A Tale of Two Modems | WebReference

A Tale of Two Modems

The ZyXEL U-1496e vs. the Supra V32.bis


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This article was originally published in the February 1994 issue of MacTechnics, the newsletter of the Ann Arbor, MI computer users group. Since then both modem manufacturers have released v.34 modems (28.8kbps), but the software has not changed markedly. Supra claims that they have fixed the hair-trigger internal fuse I ran into, and I've heard good reports from users of the newer modems. I thought I'd put this up anyway, as you might find the fax and ARA software information useful, and may get a chuckle along the way.

I've now changed my opinion about my ZyXEL U-1496e. It has faithfully given me two years of steady use, but has been acting somewhat flaky lately. I've bought a new V.34 modem, the Hayes Accura V.34 (to match my provider's modems). I've been pleased with it so far, it gives me 2.1K/sec throughput using Netscape, and connects reliably. There is that little problem of bankruptsy though... I've found that when surfing the web, you can never have enough bandwidth. Technology inexorably marches on.

ABK - 10-7-95

It was the best of modems, it was the worst of modems...

It all started when...

After reading MacUser's glowing review ("Bargain Speedsters: V.32bis Modems", 10/92), I bought two Supras, for long-distance "high-speed" ARAing. In two months I returned five, count 'em five, Supras to the manufacturer. Phone-line surges, old ROMs, and failed connections caused the returns. Fed up, I decided that they'd had their chance and began to look for a better modem.


Luckily, these five were still under warranty, so I ended up with two working Supras I could test (very carefully). By that time I was "surfing" the Internet for modem info., reading comp.dcom.modems regularly. They all seemed to gush about ZyXEL (pronounced ZIE-CELL) modems, which I'd never heard of before. The more I read, the more I liked. I called the company, and ordered two U-1496E's.

I'm in love

The ZyXEL U-1496E is a technophile's dream. It does everything, and does it extremely well. Unlike most other modems that are based on the Rockwell (Supra) or AT&T chipset, it is of original design, based on two digital signal processors, and essentially an on-board computer (68000). My modem actually had a faster CPU than my Mac!

The Man Behind the Modem

Dr. Shin Chu worked at Bell Labs from 1981 to 1987. He returned to Taiwan in 1987 and with a group of other engineers worked on the universal high speed modem project. In August 1991 they introduced their result, the ZyXEL family of modems.

The E model is reviewed here. There's also a B (internal), an S (LCD model), and a plus series (B+, E+, and S+). For an in-depth review of the S+ see Boardwatch Magazine, Nov. 92.

What You Get

The ZyXEL Mac bundle comes with all the usual modem accouterments; cable, power supply, manuals, and MaxFax 3.3.1z voice/fax software. The Supra bundle comes similarly equipped but includes a Mac-specific manual, FaxSTF 2.2.3 and Microphone 1.7.

ZyXEL's construction is superior to Supra's. For example, the power cord is shaped so a quick pull won't bend the connector, unlike the Supra's cord. The Supra is smaller; its aluminum case doubles as a heat sink. It runs warm to hot. The ZyXEL is larger and runs cooler.

The Supra has 4 indicator lights, and a 3-character LED status display. The ZyXEL has 12 lights. I liked the Supra's status display, it shows your current speed.

Features Galore

The ZyXEL E's feature list is long and impressive. Like the Supra, it's a standard 14.4 fax/modem but it can fly at 16.8-Kbps (proprietary), answer your phone, recognize touch tones and respond: "If you'd like sales, press 3...." It has caller ID and distinctive ring recognition.

The Supra has caller ID, "silent answer," which allows both voice and fax on one line, and an optional voice messaging system ($99).


Voice software allows you to set up a voice messaging system, saving messages and responses to your hard disk. MaxFax lets you choose between two voice mode qualities (three with a "+"). It recognizes DTMF tones so you can create a complex voice messaging system that can respond to a caller's inputs, with up to 1000 mailboxes.

Modem Boot Camp

The modems were tested in both telephonically friendly and hostile environments. Our summer cottage in Canada has a noisy phone line that has frequent power surges (during storms and even on calm days). Signal to noise ratios (S/N) range from 16-21dB (26dB is the minimum S/N for 14.4-Kbps operation). My Ann Arbor home has a squeaky clean line with no power spikes.

After returning two Supras that inexplicably died I called tech support. They said that inside it has a sensitive fuse that fails with small phone-line power surges. The modem is then inoperable and must be returned for repair. The technician was very helpful (they have to be). He said "We had a run on returns lately, it's the stormy season." Strange thing was it was clear when the second one blew. One power surge went clear through the Supra and fried a chip on my mother board, while everything was off! After switching Macs, it was back to testing.

The ZyXEL had no such problems. It seemed immune to power surges. I even dropped it on the floor a couple times (not recommended), no problem.

Speed Comparison

To compare the two modems I downloaded files from MacGroup Detroit's Telefinder BBS at 14.4-Kbps. I timed a two-page test fax consisting of text and graphics. The results are shown below:

*Note: Tested on a Classic 4/52 running System 7.1 with no extensions. For maximum speed, I saved to a RAM disk, averaging three attempts. Telefinder Pro 2.02's streaming ZMODEM was used with Spider Island's modem settings. The ZyXEL's had ROM v. 6.01. The Supra's had ROM v 1.71-01. The current versions are 6.11a and 1.80-02, respectively.

The graphs show that the ZyXEL is slightly faster transmitting data, but has slower fax software. The ZyXEL handled noisy lines better. The Supra sometimes didn't connect the first or second time (especially to other Supras) while the ZyXEL rarely failed.

For ARA Users

I also ran ARA with matching modems over noisy and clean phone lines. The ZyXEL is faster at ARA file transfer due to its 16.8kbps mode, and its superior bidirectional mode.

The ARA CCL script you use can make a big difference in speed. After some research I found that the CCL script ZyXEL provided had the serial port speed set too high. The serial port should be set to 19.2 for 14.4-Kbps, and 9.6 for 9.6-Kbps ARA, since it does software compression. By changing the serial port from 56.8 to 19.2-Kbps in the script I realized nearly a three-fold increase in speed.

FaxSTF is Easy

Faxing with FaxSTF is more intuitive than MaxFax, requiring only one step to MaxFax's three.

Press option-command and go to the File menu, select Fax... and up comes this dialog. Drag the fax number over and click send. That's it.

MaxFax is slower and takes more steps to fax. It adds a separate Fax menu to your menu bar. Select Fax... and you'll see this fax page setup: (Note: pressing the option key while selecting Fax... skips this dialog).

You're then presented with this print dialog:

MaxFax then brings up a phone book similar to FaxSTF's:

The envelope, please

The ZyXEL is clearly superior to the Supra. It connects more consistently, is faster and more reliable, and wins the feature race. Voice on the Supra is a $99 add-on, the ZyXEL has it built-in. Since the Supra has trouble connecting with its own, I wouldn't recommend it to BBS sysops. The ZyXEL is a very popular BBS modem.

It comes with old manuals with little Mac-specific information (new ones soon). Its one weakness is its voice/fax software, Macvoice/Fax should rectify that.

The Supra has been called "the best of the Rockwell-based modems." It gets the job done for the average user. It's cheap, it can be had for $225 mail order (MacWeek).

Its negatives include inconsistent connections, trouble with noisy lines, and dying with phone-line power surges. It runs warm; I wouldn't use this modem for a BBS.

The lowest price I could find for the ZyXEL E was $329 from Mike at the Kandy Shack.2 Mike said he could substitute FaxSTF for MaxFax if desired. If you're only doing faxes I'd recommend FaxSTF 3.0.

If you want to save some money, have clean lines with no power surges, and don't run a BBS, buy the Supra (and a surge protector). If you've got real-world phone lines, and want rock-solid performance, get the ZyXEL, you won't be dissapointed.


Current pricing:3

	Retail	Mail Order	Sysop
E	349	279	249
E+	499	379	349
S+	749	579	  -
Supra v32.b	225	219.95

3Note: add $50 for Mac Package (ZyXELs).
Upgrades to V.fast will be available about June 1994. The E+ can be upgraded for $249 while the E and the S+ can be upgraded for $299.

2Kandy Shack
Internet: mike@kandy.com

ZyXEL U-1496E
1-714-693-0762, BBS

SupraFAXModem V32.bis
Supra Corporation
1-503-967-2444, BBS

MaxFax 3.3.1z (now 3.3.2)
Prometheous Products, Inc.
1-502-691-5199, BBS

FaxSTF 2.2.3 (now 3.0)
STF Technologies, Inc.

1MacVoice/Fax (now MacVoice 1.0)
Raleigh Shareware