The Web has breathed new life into the communications hardware market, accelerating development of technologies that yield faster connections. Standards-based 33.6Kbps modems currently lead the analog pack, with 56Kb technology stirring interest. ISDN terminal adapter prices dipped down into the reasonable realm and-if it's available and your budget can bear it-ISDN is the current connection method of choice.
The following communications devices are among the best we've seen. In fact, each has earned a spot on our WinList of recommended products.
Hayes Office Communications Manager ($189; Hayes Microcomputer Products, 800-429-3739, 770-441-1617). This modem/software bundle is a SOHO-or any size office-dream. The package includes the dependable Accura 28.8 switched-voice/data speakerphone/modem, which recognizes distinctive ring and Caller ID telco services.
It includes a CD of office-centric software. VoiceView TalkShop lets you share data and talk on a single call; full and lite versions of the Smartcom Message Center provide voice mail with multiple mailboxes, fax-on-demand and pager notification. For the Web, there's Quarterdeck's Internet Suite 2 (browser, news and mail reader, and Internet Relay chat client) and WebTalk, a Web phone program.
Jetstream Front Desk 1.0 ($1,395; Jetstream Communications, 800-INFO-JET, 408-777-4300). Front Desk is sort of an ISDN variant of the Hayes bundle. It's a hardware-and-software solution that connects three telephony products (telephones, fax machines and so forth), as well as your PC, to an ISDN line. It automatically routes incoming calls to the appropriate device based on the number dialed by the caller, Caller ID information or a distinctive-ring signal.
You can base call-routing instructions on a schedule. Although you can select the routing modes from a menu-driven LCD desktop device, they are established via wizard-enhanced software, as are voice-mail boxes. The desktop module displays system status, lets you select a line, adjust volume, put calls on hold, listen to your voice mail messages and establish three-party conference calls. ISDN setup is also easy with Front Desk.
U.S. Robotics Courier I-Modem ($399; U.S. Robotics, 800-DIAL-USR, 847-676-7010). Once you get over the hassle of ordering and installing an ISDN line, you can sit back and let the Courier I-Modem with ISDN/V.34 take care of the rest. ISDN setup couldn't be easier: Connect the I-Modem to the ISDN line and a serial port, load the very friendly installation software, and you'll be up and running in about 15 minutes. The unit has an analog jack for a fax machine or phone, and LEDs that let you monitor a connection's progress.
Motorola Montana 33.6 Modem/Fax PC Card ($209; Motorola, 800-451-2369, 205-430-8000). If you're an itinerant ISDN user, you have a speedy alternative when you're on the road. The Motorola Montana is a Plug-and-Play V.34-1996-compliant 33.6Kbps Type II PC Card modem. It features dual RJ-11 phone jacks, so it can share a wall jack with a phone or another device. The Montana features Enhanced Throughput Cellular error correction and a cable option ($10) for Motorola cell phones-plug the cable in and the modem automatically configures itself for cellular operation. It also includes QuickLink data/fax software, Netscape Navigator, Spry Mosaic and online-service trial floppy disks.
Xircom CreditCard Ethernet+Modem 33.6 with MiniDock ($359; Xircom, 800-438-4526, 805-376-9300). Xircom's PCMCIA card offers connectivity wherever you need it-on the road or in the office. It's a combo V.34-1996 modem and Ethernet (10BaseT or 10Base2) adapter. The model we tested came with Xircom's MiniDock-a dongle with RJ-45 and RJ-11 jacks and modem/LAN-activity LEDs. A 10Base2 interface is available for $39, as is an optional connector kit for Motorola ($49) or AT&T ($69) cell phones.
The modem's "Digital Shield" digital-line protection protects it from signals generated by most PBXs. If you run into a particularly pernicious PBX, the modem's limited lifetime warranty provides after-the-fact protection.
Setup is simple: Insert the card, pop in the drivers' floppy disk, and let Plug and Play do the rest. Delrina WinComm Lite 1.1 and WinFax Lite 4.0 are included.