[Article from Boardwatch Magazine, December 1993 issue]
HOTTEST NEW MODEM ON THE BLOCK - HAYES OPTIMA 288 V.FC +FAX
Motorola Codex caused quite a stir a little over a year ago with
demonstrations of a new modem modulation technique they called V.Fast. In
essence, it provided for a connection between modems in excess of 20 KB.
The announcement caused a bit of consternation on several fronts. Information
theorists had determined that the theoretical limit of data transfer over the
3000 Hz bandwidth of our analog telephone system was a little over 20
kilobits per second (kbps). Note that at one time, they had set this limit at
600 baud, later 2400, and so on. They've proven demonstrably wrong one more
time in a row as the magicians in modemland continue to seek
better/faster/cheaper with an obsessive focus.
Also caught up in this is the conversion from the International Consultatif
Committee for Telephone and Telegraphique (CCITT) to the International
Telecommunications Union (ITU). This rework of the international standards
process for data communications was designed to streamline the process of
adopting standards. The kindest thing we can say at this point is that it has
not. Adoption of V.Fast, now referred to as ITU V.34, has been pushed out to
June of 1994 and many insiders express doubt that there will BE a V.34
standard until sometime in 1995 at this point.
But technology has a poor history of waiting for committees. And it won't
wait again. Two camps have lined up to raise the water mark on how fast you
can talk online with interim solutions and promises of upgrades to V.34
later. AT&T develops modem chipsets. So does Rockwell. AT&T has come out in
favor of a 19,200 bps technology that basically extends V.32bis to attain
those speeds, and it has come to be called V.32 terbo. Most notable in the
V.32terbo camp is U.S. Robotics.
Rockwell has lined up some 160 modem vendors behind a standard they call
V.Fast Class or V.FC with the objective of 28.8 kbps connections. We think
the later will be such an overwhelming winner, that it will basically
strongarm the standards process into becoming V.34. We're not even sure
you'll have to upgrade at all from V.FC to V.34.
The exciting news is that one more time we get a dramatic jump in modem
speed, and largely because of the fight and uncertainty over what it is, it
would appear to be at less of a price premium than previous new technology
modem introduction. The result will do nothing less than rewrite the online
saga all over again.
Hayes Microcomputer Products, Inc. seems to be leading the revolution, and in
no small way. They've made no secret of the fact that they want back on top
of the data communications game, and are willing to pay the price. On
November 1, they began shipping a new product titled the Hayes Optima 288
V.FC + FAX, and it didn't take but a few minutes with this little number to
get comfortable in the Hayes camp. The best news is the pricing. The Optima
288 will list for $579, a far cry from the $1000-$1200 we've faced with new
technology introductions in past years. And they are aggressively moving to
establish it in the BBS world. Eight of the largest bulletin boards, three
Fidonet hubs, and three BBS software vendors participated in the beta test
phase of development already. And Hayes is introducing the modems with a BBS
sysop discount price to $288 per modem. They are also offering to upgrade the
older Optima's and Ultra's for $199.
"We were pleased to have the opportunity to support Hayes in this testing.
These 28.8 kbit/s modems are reliable products and users will certainly
benefit from the speed," said George Peace, North American FidoNet Mail Zone
Hub. "We can now perform mail exchanges twice as fast."
The new modems offer a couple of surprises. First, they really will do a 28.8
kbps connect on good telephone lines. They won't do it every time, and we
have to believe this new technology takes advantage of the fact that many
telephone lines exceed the basic 3000 Hz bandwidth spec pretty broadly. The
modems fall back to 26,600 cps, 24,000 cps, 21,600 cps, 19,200 cps, and on
down into the more common speeds. On local calls, we got several at 21.6 and
24.0 and a couple at the optimum 28.8. And, we found the Hayes Optima 288
quite smooth at falling back to lower speeds, and particularly adroit at
climbing back up to 28.8 if the line conditions improved.
Most modem manufacturers talk about data throughput when sending uncompressed
text files. With V.42bis data compression, it is fairly easy to acheive data
throughput of 3000 cps or so with a V.32bis modem, because of the data
compression in the modems themselves. But the claims of 4:1 compression to 57
kbps using V.32bis modems is is a little bit disingenuous when applied to the
BBS community. Most files are already compressed and stored in .ZIP or .LZH
files and they gain nothing from hardware compression. A data transfer rate
of 1700-1750 cps is considered very good with V.32bis modems. With the new
Hayes Optima 288, it can be a little startling to see true file transfer
rates in the 3300-3500 cps range.
But the compression factor is still there when you are simply viewing menus
and transferring text files. And it could become quite important as we move
to graphic interfaces. Hayes has added an S register that allows you to
increase the size of the V.42bis data directory table. In theory this raises
the compression factor as high as 8:1. The result is a theoretical port speed
as high as 230.4 kbps - which is frankly a little hard to grasp - not only
for us conceptually, but for the PC hardware and virtually all of the
communications software out there. We view 230.4 kbps as an unrealistic and
somewhat dubious claim. But we do understand how they got there. Basically,
these modems can indeed squirt data faster than the 115 kbps port speed that
is commonly the highest available. We transferred a largish (2 MB) .DBF
database file at over 11,000 cps average and some peaks to 11,350 cps. This
is a strong indication that it was actually our 115 kbps port speed
restricting the speed of the connection - not the modem.
Hayes has addressed this by re-introducing their Enhanced Serial Port (ESP)
card. This card will be available for as little as $99 in a single port
version. If you have to increase the port speed from 115 kbps to support the
modem anyway, 230.4 sounds like about the right increment. And once you've
done so, I don't suppose there is much motivation to declare that fact a
secret. On some test text files, it may be possible to approach that. We
suspect 13000 to 15000 cps to be a more realistic high if you do actually
transmit database, spreadsheet, or text files in uncompressed form.
The ESP card is basically a 16550 UART with a coprocessor and memory that
extends the 16 byte data buffer in the UART to a full 1024 bytes. Whatever
else it is, this card does make communications finally work under Windows. If
you really want to do file transfers in the background under windows, this
card is worth the price.
In fact, the Optima 288 is going to shake up a lot of software vendors who
never expected online speeds to get to this point over dialup lines. When you
try the Optima 288 with a port speed of 57 kbps, or 115 kbps, you may find
your favorite terminal program such as Procomm Plus, Telix, or Qmodem goes
into a bit of a flutter. This is essentially the speed the original AT class
computer used between video and the computer itself - and there are some
technical problems exceeding it with the serial communications port. We
suspect that the data from menu screens was actually arriving faster than our
Telix or Procomm terminal programs could display the video. Many of the BBS
software vendors are going to be patching things pretty frantically to
support the higher speeds, particularly in their multiline versions where a
single PC supports multiple lines under DesqView or an internal multitasker.
Ultimately, with 16550 UARTS most products can ultimately support the higher
data rates, but we would expect a firestorm of patches and software upgrades
to become available over the next year as software vendors will have to
scramble to keep up with the modem hardware.
The Optima 288 V.FC + FAX also includes a V.17 Group 3 fax capability to send
faxes at 14,400 bps - compatible with lower speeds as well. The new modem is
of course compatible with all standard lower speed modems. And according to
Hayes, they will be able to upgrade the Optima 288 to V.34 when it is finally
adopted for a price they estimate at under $100.
"We are pleased to offer the sysop community a product with the highest data
and fax speeds available today from Hayes at a very aggressive price," said
Hayes President Dennis C. Hayes. "V.FC's widespread availability creates a
new industry pre-standard for high-speed communications. This technology not
only fills the gap between V.32bis and V.34 but should enable Hayes to
respond quickly when V.Fast becomes a standard."
The OPTIMA 288 V.FC +N FAX comes with Smartcom for Windows LE and Windows fax
communications software. Smartcom for Windows LE includes a phone book
feature to store phone numbers, "smart buttons" to automate communications,
file transfer protocols, and terminal emulation.
Hayes fired up the production line on the Optima 288 during the first week of
November and they are gearing up for mass production as if they think they
might sell a few of these. You should be able to get one soon, if not
And therein lies a tale. Hayes is not precisely building a modem designed
around a Rockwell chipset. Hayes actually was a driving participant, both
materially and financially, in the research and development program that
produced this chip. The V.FC chips will actually come in three different
flavors. The top chip is of course the 28.8 kbps chipset. But there are also
chipsets for 24.0 kbps and 19.2 kbps. All are actually pin compatible with
current Rockwell V.32bis modem designs. So for most manufacturers, putting
out a 28.8 kbps modem should be little harder than plugging in the chips
(about $123 in 10K quantities) into their current design.
Hayes, as part of their development participation, receives ALL of the first
allotment of 28.8 kbps chips and so has a virtually monopoly on 28.8 kbps
modems for a couple of months at least. Zoom, for example, is also releasing
a V.FC modem, but at 24.0 kbps using the next chip in the line which is
available. And at least ten other vendors are announcing V.FC class modems -
most using the 24.0 and 19.2 kbps chips. We rather have to believe that the
28.8 kbps modems are the ones to have, and for the immediate future, that
sounds like a Hayes Optima 288.
We did do some file transfer tests. A 445,106 byte .ZIP file made the trip in
133 seconds for a 3347 cps transfer. A 2,391,902 byte .DBF file made the trip
in 216 seconds for an average 11073 cps. With our serial port locked at 115
kbps, it would appear that the restriction on the .DBF file was actually our
port speed, not the modem, as the transfer continually climbed to 11.3/11.4
and then would bounce back down a bit.
If BBSs primarily exist to transfer .ZIP files, why would these uncompressed
data rates be important? Graphics. Graphic interfaces such as RIP et al
consist of lots of airy ASCII text. So the uncompressed data rates will have
a big impact on the display of menu screens and graphics - particularly as
those graphics become more complex.
I can say that it was interesting. It is fast, if that helps. There are
certain perceptual speed thresholds that count. The move from 300 bps to 1200
bps caused the juices to flow. If you went from 1200 bps to 9600 bps,
skipping the 2400 bps era altogether, you may have felt the same thing. This
jump FEELS perceptually to be a gigantic leap. But beyond that, I'm not even
certain I know what it means. Audio? Video? BBS's as television stations?
We'll have to see. It probably makes the ever-about-to-be-introduced ISDN
availability much less important than it was. It's a 1 MB compressed .ZIP
file in less than five minutes, and a 1 MB text file in less than two
minutes. You can grab a pretty detailed .GIF image of about 400 KB in less
than two minutes. This does change things. If Hayes was angling to get back
on top of the data communications game, and recapture the BBS community, a
28.8 kbps fax modem with a list price of $579 and a 50% discount for BBS
operators pretty much demonstrates they've learned the language. Looking back
over the past 15 years and Hayes' role in the online community, we would note
that Dennis Hayes has won in the modem game, and Dennis Hayes has lost in the
modem game. From this Optima 288 introduction, we must assume he has decided
winning is better. This modem changes things - all over again. Hayes
Microcomputer Products, Inc., 5835 Peachtree Corners East, Norcross, GA
30092; (404)441-1617 voice; (404)441-1238 fax; (404)446-6336 BBS.