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Solwise SAR-100 Setup Guide / Mini Review

The SAR-100 is a simple USB ADSL modem with a budget sized price tag of £69.33 (inc VAT). Style wise, it's nothing to write home about as the picture below shows, the normal beige casing with dimensions of 17cm (W) x 14cm (D) x 4cm (H) and a weight of 285g. In its packaging, it will not fit through the average letter box, which means it is not as easy to post as the Fujitsu FDX-310.


Solwise SAR-100 USB ADSL Modem [View Full Size | View Inside]

So what do you get for your money? Well the modem of course, plus a USB lead to connect to your computer, a 2m long RJ11 lead to plug into a micro-filter, small instruction leaflet and a driver CD with drivers for Win98, 98SE, 2000 and XP. The various leads for the modem are totally detachable unlike the Speed Touch USB modem, which makes it easier to sort out the cable mess that most PC desks seem to attract.


Solwise SAR-100 Connectors - USB and RJ-11 ADSL line [View Full Size]

Installation and Set-up

The first thing to do upon receiving the modem is to plug it into the USB port on the PC. Then Windows should auto detect a new device and the install wizards will guide you on your way (all the screen shots for the review are taken from Windows 2000, Windows 98/XP will vary slightly). This fits in better with the way most people see USB as 'Plug and Play' - the other method of drivers first then the modem has caused a few Alcatel USB users problems in the past who have got used to just plugging USB hardware in before installing any software.

It is then just a case of following the instructions to point the 'New Hardware Wizard' at the CD which came with the modem.

The most critical part of the set-up is to pick the correct ISP from the list displayed by the software. For the BT IPStream service you need to select 'GlobeSpan WAN (PPPoA)' drivers.

After completing the driver installation, the Solwise guide indicates you will have to restart the PC, but certainly on Windows 2000 it did not even bother to ask if I wanted to, you will know the set-up is done once you can see the modems icon in the system tray . At this stage you are not fully configured, you still need to set-up the VPI/VCI values and supply your username and password. The VPI/VCI values are supplied via the phone number in the Windows Dial Up Networking icon that is used for logging you onto and off your ISP.

The next step is to supply your ADSL username and password and then you can double click the Dial Up Networking connection icon, which will allow the modem to connect and log you onto your ISP. The modem provides basic feedback in a simple window showing your downstream and upstream speeds, the picture below shows that the line synced as a G.DMT connection with the standard speeds of 576kbps and 288 kbps. The two data activity lights flicker to indicate data transmission through the modem, a fairly standard feature for an ADSL modem, although the 'LEDs' do not change fast enough to get a real-time feedback but they provide just enough confidence that things are happening.

I found the installation faultless, with no odd error messages, the areas where I can see potential problems are people forgetting to enter the VPI/VCI values which do not default to the value for a BT line, this is very easy to rectify unlike the Alcatel USB modem which requires a reinstallation of the drivers. As with the majority of other USB modems, by using the Windows Dial Up Networking system, enabling Windows Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) is a relatively easy task (specified within your connection properties).

Hidden Surprises

Like all good software, the developers have hidden away some useful features. Clicking the left and right mouse buttons a few times in quick succession in the control panel brings 3 new buttons onto the screen as well as some extra tabs at the top of the window.

These new options are most welcome. The 'Restart' button allows you restart the USB modem as if you had unplugged its USB lead, handy if you ever need to reset it. 'Abort' just shuts the modem down, i.e. if it has been trying to sync it will stop doing so. The 'Advanced' option brings up a number of additional features:

The 'SNR (signal to noise ratio) Margin per Bin' shows the amount of headroom available on each frequency segment the ADSL line is using, the higher the figure, the better. Potentially, if used to monitor the condition of the line, intermittent faults will be easier to track. Once you have a working connection, a good idea is to make a note of the attenuation figures for comparison purposes at a later date. The 'Local Attenuation' figure gives some idea of how you stand in relation to the BT woosh test - the figures shown appear to agree within 1-2 dB of the BT woosh test on the line used for this review.

These advanced options also display some options that are best left untouched, in the screenshot below the only thing that should ever be possibly changed is the Standard drop down, this allows you to pick the ADSL mode used by the modem. The vast majority of lines should work happily with the default of Multimode that tries each method in turn.

Performance

In use on a Pentium III 650Mhz Dell Laptop, there was no visible CPU loading with this modem. I tried a few tests to stress it, one of which was running two streaming videos at once (150kbps & 300kbps streams). The videos played smoothly though the frame rate on 300kbps stream would dip occasionally, but a total of 450kbps is near the limit of a 512kbps connection. The various speed tests that are available gave results equivalent to the more expensive Ethernet ADSL modems. One thing that people are always asking is the difference in raw ping times, to level the field I logged on with the bt_test@startup_domain login and pinged my first hop which is a BTnet node in Kingston upon Thames:

Comparison of Ping Times - averaged over 100 pings
 
Router/Modem Average Maximum
Efficient 5861 Ethernet Router 19ms 40ms
SAR-310 PCI modem 13ms 35ms
SAR-100 USB modem 16ms 130ms

This seems to go against the train of thought that USB is bad for pings, but it is worth pointing out that the USB modem had the largest variation which is shown by the 130ms peak during the tests.

In terms of stability the only other USB modem that I can compare it to is the Alcatel USB ADSL modem, and the SAR-100 beats it by a long way. The SAR-100 seems pretty stable under Windows 2000, I was able to unplug it from the laptop and let its software keep trying to dial out, then plug it back in and the dialer picked it up the next time around. Shutting down and rebooting with the modem attached seems to be no problem as well. In comparison to the Alcatel Speed Touch USB ADSL modem it was very well behaved.

Verdict

For your money you get a simple and easy to install device, ideal for people moving from dialup to the potentially confusing arena of ADSL. The biggest gotcha will be remembering to keep the dialup number as '0,38' for BT IPStream services. The modem performed gracefully and gave good speeds when asked to, as for the ping stability this is most likely down to the USB interface. The ease of installation and lack of problems getting software applications to work fully means that USB modems do have an important place in ensuring that ADSL is easily accessible to all levels of Internet users and not just those who know their protocol 47 from their DMZ. USB ADSL modems may not be for the diehard online gamers of the world but that is just one segment of a rapidly growing market.

The most striking thing is the similarity between the drivers of the SAR-100 and the Fujitsu FDX-310, apart from the casing and physical dimensions the FDX-310/DSL-200 and SAR-100 appear to be essentially the same hardware.

Only one glitch - I tried to install the modem on an old Pentium II 350MHz Intel BX system with legacy Windows 98 on it, the software installed and the PC detected the modem, but the software itself was unable to see the modem at the end of the day. This appears to be a problem with the older Intel BX440SE motherboards - http://www.usbman.com/ has various fixes for users with USB hardware problems.

Overall I was happy using the modem, if you want to share the modem then the various Internet connect sharing programs for Windows will work, which means the modem will have a reasonable lifespan. Compared to the prices ISPs are charging for the similar Fujitsu FDX-310 then this modem is a positive bargain, the price for USB devices should be falling and the SAR-100 is a move in the right direction.


Prices: £59 – Solwise SAR-100
Prices listed above are excluding postage and VAT.
 
Links: http://www.solwise.co.uk
 
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Andrew Ferguson
andrew@thinkbroadband.com

The contents of this review should not be relied upon in making a purchasing decision—You should always discuss your requirements with your service provider and hardware supplier.