Comms Corner 1 - originally published in the August 1995 issue of PCW Plus.

So, you're fed up with reading about the Internet. You've been bombarded with reports of the digital M25 until you're blue in the face, the inevitable media backlash has begun in earnest and you want to find out for yourself what all the hype is about. Well, you've come to the right place. Over the next few months, we'll be going on a voyage of discovery using the PCW as our vehicle. Don't let anyone tell you that the PCW is the Robin Reliant of the so-called information super-highway. It's actually the 2CV.

First of all, you'll need a few essential pieces of kit. The first of these is a serial interface, of which there are basically two types available: the standard Amstrad design (capable of speeds up to 9,600 bps) and a high speed model (theoretically capable of up to 38,400 bps). They both cost between £40 - 50, so you may as well plump for the faster one, called the Fax Link. If you have added an external printer to an 8000 series PCW, it could well be that a standard serial port is already gaping expectantly at the side of your parallel interface, so have a look before digging for your wallet.

The main item on our shopping list is the modem, which comes in all shapes, sizes and - more importantly - speeds. A word of warning: steer clear of internal modems, as these are of no use at all on a PCW. These days, there are really only two speeds of modem on sale in the high street: those which can communicate at speeds of up to 14,400 bps and those which can reach the dizzy heights of 28,800 bps. This latter type is really overkill on the PCW, because the PCW itself isn't capable of processing and displaying information at this speed. However, there are still solid reasons for purchasing such a fast modem. When you move to a more powerful machine (which fate must surely come to all of us in the end), you'll be able to take your modem with you and use it happily without it forming a bottleneck.

The official standard for 28,800 bps communications is called V34 and was only recently approved. As a result, V34 modems are still quite a bit more expensive than their 14,400 bps cousins, known as V32bis modems. As with all things technological, however, prices are falling rapidly. You can currently expect to pay about a hundred pounds for a V32bis modem and around twice that for a V34.

Alternatively, you could probably pick up a slower modem - say 2,400 bps - second-hand for just a few pounds. Perhaps someone in your family or circle of friends has one that they no longer use.

Another thing to look for in a modem is fax capability. Once again, this is something that is fast becoming a standard feature of modem design. You might not think that you need this, but I guarantee that you will find a reason to use the facility once you have it. Fax software is available for the PCW and was reviewed in the December 1992 issue of PCW Plus.

Apart from a modem and a serial interface, all you need is a cable to connect the two together and a normal telephone cable. Any reputable accessories supplier should be able to help you out with these. Then, it's plug and play, as they say.

Some popularly held beliefs are hard to dispel. One of them is that the BBC children's television series Captain Pugwash contained a character called Master Bates. Another one is that modems are the ideal way to add several figures to your quarterly telephone bill. If you consider how long this misconception has existed, then you also have the answer to its origin. Once upon a time, modems shunted data along the telephone lines with all the speed and grace of a British Rail commuter train during rush hour. Since then, things have improved drastically (with modems, at least) and you no longer need to put the kettle on while the computer grinds through printing 'Hello, world' on the screen.

Indeed, with electronic mail (or e-mail for short) now within the reach of the common man, a modem can actually save you money. To send e-mail, you need no writing paper, no envelope and no stamps. This can represent a significant saving when sending post abroad. You don't even have to take a gamble on the quickest queue in the post-office.

So, you've connected your equipment and you're ready to make contact. Well, not quite. You've sorted out the hardware, but you still need some software. Having already liberated the moths in your wallet to purchase a modem and interface, parting with further cash to acquire good quality software is probably not something you relish doing. You needn't worry, however, for in the world of the PCW, there is such a thing as a free lunch. The public domain boasts a terrific comms program called QTERM, which can be obtained from PCW-PD in England for no more than the administration costs. Another of those popularly held beliefs I spoke of is that PD software is hard to use and inferior to commercial packages. This is frequently true, but fortunately not in this case. QTERM will do you proud. It's very fast, fully-featured and free.

Next month, we'll look at who we can actually make contact with and consider what kind of services we need.

© 1997. Page last updated 31st December 1997