How badly do winmodems suck?

I meant the people I was assembling computers for (and the OP mentions that too)

BTW, I have no hard figures but it may be that the USA has a low percentage of broadband compared to other countries. In other countries local calls are not free as they are in the USA and broadband connections are cheaper so many people go for broadband. All my friends in China have broadband as it is quite cheap and in Spain ADSL at about $40/mo is cheaper than spending any time connected with an analog modem because the cost of local calls is outrageous. Most people I know in the UK also have ADSL. It seems the market in the USA is quite different.

If you only need to use Windows and have a decently modern computer, there is no inherent downside to a winmodem. The issue comes with the simple fact that winmodems are cheap, and like many cheap things, some are made very poorly. If you buy a bargain basement $10 winmodem from a brand you’ve never heard of, it will suck. If you spend the $20 or so for a GOOD v.92 winmodem from a major brand with regular driver updates, it’ll be fine. Also, note that the brand of the chipset is not the brand of the modem.

I think the broadband level is somewhere around 50-60%, nowhere near as low as 10-20%.

As far as the downsides of the winmodem, there are inherent ones. A winmodem is basically a physical connector for the CPU to control your phone line - this means that whenever there’s new data pending, or data that has to be sent, the modem has to ping the CPU with an IRQ - interrupt request. This stalls the CPU’s command cycle so that it can handle what the modem wants. It doesn’t just steal cycles, but it interrupts the ‘flow’ of the CPU data.

The actual number of cycles used is negligible on modern CPUs, but the ‘stall’ that IRQs induce can be noticable. Another problem is if the CPU is busy, and can’t handle that interrupt request, then it goes unprocessed. If the buffer is full, some of that data will be lost. That’s what I’m most concerned about - if my cpu is at 99.5% utilization in a game, will I start losing packets and stuff?

Also, this wouldn’t be a backup modem - I’m hoping to have broadband soon, but it’s not 100% garunteed. But assuming it’s coming in the next 6 months, I was just trying to figure out whether or not winmodems are ‘painless’ enough to endure for that long, or if I’m just going to end up wasting my money and buying a real modem out of frustration anyway.

SenorBeef, with any modem packets are lost all the time and they are just resent. Again, many people use winmodems without any problem whatsoever and they are much more cost effective than a hardware modem. You only really need a hardware modem if you absolutely need every last cycle of your CPU and anyway, the winmodem is not going to make a big difference, I’d rather put the money into a system upgrade in that case.

I believe most systems you buy ready made will have a winmodem. Do any systems come with an external modem? I would doubt it.

Yeah, they’re resent, except in UDP based stuff like games where the packets are time-critical. If the packet loss is significant, I’d like to know that ahead of time to make an informed decision.

I am not a gamer and milliseconds are not important to me but if they are important to you then, by all means, go for a super-duper hardware modem. me, I think the extra $30 - $50 are better used in other upgrades like memory or whatever. But that’s just me. But, as I said, I don’t play games.

Is the extra $30-$40 dollars that critical in your purchase decision? Considering you’ll be going from a $20/month dialup to a $50/month broadband (numbers are guesses and are probably typical). Your first month increase is on par with the modem price difference, and you’ll know for sure.

And what was the OS again? Anything NT based – including XP – access the hardware differently than the DOS-based Windows did.

I’ll reiterate what I said again about my WinModem experience. The machine was an HP with a built-in (well, pre-installed) HP WinModem with Lucent chipset. Under the original WinME it worked fine. Under the improved Win98 (yeah, it was an improvement) it worked fine. Upgrading it to WinXP Pro made the modem virtually useless – 2400 baud. Putting in the USR hybrid with onboard DSP no controller worked like a charm. If you’re running XP, search or read other hardware reviews before you purchase a pure WinModem.

Just what is a winmodem? I think all the modems my family have ever owned have been actual hardware internal modems. All the way from 300 to 56k.

      • A hardware modem is one that requires only one or two generic Windows modem drivers.
  • I’m just calling it like I saw it. And everything else was the same: same physical phone line, same computer, same OS. … 99% of computers today come with Winmodems anyway so if it works, use it. If you have problems with losing connections but the phone line has no other problems then a hardware modem may help.

Disclaimer: I have no actual knowledge of the V90 or other modem protocols, but I have worked heavily with other higher-speed protocols in my course of work (SCSI, HiPPI, Fibre Channel, etc).

Usually, the “top speed” listed by the transport medium is the speed at which data would flow if only data was flowing, and it was flowing constantly. In the real world, control signals and their responses must also be sent.

With software-based controller management, the CPU must respond to these control signals before data can begin flowing again, and it’s got to do reads and writes to pci register space to get the info from the modem and write it back. So it’s not just CPU cycles you’re spending responding to these signals. (Note, this also explains why PCI winmodems seem to work “better” than ISA, less latency in talking to the modem with the more modern bus.)

With hardware-based controllers, these responses happen immediately, making the time when data isn’t flowing shorter.

Thus, while a software-controlled and a hardware-controlled modem can have the same theoretical throughput, the hardware modem is going to have a shorter latency, and a greater real-world maximum throughput.

DougC’s guestimate of 45 vs 40 seems reasonable to me.

That said, I’m wondering what the bit of “hardware” is that makes a “hardware modem” a “hardware modem”…do winmodems not have their own UART?


SenorBeef: The performance impact from a winmodem on your online gaming should be negligable. The CPU overheard from the processing tasks will be EXTREMELY low on any modern processor, probably well below 1%. There shouldn’t be any IRQ-induced “stall” on a PCI modem, since PCI uses all sorts of nifty features to ensure that devices can all cooperate.


No, not necesarily - but I was probably going to get a winmodem. It would’ve sucked if it was absolute crap, and I threw away that money and had to go get another modem anyway, so I figured I’d ask ahead of tiem to those with experience.


Primarily win2k.
To those who are asking what makes a hardware modem a hardware modem - basically, an onboard processor. Winmodems are basically physical adapters for your PCI bus and phone line. Your computer can use the winmodem to physically act upon the line. With a hardware modem, it has all the features to connect you to the line, but also has it’s own onboard modulator for signal processing and other processors - it basically does all the things a modem has to do, and then delivers that data to the rest of the computer. With a winmodem, the rest of the computer actually has to process that data on it’s own.

      • Shopping around a bit, I don’t know that the term “controller-based” means anything in particular anymore, as it all really depends on where the controller is, exactly… -maybe they’re making “half-hardware modems” now. And I dunno where you people are finding “lots of hardware modems for $50”, the cheapest ones three years ago were all at least $100.

  • The one I bought for ~$120 3 yrs ago (a USR serial-port, mdl# USR5686D) is now down to… $99, at the same store. The current model version of this is the USR5686E, and if you go to USR’s support page for this product, the only download file available at all is a 56K INF file for Windows. The INF file is a courtesy set-up thing, you don’t even really need it–when I bought mine, I never inserted any of the included CD’s or had to download anything and it worked 100% in Win98, as well as 100% in Mandrake 7.2. No other files were needed.
  • The next USR model down at Best Buy is the USR5610B, a ~$75 internal modem with the BS “performance modes” and “Linux compatibility” I mentioned earlier. If you go to the USR support page for this product, you find there is one 465K download driver for Windows, as well as a separate 4.5K DOS driver, and a separate Red Hat RPM. If this was a true hardware modem, you wouldn’t need any of these at all. It would only have at most a small Windows INF file like the USR5686E does.
  • The only cheaper “controller-based” serial-port modem listed at this online store is a Creative Modem Blaster External/Serial, but the Creative support page lists a 230K driver available for download–so I would bet a good amount of money that this isn’t a real hardware modem either.
  • And I have looked around just now for any info on the 3Com/USR Gaming modem, and the product pages Google found are gone from the 3Com and USR websites. All the reviews are from the last half of 1999. I couldn’t turn up any model number so I don’t know if it required any drivers or not.
  • I did turn up a few off-brand “true” serial-port modems for $60+… The cheapest USR serial-port modem I find is the USR5686E, listing around $80. If you look on the USR support page, you see that there is only one 48K INF file available for download–no drivers at all.

About the difference:

I bought myself a Dell 8100 a couple years ago, and since I’ve been at school with it ever since I’ve only been using the ethernet card, not the modem. However, before I brought it to school, I was using the home’s dialup connection with the included modem. Now, I have no idea whether or not it is a winmodem (telephony isn’t something I’m interested in, except for how fast it can go and why did it crash and such) but it had an interesting quirk. To log onto AT&T’s connection properly, I had to pick up the phone in my room, dial the connection, keep the phone off the hook until the connection was finalized, and then I could hang up the phone and surf as normal. What the heck would cause this?

Who makes winmodems? My father has replaced the modem several times since the late 80s, and I know at least once or twice he’s bought US Robotics. Would that more likely be a winmodem or a normal modem?

USR makes both.

      • I think the only way to know any modem is now a “real” hardware modem is to visit the support/downloads page on the manufacturer’s site before buying and see that there are no drivers for download. A 100% hardware modem doesn’t need any. There might be an INF file and additional application software, but those shouldn’t be required to install and use any hardware modem…

Here is a good list of what brands/models of modem are what.

      • …a listing of winmodems. The two USR hardware modem model numbers I mentioned (the 3-yr old) “5686d” and (the current model) “5686e” do not appear at all, so known hardware modems aren’t even listed.

I think I figured out another good way to screen them - I was looking at modems today, and some list a CPU speed requirement. I can’t imagine a hardware modem having any cpu requirement.

The only decent modem I saw was a USR v92 external modem for $99. Ouch.