Modems Hat


A lot has been written and said about modems over the past couple of years, but what exactly are they and what use are they to the average manic gamer? Mike Roberts fills his pockets with 10p bits and goes searching for an un-vandalised phone.

The principal behind a modem is very simple. Computer signals go out of a computer formatted as changes in voltage level. All a modem does is to change them into bleeping noises so they can go down a phone. So why is there such a variation in prices? Well, like anythingelse there are lots of extras onto this basic system that you really do need and lots that you don't.

It is likely that the cheaper land of modems that you may come across, whilst being just usable, are not really suitable for any prolonged use. The general rule is to get a direct connect modem that can handle 1200/75 and 300/300 baud protocols and some software that can access bulletin boards and Prestel type displays. Auto dial is useful, but not necessary, though it does cut out a lot of the trouble. Some modems will only support the Prestel type of use, though it is much better to get one of the more flexible types.

Free Software!

The main use of a modem for the ardent games player is free software - yes, you can get software absolutely free with your modem. The main source is through bulletin boards and Prestel/teletext systems, for this you need a modem and appropriate software. An application like this is where the direct connect modem really comes into its own. The direct connect results in less information being garbled, though you do have to have a socket, which could be expensive to fit. Acoustic couplers are the other type, and generally consist of a pair of rubber cups that attach to the phone. This is cheaper than a direct connect if you have no socket, though some corruption can seep in - which is important if you axe downloading programs.

Downloading refers to the system of loading a program through a computer from a viewdata source. Some modem packs contain software to do this, notably the Commodore system for Compunet, which has a large amount of S/W, and the Demon modem for the BBC which uses a single command to extract software in a number of different formats. If you are interested in the free software, then make sure that the software that you get for your modem can download the various games and utflities that are available.

Currently it is only the main computers that are well supported in this field: Commodore, BBC, Spectrum and the older types such as the Apple and the TRS 80. This is because all of the first bulleun boards were for Pets, Apples and Tandys. In those days computing was very easy because there were only those three computers that were priced at under £1000. The IBM also has some software available on the boards (though thavs a bit out of the scope of this piece!).

Apart from the bulletin boards, which are free, there axe the viewdata services Prestel and Compunet. As previously explained, Compunet is only available through a special Commodore modem and is currently only available for the C64, though a BBC system has been proposed. Compunet works in a similar, though improved, way to the Micronet on the first viewdata service in the world, Prestel. This sub-service on Prestel, called Micronet, is like a super-bulletin board with special interest groups, software, and magazine-like features and news.

On both Compunet and Micronet there are areas for uploading and downloading software. Some you have to pay for, from normal software houses, usually at a reduced rate, but there is a large amount of public domain software at no cost. Uploading is the process where you deposit one of your own programs on to the system. It is a good idea to do this to keep a good supply of public domain software flowing.

Mud glorious Mud (and other well-worn puns)

Another thing that you can do a modem is play the large scale adventures and games. Much has been said about one of the most famous of them all (Read all about these in this month's Multi-Modem Games feature). The Compunet version costs about £7 to join and £3 an hour to play. The BT one will cost £20 to join and £2 per hour to play, though the BT version has three times as many locations and many more improvements over the original.

Other systems have games, such as Micronet that has a sort of Play By Mail game using electronic mail. Bulletin boards sometimes have larger adventures on them like the Belton Board which has a good version of Hitch Hiker's Guide, a (self-confessed) boring maze, and a smaller adventure on it. As bulletin boards are largely single user, none of those types of adventures are multil user.

Another avenue that can be explored with a modem is playing games on university computers. However, universities sometimes get a bit ratty about this and outside users are restricted. The Open University is a good bet although once you've played Lunar Lander 100 times it gets a little bit boring.

Paying for it all

The main put off when thinking about modeming (if there is such a word) is the phone bill. Well, at cheap rate, calling up Prestel costs about 40p an hour. A friend of mine uses Prestel home banking with the Bank of Scotland. With this he can swop his money around various accounts and make money on the interest. He reckons that the few pounds a month he makes doing this pays for all his Prestel time! He also keeps a jam jar next to his computer and every time he uses it to dial up somewhere he puts a few pence in the jar so he doesn't get surprised by extraordinary phone bills at the end of the month. Which is one way of doing it!


Modem manufacturers and suppliers

Minor Miracles
WS2000 and WS3000, high spec and reasonable value

Various modems, good quality but you pay for it

Modem House
Voyager 7 and Voyager 11 these modems are available for a wide range of machines in bundled packages

Cheap no-frills modem that does the job for Prestel and Compunet. Comes with Compunet membership

Very cheap with a high spec and good software support mainly for the BBC

BBC specific modem, good value and reasonable driver software

BBC specific again, similar to Demon

Richard A. Bartle (
23rd April 1999: cgaug86b.htm