3 Cards let laptops stay connected-- anywhere

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, January 1996

GVC 14,400 bps PCMCIA Fax/Modem
$225 (CDN$) list-- about $200 street price
Gentek Marketing, Inc.
20 Barnes Court, Building G
Concord, Ontario L4K 4L4
416-738-5563 (fax)

Megahertz XJack14.4 Ethernet Modem
$395 (US list)
604 North 5600 West
Salt Lake City, UT
84116-0020 USA

Jack of Diamonds TrumpCard
$827 (CDN$)
-- $425 (CDN$) special limited time evaluation price
Ositech Communications, Inc.
679 Southgate Drive
Guelph, Ontario N1G 4S2
519-836-8063 / 1-800-563-2386
519-836-6156 (fax)

Portable computer users still need desktop power and speed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the need to stay connected. On the road, in and out of the office, at home? Need a high-speed modem to connect to the Internet, to BBSs, or to access data and even programs on the business network?

And back in the office, would the ability to plug into the network would be a plus?

At the same time, you have to deal with the limited size and weight restrictions of portable computing, where every extra centimeter and gram counts. An added problem is the limited expandability of portables. These three PC Cards (formerly known as PCMCIA Cards) provide an answer to the dilemma, usable by any portable user with an empty Type 2 PC Card slot.

GVC 14.4 Fax Modem

Concord, Ontario?s Gentek markets a full range of affordable modems, including a 14.4 PC Card fax-modem. (They also market a separate PC Card Ethernet adapter, for those networking needs). It works well and is available at an attractive price, but is somewhat hindered by the spartan documentation... a 13 page mini-manual.

The F-1114PV1 model ships with a proprietary, plug-in phone cable, and a copy of Delrina?s 4-in-1 telecommunications software, comprising ?lite? versions of ComIt telecommunications software for DOS and Windows, and WinFax and DOSFax. Of course, it can also be used with the telecommunications and fax software of your choice, after some fiddling with configuration settings.

In addition, a PCMCIA driver disk is included, although the modem requires that Socket/Card Services are already installed on your portable. Windows 95 correctly autorecognizes this card as a ?Cirrus Logic? modem, and will automatically install drivers for it. As with other cards in this review, the GVC model features hot insertion-- meaning it can be inserted or removed without having to power the computer down. Because PC Cards can really drain portable batteries, it features a low power sleep mode, when inserted but not in active use.

The modem performs well, supporting all the standard 14.4-level modem specifications-- V32bis, V42bis, and so forth, and operates as a Group III fax, for sending and receiving. It can be configured to work on any of the four standard COM ports, and supports the standard Hayes AT commands. It includes a five year warranty, which can be extended to a lifetime warranty, with the purchase of GVC?s DataGuard communication line protector.

It represents good value in a modest package.

Megahertz 14.4 XJack Ethernet Modem

This offering from Megahertz is a step up in features, packaging, and price from GVC?s card. It?s just one of a series of PC Card modems and networking adapters from Megahertz, now owned by US Robotics.

Unlike GVC?s card, which requires a proprietary phone cable (lose it at your own risk), the current line Megahertz models feature a trademarked XJack adapter-- a thin phone jack that fits into the body of the PC Card when not in use. Simply press on the end, and the XJack pops out. That means you can plus any standard phone plug into this card. Some fear that it may be easy to break off, however, a charge that Megahertz denies. At the same time, use of an XJack and phone cord may make it impossible to use some second PC Cards at the same time.

While the unit includes the XJack for its phone connections, a proprietary adapter is used for the networking side of the card-- depending on the adapter, either 10BaseT or 10Base2 cables can be used with this card. (Megahertz?s $215 (US) Ethernet adapter comes with a similar XJack for 10BaseT plug ins)

Faxworks 3.0 for Windows software is included, along with CompuServe and America-On-Line connection software, but no general purpose telecom software is included in the package. DOS users get a token nod of the head-- a card to return for free DOS communications and fax software. Running the DOS-based install program adds appropriate drivers for both the modem and networking functions; Windows 95 recognizes the card and installs drivers for all its functions.

This combo card permits simultaneous access of a network, along with 14.4 fax modeming. It also features a built-in Digital Line Guard, an attempt to protect the modem from being plugged into office digital PBX high-voltage phone lines... if you do, you?ll be notified of potential problems, and the modem will be switched off-line-- hopefully before any damage to the modem has occurred. (Digital phone lines are unlikely to harm traditional modems, but the higher voltage has the potential to make any PC-Card modem go up in smoke-- beware!)

Another handy feature-- Megahertz?s software includes a point enabler. This can reduce (DOS) memory utilization by setting up the card, and then removing itself from memory. The down side of this is that doing so limits the ability to remove and reinsert the card, or to switch in and out of power-saving sleep mode. Windows 95 users avoid these problems, getting drivers that load into much more available extended memory.

This unit includes a full-featured, 170 page manual, complete with all the modeming jargon that makes this area of computing so much fun. Like the GVC card, it includes a 5 year warranty.

The Install program will set up your machine with its own version of Card and Socket Service drivers if you do not have any specifically installed. This well-designed program will set up your machine to, by default, connect to a Novell network, and for simultaneous network and modem operation. An Uninstall program can be run to undo the installation.

The documentation aids in the sometimes complicated configuration of the modem for your telecom software-- especially necessary since no telecom software is included with this package. It lists a number of different modems that can be chosen if your software lists modems by model, and also includes sample initialization strings for a wide range of popular software. In addition, it gives detailed instructions for working with the modem and the (Type 2) fax, and for setting up the network driver with a range of popular networking packages. Additional information on manually configuring the networking and modem functions will appeal to the computer do-it-yourselfer.

Flash ROM means the card?s built-in software can be updated as newer versions become available. Megahertz uses the well-regarded AT&T chip set in its modem.

Megahertz is one of the most widely distributed brands of PC Card modems-- users who do not need this model?s combination of networking and telecommunications should have no trouble finding their 14.4 and 28.8 kbs modem-only cards at their favorite retailers.

Jack of Diamonds is a hard card to play...

Like the Megahertz card, the oddly-named Jack of Diamonds TrumpCard, from Guelph, Ontario?s Ositech, is also a combo card, cramming Ethernet networking and a fax modem into a single, Type II PC Card. Unlike the Megahertz product, this card boasts 28.8 v34 ultra-high speed modeming. It also features cellular support, making it particularly attractive for mobile users. On the other hand, with a $827 (CDN$) list, it?s also the most expensive card of the trio. (There is a special $425 CDN$ evaluation price in effect, for one unit per customer site, until the end of next March).

Like the Megahertz card, it permits simultaneous network and modem connection. Unlike that card, it does not use (Megahertz?s patented) XJack connector-- including special cables for both the telephone and networking jacks. A 10BaseT cable is included... an Media Access Module, allowing both 10BaseT and 10Base2 network connections, can be ordered (upping the price by another $69).

The included software allows connection to several popular cell-phone models at speeds up to 14.4 (which is pretty good, considering the unreliability of cell connections in general), and includes a nice feature-- it notices whether or not the network adapter is in use... if not, it powers down that side of the card, providing dramatic savings on notebook batteries.

The company claims compatibility with DOS, the entire Windows family (including 3.11, 95, and NT), OS/2, and several varieties of UNIX (though not the popular Linux). As with the other cards in this review, I used it with Windows 95, which again, successfully recognized both the network and modem functions, and automatically installed the appropriate software.

Unlike the Megahertz card, the TrumpCard does not include its own generic PC Card and Socket Services software-- it claims, instead, to be compatible with the CS&S software installed with virtually all PC Card systems. Like Megahertz?s software, an optional point enabler allows users to save about 60k of DOS memory, at the expense of losing hot swapping. QuickLink II Windows fax and telecom software is included. There are separate manuals for installation, and for the modem and networking sides of the card.

While Windows 95 happily recognized the card?s modem function, and set it up to work transparently with that environment?s native telecom and Internet software, it was more difficult to find appropriate initialization string information to work with my older (DOS and Windows) software... eventually I located a Readme file with sample initialization strings-- buried several directories deep in the driver disk. Even with this information, I never quite got my software set up to my satisfaction, and found modem performance slower than I would have hoped from a 28.8 kbs modem... perhaps my own fault, but I would have hoped that this vital information would be more clearly communicated.

It?s the priciest of the cards reviewed, but Ositech?s offering is clearly the feature-leader of the bunch.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan