Lightfax 5600 USB modemReview date: 21 September 1999.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
I can say, without fear of contradiction, that this is far and away the greenest modem I have ever reviewed.
Not that I object to the current trend towards iMac-ish see-through peripherals - anything that does something about the world infestation of beige electronic devices is fine with me. It's just that if I were called upon to name this particular see-through modem's colour, I'd call it "nerve gas green".
Its extraordinary hue is not this modem's only claim to fame. It is also remarkably small - about 110 by 45 by 24mm (4.25 by 1.75 by 1 inches). And it has a USB connector, which means it doesn't tie up your serial port. It retails for $135 (Australian dollars), which makes it a little more expensive than the cheapest regular serial port modems, but rather cheaper than most external modems.
Part of the reason for the Lightfax modem's low cost is that it has no separate power supply; all the power it needs, it draws from the USB port it plugs into.
It's also a "voice" modem, which means it can act as an answering machine. There are little holes labelled "MIC" and "SPK" in the modem case, but on this version at least they don't lead to anything; for recording of your outgoing message and playback of incoming ones you use your computer, which has to be on for the voice functions to work anyway.
This, by the way, is normal for almost all voice modems; for one that doesn't need the PC to be on, see my review of the Paradise Wavecom 56k Modem Pro here.
The Lightfax 5600 supports all of the usual standards, but only V.90 for 56K operation, not Rockwell's earlier K56flex. If your ISP still uses K56flex, this is not the modem for you.
Installing USB devices is billed as being as easy as falling off a log, and it almost is. You need a PC with USB hardware (older computers can be upgraded with USB cards like this one) and a USB-aware operating system - the later versions of Windows 95 can do it, but 98 is better.
For all but the most basic of USB gear (like hubs and keyboards and mouses) you'll need a driver, and the Lightfax modem comes with a driver CD that also contains the software to make the voice stuff happen. If you don't care to use your PC as an answering machine, all you need is the driver, and once it's installed you can plug and unplug the modem without any rebooting or other fuss.
The 5600 USB's very short cable means it either has to plug into a USB hub or dangle from one of the two USB ports on the back of the computer. There's nothing wrong with dangle mode, given how small and light the modem is, but it'll worsen the cable snarl that USB is supposed to alleviate. It's possible to get USB extension leads, but they're not supposed to exist and their reliability is unknown. There are lots of cheap hubs that will do the job; this Surecom one is tiny, and this Skymaster one kind of matches the Lightfax's looks.
There's only one phone cable connector on the back of the Lightfax modem (the cable is included), so you can't plug a phone in as well without using a double adaptor.
There's a reason why the Lightfax is so teeny and cheap - it's a software modem, which uses the host system's hardware to do some of the stuff done by dedicated hardware on "full" modems.
As a matter of fact, this is about the softest kind of software modem in existence, because it uses Smart Link's unusual "MODIO" technology. MODIO, as well as being a Latin word for a quantity of grain, is Smart Link's way of using sound card hardware for modem functions, and various MODIO devices - generally combination sound cards and modems - have come down the pike since the technology was introduced in 1997.
The Lightfax modem actually uses an extension of the MODIO idea called "Pegas.USB", which is essentially the same thing but with a bit of USB hardware stuck on the front of it, using USB's audio ability to make the waveforms.
The problem with all software modems is that they only work on platforms - in this case, Windows - which have drivers for them. They also cause a performance hit, because the CPU has to think about modem functions, although with modern PCs with their more-than-a-thousand-million-instruction-per-second processors, this is not much of an issue. The Lightfax hardware recommendations specify a 200MHz Pentium-class processor, which will indeed run the Lightfax all right; anything slower will be having a hard enough time with Win98 by itself.
Software modems are also well known for unresolvable compatibility issues; they sometimes have a religious difference with some other kind of modem, and refuse to connect at full speed, or even at all. Here in Australia, where phone lines are good, this is less of a problem, but it's still been known to happen. Of course, the same thing has also been known to happen with el cheapo hardware modems.
In use, I saw no such hassles. The thing just worked. There was a slight hiccup upon connection, but no perceptible performance loss during transfers - nor would you expect one, with a Celeron at 550MHz pushing my PC along.
A lot of modem gurus will tell you that a hardware modem is the only way to go - and, preferably, a brand name one with a big price tag. In years past, this was excellent advice, and it's still not bad, especially if you live in one of the many countries in the world where phone lines are typically lousy.
Realistically, though, a lot of people have software modems of one or another flavour and don't have a problem with them. If you're playing high-powered games over the Internet then a hardware modem will give you a few more frames per second, and for "mission critical" applications I'd rather have something that's more certain to connect under adverse circumstances, but for domestic purposes software modems are, demonstrably, usually just fine.
A significant point in the Lightfax's favour is that you can use it with a laptop, as long as the laptop has USB. It's cheaper than PCMCIA-card modems and, according to the blurb on the box, consumes rather less power. If its performance over crummy phone lines isn't great then its appeal to road warriors will be diminished, but given that it costs close to nothing compared with any new laptop, it wouldn't hurt to try it.
For the money, this is a good product. It's cheap, it's cute, and it appears to perform as advertised.
But boy, oh boy, is it green.