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Retro Friday: The Dial-Up Modem

Posted by nik on December 16, 2011

modemThe dial-up modem (a.k.a. faxmodem) was the primary way people got online from home in the early days of internet connectivity. Modems came in two flavors, internal or external. If internal, the modem had a very chintzy little speaker on the card or used Windows to send its connection tones through your audio speakers. If external, the modem had its own in-built speaker that usually had a volume control (although some didn’t).

It was never fast for internet use

When used for BBS connectivity, modems were fast because all you were downloading was ANSI text. On the internet however, modems were never fast because you were downloading so much more binary data. Images, email attachments, Flash content, etc. All that stuff is binary data.

Even if you could connect at the fastest possible speed (56k), internet use was still slow.

“Winmodem” – the worst of the worst

The vast majority of hardware-based modems always worked great, but then some PC OEMs (like HP) started bundling their computers with what was called the “Winmodem”, as in softmodem; these required software to work and only worked in the Windows environment.

Winmodems by and large were notorious for having buggy operation because of their overreliance on very vendor-specific Windows software; that’s why so many people hated them.

Phone line issues

Your connection speed was dictated by whether your local Telco had “clean” phone lines or not, and most of the time this was not the case – particularly in rural areas.

In the small town I grew up in, the absolute best connection speed I could acquire was 26400 bits per second no matter what modem I used. I tried every single AT command set and error-check combination I could think of to eke out a faster connection, but that was all for naught because it simply wasn’t happening. 26.4kbps was the best I could get; it stayed that way until switched to broadband.

The sound of dial-up

Modem tones were always very “screechy” sounding – but very distinctive.

Someone took the modem handshake noise and slowed it down 700% with some added deep chamber echo effect. You’ll either think this sounds like a nightmare or the coolest thing ever, depending on your point of view.

Does anyone still use dial-up?

Yes, and surprisingly more than you’d think. In the US there are many in rural areas who stick to the old dial-up way of getting online because it’s only $10 a month, which is a lot cheaper than the average $50/month for “basic” broadband.

Personally, I said goodbye to dial-up years ago and hope I never have to use it again.

One thought on “Retro Friday: The Dial-Up Modem”

Anonymous says:
There was one time when the sound of a modem data connection really rocked. . .It was in Terminator 3– when the T-X model (played by Kristanna Loken) was in the car driving an she picked up a cell phone, puckered up those lips and cooed a connection to the Internet.

Oh baby.. .I liked it when she talked dirty…

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