External modems have changed little since the V.90 standard capped performance at 56 kilobits per second. A few companies have made minor design innovations, such as tower units that stand upright. But now the MultiMobileUSB modem breaks new ground.

It's a full V.90 modem that weighs just 2 ounces and in size isn't much more than a doodad at the end of the cable. It has four displays that blink to show connection status--information that is denied users of PC card or internal modems.

Installation of the modem, which uses the USB (universal serial bus) ports that are showing up on more and more machines, took only about two minutes. I plugged in the cable, snapped in a standard phone cord and rebooted. Windows 98 recognized the new modem and asked for the driver disk, which I popped in. In another minute I was dialing up.

The modem performed as expected for a V.90 unit. Over a good, all-digital connection or with a single analog-to-digital link in the chain, the unit averaged about 52 kilobits per second in my tests. The V.90 standard cannot compensate for more than one analog-to-digital connection in the path, and if a PBX switchboard is involved, for example, speed drops to about 33 Kbps.

I awarded bonus points for making the modem a USB device. Plugging in a USB connector is as easy as plugging in a lamp. And you never have to worry about the orientation, number or gender of the pins. A special advantage for mobile users is that the modem does not take up a valuable PC card slot. Laptops usually have only two such slots, and many devices vie for them.

Although the USB modem does weigh twice as much as a standard PC card, the difference is only 1 ounce. Frequent travelers can use the same modem on the road and in the office, provided, of course, that their machines have USB ports.

The MultiMobileUSB also seems to be more durable than a PC card modem. I dropped it a couple of times without ill effect, whereas I have had PC card modems die after minor tumbles.

Cheers to manufacturer Multi-Tech Systems Inc. for taking advantage of USB, something most makers of peripherals still have not done despite its success on Apple Computer Inc. computers. This product is tiny, fast and works with desktop as well as portable PCs. For such a small device, the performance and functionality are outstanding.

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MultiMobileUSB 56-Kbps modem

Multi-Tech Systems Inc.

Mounds View, Minn.

Telephone: 1-800-328-9717

Web address: www.multitech.com

Price: $189

Grade: A+

PROS:

+ Full V.90 function and very lightweight

+ Plug and play for any USB port

CONS:

- No significant ones.

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or 98 and free USB port