How badly do winmodems suck?

I know winmodems rely on the CPU to control them through interrupts, so they decrease the effiency of the CPU while running, and also can lose packets if CPU utilization is high - at least, that’s what I’ve heard.

With modern CPUs and stuff, how much of a drag is this really? I ask because I’m upgrading my computer and can’t use an ISA modem anymore. Hopefully I’ll get cable in the next few months, so I don’t want to throw down $50 on a real hardware modem if winmodems are tolerable.

So can anyone with experience tell me how bad a winmodem is compared to a real hardware modem?

Winmodems suck majorly if you want to use an OS other than Windows. This is because everything is done through the OS and platform-specific drivers the OS calls, as opposed to OS-agnostic hardware (as in a real modem). In fact, the best way to deal with a winmodem in, say, Linux is to ignore it and buy a real external modem and use that. (Why external? You can diagnose problems by looking at the lights on the front panel. It’s helpful when you’re configuring your connectivity for the first time.) True, sometimes you can find Linux drivers for some winmodems, but it’s often not worth the hassle to babysit fundamentally broken hardware.

Other than that, winmodems are fine.

Where can you get a real hardware modem for $50??

I replaced a crappy Lucent WinModem in an XP box. The best it could get was 2400bps (no, NOT 24000, but 2400!) (hey, I remember my first 300bps modem was great). Under the original WinME on this computer, there were no problems – XP’s hardware abstraction is known to cause havok with many WinModems. So, if you’re running XP, be careful.

I looked for a real hardware modem, but the machine had no ISA slots, and it seems most hardware modems are ISA. Their high cost (>$100) and limited local availability (wanted it running NOW) led me to read a lot of reviews about a 3Com/USR WinModem that worked beautifully with XP. I don’t recall the model, but it was a “hybrid” WinModem meaning it had a DSP but not a controller(*). It was about $50, and I thought it was a bargain, and it consistently gets ~43Kbps.

It’s really the lack of a DSP in WinModems that slow the host machine down. The Digital Signal Processor is the thing that turns digital data into analogue data (i.e., the modem noise you hear). When you computer does this itself, your computer is really the modem in the strictest sense of the word; it’s doing the MOdulation and DEModulation. The “modem” is then just an interface to the telephone line; it puts the computer-generated audio on the telephone wire. Aside from the DSP onboard, you need the actual controller.

Before I explain the controller, understand the marketing: WinModem is a trademark of 3Com (I think), but like Kleenex is genericized. A “controllerless modem” you see on the shelf is a WinModem as we know it, and usually means it has no DSP and no controller. Some controllerless modems do have a DSP but no controller. I don’t think any exist that have a controller but no DSP, though.

So, what’s the controller? This is what processes modem commands and makes it a logical device. Back in the old days, you wanted to buy a modem that was “Hayes compatible.” I think they all are now (test in hyperterminal on Windows), either in software (no controller) or in hardware (with controller). The original “Hayes” controller issued commands to the modem with <pause>+++ATcommand<pause>. Things like pick up receiver, dial pulse number, dial touch-tone number, set settings, lookup settings, etc. In the normal course of a modem session, you didn’t need this but to startup the session and stop it.

So, really, having a hardware-based controller is not nearly as important as having the hardware-based DSP, unless you’re not using Windows. I know there’s a very good list of which modems work on Linux – if that’s a concern, don’t worry about it.

Oh, I can get a real modem for $50 - but I can get a winmodem for $12. I’m wondering how bad it is to actually have the CPU constantly pinged with modem interrupts - if it’s not that noticable, then I might as well save the money since I’m hopefully getting cable anyway - but if it’s really noticable, I might as well thrown down the extra money.

The effect on overall performance will probably not be noticable on a modern system with a fast CPU and lots of RAM. In my experience, however, winmodems are much more prone to unwanted disconnections. If you have a clean phone line you may not have any problems with the $12 model. Get a good hardware one if you live outside of town or there’s any sort of line noise.

I have always used winmodems and they have worked fine for me without any problems. If all you need is a backup for your wideband and for sending faxes, then a winmodem is more than enough.

hardware modems = $50???

when i think of a hardware modem i think of the box i have attatched to my linux box at the moment. It cost me about £20( that’s UK price, its a US robotics one, and US prices are lower for everything else). Am i missing something, are modems really expensive Over there?
am i bad at exchange rates? the way i heard it was $ = £3/2.
that makes my modem $30ish. i dint shop around. iw anted ont eh net with linux, went to PC world ( they rip you off for everything) and paid £20.
I can’t believe that it can cost $50 over there.

As well as this, external modems are a breeze to install, they have cool flashy lights, they are easy to troubleshoot, and if you’re scared of opening the box, they are a godsend.

winmodems are a real pain. i rember spending ages trying to get win 98 to talk to my winmodem, but it spoke to my external straight off, no hassle.
i have no experience with winmodems in any OS other than linux or 98. and i hope i never do :stuck_out_tongue:

gah. rambled again.

Winmodems typically work fine if the motherboard and OS can coordinate and re-assign interrupts. Winmodems like it best if

1: Your machine is is a PII-300 or better
2: It has no ISA slots - PCI only
3: You are running Win ME or better
4: You don’t have a packed system where IRQ’s are scarce and they have to fight for or share an IRQ

Many people are going the USB modem route. They are inexpensive and work fine and you don’t have to pop the case.

Real (onboard DSP etc) PCI hardware modems are known as “gaming modems” and per Senor Beef are usually 50- 90. listing


Wow, thats shocking. I never realised.
How do gaming modems work? wouldn’t you always leave them switched into whatever the higher performance is?
it’s not like your modem its going to explode or anyhting… is it?

i got far better speeds from my external modem than i ever did on the winmodem. it was quite cool.

ADSL’s faster tho.

astro, I used to install ISA winmodems and never had a problem with them but obviously ISA is pretty much extinct so that should not be a problem. Same with the speed although I had an (ISA) winmodem in my 233Mhz and it worked fine. Also, it was running WIN95 and later WIN98 so I can’t see why that would be a problem. I am running a winmodem under WIN98SE right now and never had a problem. I have installed similar modems ($15 - $18) on systems for friends and no one has reported any problems. In fact they are Voice-Fax-Data modems and for the price they are very cost effective. Plug it in, install the drivers and you’re set. I am talking Windows 98. . . Linux or WINXP may have issues I am not familiar with.

As a backup modem I see no reason to spend the difference on a real modem. Now, if you are a gamer and that tiny percentage of improvement is worth it to you, then by all means, get the best of the best.

Modems should be cheap at I find the USR 28.8’s & 56k at our thrift shops sometimes for $5-$10.

Winmodems use up some cpu power sure, but it’s equivalent to the same power draw from a serial port if you use a serial modem. That’s what I read on the net once.

Handy, were talking CPU cycles not electrical power. As I say, if you need every last cycle (like for gaming) then a stand alone modem might be justified (although maybe you need to upgrade anyway), otherwise, Winmodems have worked fine for me. A Winmodem does 98% of what a non-winmodem does and it does it at 25% of the price.

      • In my experience, the hardware modem does run a bit faster: in the Netscape/Mozilla browser, the winmodem ran at about 4K and the hardware modem runs at about 4.5K for downloads. The bigger problem though was that the winmodem would often lose/disconnect during big downloads, and not everywhere allows resuming downloads of big files, even if you have some of the downloading-software. Like Microsoft Windows Update, for one. I finally tossed the winmodem after trying several days to get about 8 megs of updates after a reinstall, I gave up and went out and bought a $110 serial modem and got the “big” download the first time I attempted.
  • And by the by, that “gaming performance” USR modem is just another Winmodem. I bought one, I know. It’s just got “high performance” drivers, with bullshit “performance modes”. It “works in Linux” because it’s got “Linux drivers” included. When I installed it in Win98, it wouldn’t function at all until the drivers were installed. Part of these problems may have been the screwy computer I was using at the time, but when I finally hooked up a real hardware modem, it fired right up, no drivers and no problems. ~~~ USR did make an internal modem named the “USR Gaming Modem”, and that was the name, printed right on the box–look around online and you can find images of the box of the real gaming modem. I tried to find a “USR Gaming Modem” when I was shopping, but nobody had it in stock anywhere online or IRL. I gave away the “USR Pro Performance Winmodem” when I bought the real serial-port modem later on. …-“Controller-based” don’t mean sh!t- if it doesn’t say “hardware modem”, it isn’t.

DougC, there is not good reason for a hardware modem to run faster. If the phone line is not the best then the modem with the best interface circuitry may get a bit higher speed and have fewer errors but the factor is the quality of the line interface part rather than the modem being controlled from here or from there.

What is probable though is that an $80 modem would have better interface than a $15 but the main difference is not on the fact that it is or is not a winmodem.

I’ve got a USRobotics 56k external modem connected on a serial port. I don’t remember the exact cost, but it wasn’t above $50, and for that, you get features that don’t obtain in any internal modem, such as the ability to turn it off . I dunno why you’d want an internal modem - there’s not likely to be any real cost difference, after all.

there certainly is a price difference. As I say, I buy Conexant Voice-Fax-Data modems fro about $16. Why I prefer an internal modem? How about because it is cheaper and because I don’t have the inconvenience of one more thing hanging outside? And how about the mess of connecting the external voice part to the motherboard? I prefer internal modems as a matter of convenience to the point where I have installed a USB ADSL modem internally in a disk bay rather than have it hanging about outside.

An internal modem uses a PCI slot but frees a serial port. Generally I have more free PCI slots than serial ports.

Another thing to take into account is that soon we will see the parallel and serial ports disappear and everything will be USB so I would not want to buy serail/parallel peripherals which I would want to be compatible with future systems.

Granted, I didn’t realize that internal modem prices had fallen that far. The modem I mentioned has lasted about six years so far, so it hasn’t really been an issue for me. You are right, however, that for the future you want USB-connected peripherals rather than an old-style serial connection. Again, this wasn’t so much an issue when I bought it - and one of the big pluses I see in favor of external modems is that it’s lasted that long with zero problems.

My ISA winmodem lasted that long without problem. In my experience most modems of any kind will work indefinitely unless they are damaged by a transient from the phone line and this makes no difference whether the modem is of one or other kind although better, more expensive, modems may be a bit better able to withstand the spikes. Still, I prefer to have a $16 modem and replace it better than a $50 which has only a slightly better chance of surviving.

Note that a voice modem has voice connections which go to the audio card so it can be quite a hassle to have the modem and the power adapter plus the serial cable plus the voice connections all hanging outside. Chances of something being damaged or failing increase.

Just last week I repaired an external modem which had been damaged apparently from a spike from the power adapter. Not difficult to repair as it was just a burnt resistor but for anyone who is not an engineer it means a dead modem and purchasing a new one. That particular problem would not have happened to an internal modem (or the spike would have damaged the entire computer).

When I assemble computers now for other people I just install a $16 Conexant Voice-Fax-Data modem and it works great. Take into account that most people have broadband anyway and the modem is strictly a backup. Using an internal means one less thing to connect at the destination, one less thing to go wrong, one less thing to explain. And the voice connections to the audio card are all internal.

sailor: “Most people” have broadband? Might be true in DC, but that’s a dangerous assumption for the country as a whole. Last I checked, the figure was around 10%-20% of U.S. internet users have broadband.