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Bring Me a New Brain, Igor!

Whether your modem fits inside your computer or plugs into your computer, it has a kind of a brain—not as powerful as the Pentium III, Celeron, or Athlon CPU that's inside your computer, but a type of software on a chip that tells it what to do. The pocket-protector types in the CS department call software-on-a-chip firmware, but whatever you call it, it can get out of date.

How can you tell if your modem's firmware is out of date? Here are a few of the likely suspects we've rounded up:

  • Louie "Can't Connect" Nohow

  • Jimmie "Too Slow" Pokey

  • Al "Drop Dead" Connecshun

If your modem can't connect reliably when you try to log on to your service, doesn't connect anywhere near its rated speed, or loses connections when you're online, it's time to see if the firmware can be updated as discussed in the next section.

If you're Igor in the Frankenstein movies, you know that the order "Bring me a new brain, Igor" means it's time to go grab the shovel and dig up a recent grave. Messy, nasty work—but hey, it's the movies!

Standards, Standards, Standards

Most modems sold since 1997 are so-called 56K modems, capable of downloading information at up to 56,000 bits (56Kbps) per second (although FCC regulations prevent modems from running at speeds over 53Kbps). However, three types of 56Kbps connections exist. The old X2 and K56flex standards have been replaced by an international standard called v.90. If your 56K modem is not a v.90 model, that's another reason to see about a firmware update because most online services don't support X2 or K56flex modems at their full speeds anymore.

Confused about modem speeds? Who could blame you? Here's what the different terms mean:

  • bps—Bits per second. Eight bits of data make a byte of data; each letter in an email message equals a byte, for example.

  • Kbps—Thousand bits per second. Most modems are rated by Kbps: A 56Kbps modem, for example, can transfer up to 56,000 bps per second (except that the FCC says "No way!" to speeds above 53Kbps).

  • Baud—A term that refers to signaling rate, not data rate. Early modems (such as the first 300bps models used on the IBM PC and Apple II) had identical baud and bps ratings, but baud no longer equals bps. The number of bits per baud rate vary, so referring to bps rates as baud rates is incorrect and seldom happens anymore.

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