I just got me a brandy-new US Robotics Sportster V.92 external modem with the RS-232 interface. Remember that antique icon of the last century, the external modem? Time to step into the WayBack machine and get re-acquainted.
Lightning is a B***H
This all came about a couple of weeks ago when lightning hit one of the tall trees in the RV park next to my cabin. Thunderstorms in November, go figure. A simultaneous flash-boom, the lights went out, my surge suppressors cracked like pistol shots and my laptop turned off. Ughhh…. The power came back on in a second, as did everything else in my cabin. With great trepidation, I pressed the power button on this ancient Dell Inspiron 4150. It started booting. Hallelujah !!!
Once it booted, all was not well. I clicked on my dial-up internet connection icon and got the message “bluetooth DUN not available”. Hmmm. I use blue tooth to connect to my cellphone when traveling but I use the internal modem for dial-up.
I checked the device manager in Control Panel and…. No internal modem visible. Shutdown and run the BIOS Setup. No modem visible. Looks like my internal modem has lost its ertness. Damn.
I took the back off the laptop and removed the modem board to take a look. My faint hope that maybe a wire had come loose or a PCB trace had blown was not to be. This tiny example of ChiCom manufacturing didn’t show any signs of blue smoke leaking out but it was completely inert.
OK, so I’m off the net. How to find a replacement modem here in BF Egypt without the net? A crusty memory of that ancient tome called the Yellow Pages worked itself into my consciousness. Wonder if there’s still one around here? <dig awhile> Yep, found one. Look under “computer hardware”. Hmmm, 3 entries, none of ’em brand names. Dig out that other antique, the AT&T calling card and start calling.
Whomever answered the phone at the first store said that the owner was out picking up her kid and couldn’t answer my question. Why little stores stay little. Hint: call forwarding and cellphones.
The guy who answered the phone at the second store said that he’d not seen a serial modem in years. I asked for suggestions and he suggested a USB modem. Hmmm, sounds reasonable, I should have figured.
He said that he’d wait on me to come get it so I charged out to the van. It felt funny as I backed down the driveway. After I headed forward for a moment, the cause was obvious – a flat tire! Murphy lives here. The only other vehicle I had handy was my big truck  so I got in it and headed out. Now, I’m a gen-u-wine mountain man who knows how to wheel a truck around mountain roads. I do believe that several flat-landers that met me are still shaking out their drawers :-)
With the help of GPS and Street Atlas , I finally found the store, a classic hole-in-the-wall. The guy had my USB modem ready and waiting. I paid the man about $35 and went back to the truck to see what I got.
A typical generic ChiCom no-name blue blob in a generically labeled box. Probably $15 from a net vendor but who’s complaining? I had my laptop there in the truck so to make sure the modem worked, I installed the driver, plugged the thing in and selected the new modem in DUN. DUN chatted with it and got as far as listening for a dial-tone. Looks good.
After a nice meal and a casual drive back, I hooked up the modem to the phone line. It went off-hook, it dialed, it waited, it gave up. Hmmm. I noticed that I didn’t have any modem sounds either. I read the scant Chinglish manual and learned that the modem piped the connection sounds back to my sound card. OK, let’s get some sound. The volume control was full on and still no sound so I fired off my MP3 player. It started and played but no sound. To make long story of an evening of troubleshooting short, the lightning got my sound card too. Double Damn.
I recalled that I had a bluetooth headset for my cellphone. I plugged the bluetooth dongle into my USB port and let it do its plug’n’pray thing. After much fiddling, I actually got the dongle to talk to my headset and I had sound again. Lo-Fi mono but sound nonetheless.
Try to connect again. I heard a BUNCH of new sounds, most of which I didn’t like. Mainly the modem training over and over again before giving up. After a few attempts I decided to check out the phone line since Murphy had been working so hard. To make another long story short, I disconnected the phone drop ahead of the network interface, clipped on with my alligator clip-to-modular cord from my traveling modem road warrior kit and ran a cord inside. Then we tried again. After a LOT of screeching I had connection. At 14kbps! Wow. After several more attempts I got a 28k connection. Enough to surf with. Barely.
Fearing that my line card in the phone mux had taken a hit, I hauled my computer to a neighbor’s house and tried. 48k. This is not good. Back to my cabin. I immediately got a 32k connection. Maybe my modem just got lonesome and needed to talk to something before it’d work hard.
I looked at the driver info, googled around and found the manufacturer’s website on Taiwan. Poking around I found a driver download. Rev 4.xxx. My brand new modem contained Rev 2.xxx. Isn’t that nice! I spent the next couple of hours getting that file (thanks NetTransport , the best damned download manager I’ve found.) over the very tenuous link.
I had to manually scour my hard drive to uninstall the old driver crap that the install disc had installed. I installed 4.xxx, dialed a connection and….. 49.2k. The best I’d ever achieved. Now we’re cooking.
As with anything involving ChiCom hardware, USB and Microcrap Winders, it was not smooth sailing. I could not get the modem to work on my powered USB hub so I now have yet another wire dangling from my laptop. It looks like it’s on life support, there are so many wires!
Even though it worked, I was not happy. Though better than a winmodem, this thing still ate up lots of CPU cycles on my laptop. It made the cooling fan run all the time. Plus I don’t particularly like a direct pipe into my laptop from my lightning antenna, er, phone line. I decided that it was time to step waaaay back in time and find myself a REAL external modem, one with a serial interface. I wasn’t even sure they still made ’em.
A quick perusal of the net showed that US Robotics is the only name-brand manufacturer of external modems still in business. I looked around the net and found a refurb Sportster V.92 modem for about $70 from techforless.com (I didn’t include a link cuz you really don’t want to deal with these folks.) A few clicks later and it was on its way. A loooong way, as it turned out.
Here in the mountains, everything dealing with the outside world gets complicated. Such as getting a UPS or FEDEX delivery. I got a call a couple of days ago from UPS saying that they were going to deliver my modem to a hardware store in town twenty miles away. Nyet! After some discussion, I convinced the lady that yes, they really were going to deliver to my door just like I paid for. Yesterday, finally, it arrived.
I Hate Serial Ports
I open the package to find a modem and a wall wart. No cable (expected), no phone cord (cheap bastards) and no setup disc (now I’m pissed). I dropped a note to techforless’s support line asking about the disc. This is the reply I got, and I quote:
“I’m showing the item you ordered from us was advertised as
Refurbished, which came with all essential accessories. In this case the CD is not considered to be an essential accessory as you can download the
software from US Robotics at”
Oooookkkaaaayyyy, I guess that in techforless’s world, drivers aren’t considered essential. I sent him back a reply asking how he thought I’d get the drivers for a MODEM without the MODEM already working. Of course I didn’t hear back. See why I didn’t include a link? I went to the US robotics site and sicced NetTransport on everything they listed for my modem.
So anyway, here I am with this modem that has a DB-25 connector on the back. I bought this laptop mainly because it has a hardware serial port but with a DB-9 connection. Now I’m remembering why I hate serial ports.
Rummaging around behind some old boxes, I find my RS-232 Crash Kit. This is a tool box loaded up with everything one might need to make serial stuff talk to each other. Null modems, cables, adapters, breakout boxes, etc. I hadn’t been in the Crash Kit since I quit computer consulting oh, 10-15 years ago. I found a DB-9/DB25 adapter and a DB-9 extension cable. Ahhhhh. I connected everything up, ran the driver install and got reminded why….
I Love Serial Ports
It just works. I selected the proper modem in DUN’s setup, clicked my ISP’s icon and the blinky lights on the modem came to life. I heard a real honest-to-God speaker churn out modem tones. I watched it connect forthwith. I saw a 50k connection speed. I surfed. I emailed. I downloaded. I smiled. Everything just worked.
I installed the FAX/terminal/Modem-on-Hold software and sent a fax to a friend. It Just Worked(TM). I’m sure that the modem-on-hold feature will Just Work too if I ever get call waiting.
So. Now I have a nice little modem box sitting on my desk with lots of blinking lights. I can tell when a download stalls or is jerky. I can tell when ANY traffic is flowing and not just what the little taskbar icon wants to show me. My computer fan remains off because the modem’s processor is doing all the work. I found an RS-232 optical isolator dongle in my Crash Kit so now my laptop is isolated from the phone line.
Sometimes Old Tech is good.
Moral of the story: If you’re still stuck on dial-up, spend a week’s worth of Starbucks on a real, genuine external modem and get as much as is possible out of that dial-up connection.
Next, we’ll address the sound problem. I have a SoundBlaster Audigy external USB sound box sitting here. It’s worked before on this laptop but with USB, you never know. That’ll be the subject of another post after I do my pluggin’ and prayin’. Wish me luck.
John (Still missing ya, Bob)