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  • Is the Apple USB Modem Controversial?

    March 25th, 2006

    Among the various and sundry peripherals you might connect to your new Mac, a modem seems relatively benign. I mean, it’s not as if it represents a new technology, and the only reason you need to buy one these days is because Apple has decreed that we all should have broadband access. And that’s in the same fashion is they decreed we didn’t need floppy drives back in 1998 when the iMac first came out.

    The built-in modem’s disappearance isn’t something that was given wide publicity at Apple’s site, but when you see Apple USB Modem among the build-to-order options, prepare to spend that extra $49 if you still have dial-up Internet access or want to fax from your Mac. Regardless of the wisdom of such a decision, I’ve had occasion to work with a couple of these devices in recent days, and, when I read the user comments at Apple’s online store, I found myself wondering what the fuss is all about.

    It’s not as if installation requires any special skills. In fact, the multilingual manual devotes all of four pages to the subject. Just plug one end into a free USB port, connect the other end to a phone line, and open the Network preference panel in 10.4.3 or later to verify that a new port has been detected. Then you can go ahead and set it up to make your connections.

    The basic specs are straightforward. This is an ordinary V.92 modem that supports up to 56K connections and a few extras, such as Caller ID, wake on ring, telephone answering (V.253) and modem on hold. It is, for all practical purposes, not noticeably different from the internal modem included on Macs shipped in recent years. In regular use, it operates in the same fashion and manages both Internet connections and, of course, faxing, such as it is under Mac OS X, with decent reliability. At least that’s what I observed in my brief tests with the product. And, no, it doesn’t require any special drivers or software, though I’d take that 10.4.3 requirement seriously, because it’s quite possible older Mac OS X versions might not recognize it properly.

    On the other hand, I do have some objections to the device, and it’s not the modest purchase price. I think Apple’s decision to ditch the standard modem is a tad premature. Even if you do have broadband, what if you just want to send faxes from your Mac as I do from time to time? What about the loss of one of your USB ports? Well, at least companies that make USB hubs will no doubt be delighted at the turn of events. No, folks, I don’t think it’s necessarily a plot to deprive you of what used to be an essential component of your Mac and give Apple some extra income.

    However, moving past the political considerations, this modest looking device sure looks inoffensive enough, but the reviews at Apple’s site are decidedly mixed. Some users are simply upset over having to buy what used to standard equipment, one calling it a “bummer,” dinging the fact that it adds an appendage to a Mac, but praising the fact that it’s simple to set up and works just fine. Another customer lies at the opposite end of the universe complaining that “Yes it’s cute but having spent hours trying to figure out how to configure and use it, I’d say LOOKOUT!”

    Well, it’s not as if the instructions are particularly vague. I suppose if one isn’t the type to read such things, the fact that it establishes a new port, External Modem, might be confusing, although it’s perfectly logical. I can also see where faxing might, until you get it, present a confusing set of choices, because Internal Modem and, if it’s installed, Bluetooth, will lie among your choices. But otherwise? Not that I can see.

    Pouring through those comments, other users complained about the inability to maintain a proper connection, or use their third party fax software. Again, I wonder if the simple setup instructions were ever followed, and that’s something that readily apparent in comments of this nature. I worry, however, about someone who spends hours trying to get a handle on using the device when it’s all spelled out in a few short pages of text.

    In response to such installation and performance headaches, another customer proceeded to sing the modem’s praises, writing, “Simplicity itself! I’m a first time user of Mac OSX but found the installation of this product a piece of cake and have had no problems with the device hanging up.”

    Of course, if you don’t like Apple’s variation on the USB modem theme, I suppose you could consider the alternatives from such companies as Best Data and Zoom. But they aren’t any cheaper or easier to install, and they make for much larger appendages. And, no folks, I don’t think Apple is going to restore internal modems now or ever.



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