For those who either can't get or can't afford a broadband Internet connection, dial-up remains the sole alternative. Actiontec's $60 Dual PC Modem gives that humble connection a bit more flexibility, combining a V.92 (56Kbps) modem and a pair of Ethernet ports so that two computers (or more, with additional hardware) can share an online link.
The Dual PC Modem is very easy to set up, even for novices. It's compatible with Windows 98 and newer PCs, as well as Macs. It comes fully equipped, with a 6-foot phone cord and two 5-foot Ethernet cables. An installation wizard that runs off the included CD walks you through the entire process. A printed booklet parallels the wizard's steps. The CD also contains a thorough, 78-page electronic manual.
This modem's useful networking features include the ability to move files between systems and share a connected printer. For security, you get an integrated DHCP server and a NAT firewall. Unfortunately, the modem can't be used with a virtual private network (VPN), nor does it work as an analog fax-modem.
The Dual PC Modem's system-tray icon provides easy access to connection and status features. The Current Status screen offers basic IP-address information for the modem and harbors a Diagnose button that gives you a detailed summary of the most recent, though not current, dial-up session.
During a week of intermittent use, the modem connected at speeds from 25Kbps to 36Kbps, comparable to that of our testbed's internal modem and perfect for e-mail and basic Web surfing. It worked well with other brands of networking equipment, including a Linksys 802.11g access point and a D-Link five-port switch. Theoretically, the modem can distribute an online connection to as many as 252 clients, but in our informal tests, it slowed to a crawl with as few as three clients; Actiontec recommends no more than five.
Here's the hitch: the Dual PC Modem can't connect with a number of online services that require special authentication to establish a dial-up session, including biggies such as AOL, CompuServe, and NetZero. For ISPs such as AT&T WorldNet, EarthLink, and MSN, you need to follow Actiontec's instructions for entering your username and password. A printed addendum spells out the details, as does Actiontec's &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eactiontec%2Ecom%2Fsupport%2Fmodems%2Fdualpcmdm%5Fusername%2Ehtml">Web site.
Actiontec's service-and-support package for the dual PC modem is adequate. The one-year warranty is relatively short for a home-networking device, but Actiontec's phone-support line is toll-free, open 24/7, and available for the life of the product. As for e-mail support, we waited at least a day for responses, and one of our messages received no response. Actiontec's Web resources are very good, including FAQs, free downloadable firmware updates, and a downloadable manual.