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-- by James E. Powell
IBM's latest modem is unlike any other currently on the market. The ComCentral 33.6 is a data/fax V.34-compliant modem that stores voice mail and faxes, forwards messages and transfers calls-even when your PC is turned off. Outside, the ComCentral looks like an answering machine; inside, IBM has built a reliable performer with a bevy of well-designed features.
The ComCentral sits flat on your desktop. An LCD status window on top shows the number of voice messages and faxes received, plus the date and time. There's also a 2-inch speaker and buttons to access the two incoming mailboxes, delete messages or control the unit (such as to start recording a message). The unit is equipped with a built-in microphone, a message-waiting light on the front and a volume control on the side.
When your PC is off, the modem's memory stores faxes. Turn on your PC, start your fax program's Receive mode, and ComCentral downloads new faxes to your fax software. When your PC and fax program are running, the modem accepts new faxes, then automatically downloads them when the transmission is complete. You can receive faxes directly to your PC or route them to a fax machine that's attached through an RJ-11 connector.
When sending a fax, the modem acts like a Class 2 fax modem. If you add "#HHMM#" before your recipient's fax number, ComCentral will accept the document from your fax software and send it at the requested time. You can save electricity by turning off your PC at night and free your system from having to retry calls because of busy lines or transmission errors.
Cheyenne Software's included BitWare is handy if you don't already have a fax program; it's adequate but nowhere near as sophisticated as our WinList product, WinFax PRO 8.0. (See Reviews, April.)
Like the default setting for incoming faxes, voice messages are first captured in ComCentral's memory and typically remain stored there. The modem lets you play or delete them. ComCentral's software allows you to save messages to disk, but in a proprietary format instead of more-useful WAV files. You won't find folders for organizing messages, either.
You can record a separate outgoing message for each of two lines (but the modem also supports Distinctive Ringing, which is useful if you have only one physical telephone line and subscribe to that feature from your telephone company). You can record messages to play when ComCentral forwards a call (one message to you when the call comes in, the other to play to your caller). ComCentral lets you record up to nine message-playback-only announcements; pressing the "*" skips any greeting and "#" takes you to the main greeting. Callers can also mark a call urgent by pressing a key. Recorded greetings can be archived, so it's easy to switch between "I'm not in" and "office closed" greetings without having to re-record.
The unit can display Caller ID information. Dur-ing fax transmission, the LCD panel displays the transmission status (speed and number of pages), plus the fax ID. It also shows the number of faxes received. When playing back voice messages, the panel reflects the message number, total message count and length.
Almost all the standard features of a telephony application are present. You can retrieve voice and fax messages from a remote location or forward them to another number. ComCentral can page you when new messages or faxes are received, and its toll-saver settings let you determine the number of rings before answering when there are or aren't messages. The software even has a feature that lets you set a four-digit security code.
By default, the unit stores up to 50 fax pages or 20 minutes of voice mail (including greetings and announcement), upgradable to 450 pages and 160 minutes. Flash memory keeps your messages safe during power outages.
Jacks for two incoming lines are on the back of the unit, along with jacks for a telephone handset or fax machine. The unit measures 1.25 by 6.5 by 8.75 inches, but you should add another 3 inches to the depth dimension to accommodate the serial cable.
In spite of ComCentral's outstanding performance, you're limited to one mailbox per line, and you can't fast forward or reverse through a message. The Hayes Office Communications Manager on our WinList offers telephony software for multiple mailboxes, but it can't handle tasks when your PC is turned off.
The ComCentral is a 33.6Kb-per-second fax/modem that offers high-quality data and fax transmission, professional, built-in answering machine features, and clear and precise documentation. For these qualities, and its unique ability to work when your PC isn't on, the ComCentral 33.6 joins our WinList of recommended products.