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10/96 Cover Story: HOT STUFF!

A Cruise You Can Afford

Hot Stuff! Introduction High Power, Low PriceBoost Your Memory-Now!Store More!What
You See ...
A Cruise You Can AffordMore Printer, Less MoneyTiming Is Everything

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Internal Fax Modems

Cruising the World Wide Web or an online service is a drag with anything less than a 28.8Kb-per-second modem. Thankfully, such modems have become quite affordable in recent months. The challenge is finding the one that best suits your needs.

You've got plenty of choices. Annual modem sales will surge from 17.9 million units in 1995 to 22.4 million this year, according to Dataquest. As a result, prices are spiraling downward. The current best buy is a 28.8Kbps fax modem, which typically costs around $130, a 23 percent drop from last year's price. If your main interest is online service access, a basic 14.4Kbps modem can be had for a very reasonable $60 or so. Still, it might be wise to buy a more flexible modem that supports other emerging communications technology.

For instance, check out telephony modems if you want your PC to serve as an answering machine and/or speakerphone. For business professionals interested in whiteboarding, or online gamers who crave performance, the logical choice is a modem that supports simultaneous voice and data (SVD) or digital simultaneous voice and data (DSVD) standards. These cost $175 to $250. Windows 95 users should buy a modem that carries the "Designed for Windows 95" logo, which should ease the installation process.

Resist the temptation to buy a newly released modem-modem manufacturers can take months to shake bugs out of the firmware. Some modems allow firmware upgrades (either by replacing PROMs, loading data into the modem or replacing a file on hard disk). Although flash upgrades can be a way to protect yourself from modem obsolescence (Supra recently offered a flash-Rom upgrade from 28.8Kbps to 33.6Kbps), such upgrades can be a headache to perform.

And as for 14.4Kbps modems, let's just say that's hardly the connection speed you'll want when 3-D graphics and multimedia become the norm on the Web.

If you already have a 28.8Kbps modem, start saving now for the next round of modem enhancements. These include 33.3Kbps modems, and even faster cable and ISDN modems, which should start appearing this winter.
-John J. Yacono

Sounds Like A Deal

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Sound Cards

Two years ago, the price of sound cards dropped like a rock. That crash is still having an impact.Three years ago, in November 1993, a 16-bit sound card was selling for about $200. Prices started their decline in '94, and now you'll pay less than $100 for a 16-bit card. As a result, sales of manufacturers' products to retail stores doubled in 1995 over 1994 levels.

The buying frenzy is over now, as sound cards find themselves in a fairly low-growth replacement situation. Don't expect to see radical new technology or rapidly falling prices in sound cards.

Although some 32-bit cards do exist, most currently installed cards are 16-bit devices. They adequately handle the rather modest bandwidth requirement of PC-based audio.

Most extant cards use FM synthesis to turn bit streams into sound. This technology is fine if all you want to do is listen to funny sounds as windows open and close, or if you want to listen to a recorded voice, which isn't aurally rich. And it's great for phone messages, since telephone lines are limited to the 6kHz bandwidth anyway. But if you want to hear the rich, orchestral renderings of Beethoven's Fifth, you need a wavetable-synthesis card, which uses stored instrument voices to replicate and reconstitute the sound of recorded music.

Today's new cards let you upgrade to better sound. Forecasts indicate that after 1996, wavetable cards will increase their market share from 28 percent of all sound cards in 1995 to about 60 percent this year. You should know, however, that you're likely to pay $220 or more for a wavetable card.

Some older cards have a port into which you can plug a wavetable add-on card, giving you the better sound without having to trash your old card. The other innovation is stereo sound, available from most manufacturers for around $300. If you go for either of these new upgrade features, make sure you have a pair of speakers that will let you hear the sound quality you just bought. A pair of $10 self-powered speakers just won't cut it.

In the near future, we're likely to see some products built around new single-chip multimedia products that offer sound, graphics, video and telephony in one device. Such chips should allow computer makers to offer all these functions right on the motherboard.-David Gabel

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