of things, ensuring that the data flowing out of your PC is compatible with the Internet, and incoming data can be understood by the applications that you are using.


Dicky modems and dial-up connections are notoriously difficult to troubleshoot. Critical settings can be unknowingly changed or interfered with by meddlesome Internet Service Provider (ISP) set-up discs, by upgrading your operating system or Internet software and there’s the potential for mischief by viruses and Internet sites. It’s made worse by the fact that Windows appears to make a meal of the whole business. There are dialogue boxes and menus all over the place, many of which contain settings that can affect the speed and reliability of your connection, or stop it working altogether. When a dial-up connection stops working a lot of people’s first inclination is to have a fiddle, and as often as not, forget what they’ve changed…


In Windows 95/98/SE & ME vital controls and settings for modems and Internet connections can be found in at least six separate locations: Dial Up Networking (My Computer or Settings on the Start menu or Control Panel), Device Manager (My Computer and System in Control Panel), Modems (Control Panel), Networking (Control Panel) and there are ways to access setup controls within most Internet browser and email client programs. Windows XP has a broadly similar layout though it has its own set of diagnostic and troubleshooting tools and I suggest using those if problems occur.


Whilst your modem and Internet connection is working properly it’s a good idea to jot down a few key settings – why not do it now -- so you can easily spot if something has changed, or help you get back to a known good configuration. Note down the information in a word processor document and print it out and keep it in safe place, and remember, when you open dialogue boxes change nothing and always exit by clicking the Cancel button so that any changes you may have accidentally made will not be applied.


Find out the make, model or chipset of your modem plus details of the manufacturer’s web site. You should be able to get this from the manuals or your PC vendor. The make and type should be displayed in Device Manager (Right click My Computer, select Properties, then the Device Manager tab and click on Modem).


You need to know the phone number for your dial-up connection, your log-on name and password and POP3, SMPT addresses (this information will have been supplied to you when you signed up for your ISP account)


Your current Networking settings. This can be found in two locations, select Network in Control Panel and note down the entries under ‘Network Components’ and Network Login’, then go to Dial Up Networking, right click on your ISP connection, select Properties then the Networking tab, note the ‘Type of Dial-Up Server’ and the boxes that are checked under Advanced Options and Network Protocols.


Finally, make sure that you can quickly lay your hands on your modem driver disc. This will have been supplied with your PC, possibly on a floppy but more likely on a CD-ROM that contains the rest of your machine’s drivers and setup utilities.


Next week – Troubleshooting modems, part 2





Whilst there are hundred of modem manufacturers only a relatively small number of companies make the key microchips, which determine how they work and communicates with the PC



Instructions issued by the PC to tell the modem to do things like open the line and dial a number



Post Office Protocol & Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, systems used to move email messages around the Internet and inside your PC. ISPs assign separate email addresses to handle incoming (POP3) and outgoing (SMTP) mail messages



Just how good is your Internet connection? There are lots of web sites that can test your connection speed however each can only give you a snapshot of what is happening at the time, moreover speed will vary according to various other factors, including the geographical location of the server doing the test. For a more accurate picture you should try several sites – see below -- at different times of day and average out the results. Remember, just because you have a 56Kbps modem it is very unlikely you will achieve anything like that speed; in real world conditions you are more likely to get between 30 and 40kbps.


General test sites


For ISDN and ADSL connections

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