Modem def: a mysterious device that squeals and connects your PC to the outside world.

All new PCs come with them now, and almost every older PC has had one installed. The newest modem craze is upgrading a 28.8Kbps modem to 33.6Kbps. That's about a 17% increase in data throughput. Many companies whose 28.8Kbps modems have met the V.34 standard now offer free or almost-free upgrades to the 33.6Kbps ability. Your modem box, manual or modem itself will be labeled 'V.34' if your modem meets that standard. If so - contact the manufacturer, by phone or on the web, and inquire about upgrading to 33.6Kbps.

Upgrading my Cardinal MVP288XV modem was very simple. I downloaded 2 programs: 1 - a test to see if my modem was capable of being upgraded, and 2 - the upgrade itself. My modem passed the test and easily accepted the upgrade. Cardinal has a flash memory chip which updates the firmware. In English that means the modem gets its abilities not solely from hardware (chips etc) soldered to a logic board, but from a combination of hardware, memory and software - hence 'firmware'. This blend of software and hardware makes my little inexpensive modem very flexible and allows it to remain current with changing technology. There is a payoff however - in PC Mag lab tests, the Cardinal tested out with a throughput slightly less than its competitors.

Another hot issue is the choice between an internal and external modem. New PCs come with an internal modem installed and configured. For the rest of us who must add a modem, an external is the easiest to set up and configure because it connects via a cable to an external COM port and rarely causes interrupt conflicts with other devices. Internal modems must replace an existing COM port and often require a tech to disable a COM port on the motherboard. Some modems are plug-and-play, and when installed in a Windows95 environment, Window95 will sort out conflicts and will configure the modem for you.

A top of the line modem won't cost you a fortune. Most external models are available under $200 and a few internal models are even priced under $100!