[Note 3/8/96: My New Review of the OfficeF/X 2.0 drivers is now available. A number of the problems I mention in this review have been fixed, and a number of new features like a DOS modem, SB Pro, and v.34 have been added.]
In April of 1993, IBM began shipping the first PC card to contain a general purpose DSP, audio interface and telephone interface at a very reasonable price. This card was called the WindSurfer, and like all cutting edge implementations of great ideas, it had its share of flaws. The card would only function under Windows, the FAX modem used a non-standard API interface, and the SoundBlaster emulation was rather unstable. As a v.32bis (14,400 bps) modem, WAV audio device, MIDI synth, and external MIDI port, the WindSurfer performed quite well. Spectrum Signal Processing's OfficeF/X card is based on the second generation of the Mwave DSP in the WindSurfer. This newer DSP has addressed some of the weaknesses of the WindSurfer, and the continued development of drivers by IBM/Spectrum has addressed other weaknesses to make the OfficeF/X a much more useful card. The Mwave DSP is not new to Spectrum. They've had two cards based on the first-generation Mwave DSP. The OfficeF/X is one of two Spectrum cards based on the new second generation Mwave DSP.
The shipping carton had the name of one of Spectrum's earlier first- generation Mwave cards (Envoy) printed on it. I guess when production slows, you have to do something with all those unused boxes laying around. Upon opening the shipping carton, I was greeted by a plain orange boxtop that wouldn't budge due to the vacuum present between it and the shipping carton (this was a tight fit). Once extracted with one of those floor tile removers, the orange box looked quite impressive with pretty graphics touting the card's ability to do just about anything you've ever wanted to do with the phone and audio. Inside the orange box was a card, some cables, several diskettes in plastic wrap, and several pieces of documentation (a few diskettes were hidden here too). One of the diskettes had the words "Mwave DOS disk" printed on it. After all these years of Windows-only Mwave products, this seemed like a potentially pleasant surprise.
Items of interest in the documentation set are the Technical Support 800- number, the short but sweet User's Guide, a microphone offer ($25 microphone for $10), and the warranty card which requires looking at the card for a serial number. Needless to say, I installed the OfficeF/X prior to filling out the warranty card. So now I have to pop my PC open, jot down the info requested on the Warranty card, and close the box up. I hate it when companies do this.
The Spectrum OfficeF/X card is slightly longer than the two edge connectors comprising the ISA bus. Clearly visible on the board are the Mwave DSP2780 which is being run at 25MIPS (short of its 33MIPS peak), the CODEC from Crystal Semiconductor, and the bulky isolation transformer for the telephone interface. The set of external connections is similar to that of a game card and a modem. Three 1/8" connectors are provided for Mic In, Line In, and Line Out (powered speakers are required). An RJ-12 (six-conductor) connector is provided for Telephone Line and Telephone via a 1 foot RJ-12 to two RJ-11 cable supplied (don't lose this!). A 15-pin D-shell connector is provided for MIDI/Joystick connection in the tradition of the SoundBlaster. Internal connections are provided for Panasonic (40-pin) and Sony (34-pin) CD-ROM drives, audio from either a Sony or Panasonic CD-ROM drive, a "Green PC" ring connector, and a 7-pin connector marked "Power PC". The ring connector is not currently supported in software, but when it is, it will inform the Power Management function in a PC to wake-up when the phone rings. This will allow the PC to consume minimal power while waiting for a phone call. There are no jumpers to be seen anywhere on the card. A configuration utility is included which eliminates the need for jumpers.
Installation of the card and software (currently version 1.00) went smoothly barring a few minor incidents. When install begins, a little show of logos appears which takes a bit of time to complete. The Escape key will not bypass the show. Registration information is written to the first diskette when installing. The registration screen asks for the board Serial Number when it really means the Version Number of the software (the documentation has a picture of the registration screen with the "Version Number"). This could really annoy someone who has just reassembled their PC, especially after they find out this is not the information that is actually needed. The installation instructions in the manual suggest reading the README file on disk 1, but there is no README file on disk 1. After installing, a README file is available for browsing. The warranty registration can occur in one of two ways. There is a physical warranty card that is relatively simple. It does ask for a "Product Number" which it claims is on the card (Oh No, I don't have to take apart the PC AGAIN, do I?). I couldn't find a "Product Number", so I filled in the serial number and the board's revision number. Let this be a warning, the serial and revision numbers are printed on the card's anti-static bag. Don't open the PC each time to find the serial number, read the bag. The other way to register is via FAX. The FAX number is long distance, so you may want to skip this and mail in the card.
Modifications to CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT are made by the installation program. The program prompts before actually making these changes, and will write the changes to another file for review prior to manual incorporation. During my install, I was prompted before changes were made to AUTOEXEC, but not CONFIG. The program went ahead and modified CONFIG without my permission. I've really never minded programs that update AUTOEXEC and CONFIG as long as they put some comments in there so I know what's going on. This install does not. Only environment variables were added to AUTOEXEC, and a DOS Mwave driver was added to CONFIG. The DOS Mwave driver will load high (although the install process does not set it up for this) and requires 2k of memory.
The big install highlight is the jumperless configuration. A configuration program is provided that allows setting the various port addresses, IRQ's and DMA lines used. It also attempts to find conflicts which I found a little buggy. When setting the COM port to COM2, it insisted that there was a conflict. The serial ports in my machine are set up for COM1 (mouse), and COM4 (spare). The configuration program may have detected COM4 using the IRQ for COM2 (which is acceptable) and reported it as a conflict. Regardless of the so-called "conflict", the card works fine. The README file indicates that it is OK to ignore the warnings about "conflicts" if you believe there really isn't a conflict.
The modem is very similar to the previous Mwave modems. Windows is required for operation of the modem. The specifications include up to 14,400 bps (v.32bis) with v.42/v.42bis error correction and compression, and MNP4-5 error correction and compression. The addition here is the Class II/Group 3 FAX capability. The old FAX interface is also present which allows faster throughput by the use of Direct Memory Access (DMA) instead of serial communication through COM ports. To utilize the Class II FAX capabilities, Delrina WinFax Lite is included. Note that the Mwave modem must be running for the Class II FAX capabilities to be available.
I had no problem sending and receiving FAXes with Delrina WinFAX Lite, and with Trio DataFAX which takes advantage of the less CPU-intensive DMA FAX interface. Manual receive did not work in Delrina, and when a Class II FAX application is set to receive FAXes, the Auto Answer (AA) light on the modem does not turn on. Other than these minor problems, the FAX support seems quite solid.
The data modem did not seem to work in a Windows DOS box. I have Procomm Plus configured to work in a DOS box, and I used to use it with my WindSurfer. Now, data gets to the modem, but nothing makes it back to the computer.
Spectrum's Switchboard is included as the Telephone Answering Machine (TAM)/Message Center application. It can record incoming voice messages, FAXes, and Internet e-mail. Of the various TAM applications that have been bundled with Mwave cards, this one is my favorite. Although it lacks the FAXback capabilities of QuickLink Message Center (bundled with Best Data's ACE5000), it is more reliable than QuickLink and includes speakerphone capability. Switchboard also includes an address book feature that is much nicer than the old PhoneFX Personal Phone List. Provision for numerous home and business phone numbers is available for each entry along with a scratch pad for notes about previous contacts with this person. The scratch pad unfortunately doesn't support OLE, but this is still a substantial improvement over PhoneFX.
One complaint about Switchboard is its call recording capability. Even when you are not recording a call, Switchboard places a second load on the phone line. This happens randomly while you are dialing a number, and could cause confusion for the telephone company's touch tone decoders. The load remains on the line until the end of the call, or until you kill Switchboard. I've killed Switchboard in the middle of a conversation and had the other party thank me for raising the volume. Another noticeable artifact is the dimming of the lights on my phone-line powered lighted phone. Recording actually works quite well aside from these difficulties. The obligatory beep every 15 seconds warns the other party that they are being recorded.
Another minor annoyance is the speakerphone. Unlike most speakerphones, the Mwave implementation is "full-duplex". This means that you can talk to the other party at the same time they are talking to you, and everyone will hear each other. Most speakerphones will switch back and forth between sending and receiving sound over the phone line. Full-duplex works like the phone handset, and should be superior to the half-duplex back-and-forth switching. Perhaps with the right microphone and speaker position, full-duplex lives up to expectations. In my setup, I ran into a few hitches. An echo of the user's voice can be heard coming from the speakers. This is undoubtedly the echo-cancellation used to prevent feedback when the speakers and microphone are on at all times. The speakerphone also tries to silence the microphone, and may cut off the beginnings of your words when it kicks back on. Almost perfect, but not quite.
The user's recording/playback hardware is a big consideration when creating an Mwave TAM application. Switchboard automatically detects when the handset is lifted, and uses it for recording mailbox greetings and listening to voicemail. If the handset is on-hook, the microphone and speaker are used. I did notice that the telephone line was still held off-hook by the OfficeF/X card while I was recording my greeting. When I was finished, I was greeted by the phone company's really loud, "HANG UP THE DARNED PHONE" noise. Recording greetings with the microphone suffers from a lack of sound quality like previous Mwave cards. Greetings sound best when recorded through the handset.
As a tribute to the consistency of the Mwave telephony API across different Mwave cards, PhoneFX (shipped with IBM's WindSurfer) works just fine with the new OfficeF/X card. Hopefully, Windows TAPI drivers will be forthcoming from IBM to add support for a whole slew of third-party telephone apps.
The Mwave discriminator gives the OfficeF/X the ability to differentiate between incoming FAX, voice and modem calls. At least, this is the claim. In my testing, the Mwave Discriminator did well at telling the difference between FAX (both Class II and MCI) and voice calls. Modem calls were a little tricky. Since a calling modem makes no sound, it is rather difficult to detect. The Mwave discriminator offers two ways around this. In one mode, the discriminator will detect silence on the line before sending the call over to the modem. In the other mode, the discriminator will listen for a touch- tone code announcing the fact that a modem is on the other end. The touch- tone code is user configurable. Timing the output of the touch-tones to coincide with the answering of the phone by Switchboard may be a little difficult. I was unable to get modem discrimination working due to a problem with the calling modem that was being used for testing. Having someone call manually and dialing the correct digits did indeed switch the call over to the modem. One possibly useful technique is to use the at-sign (@) in your dialing string. The at-sign causes the modem to wait for 5-seconds of silence before continuing. A dialing string like:
ATDT555-1212@*2would dial the number, then wait for silence to dial the discriminator code (in this case *2). In theory this should work. Since I was unable to practice, I'm not sure if it will.
Perhaps the most anticipated improvement in the Mwave second generation DSPs has been the SoundBlaster support through hardware. The first generation of Mwave chips relied on a protected mode driver to emulate the SoundBlaster's hardware registers. The second generation improves on this by emulating the registers in hardware. With the old protected mode driver, many SoundBlaster applications would not work. Native DOS support was not available which further limited the number of applications that could be used. The new approach fixes all this. A native DOS driver is provided that takes 2K worth of memory (and it does load into UMBs).
The SoundBlaster emulation provided by the OfficeF/X card appears to be the original 8-bit mono. Since the emulation runs on the DSP, future software enhancements to emulate the SoundBlaster Pro and the SoundBlaster 16 should be possible. I tried several well-behaved DOS SoundBlaster applications, and all performed well. Apogee's Wacky Wheels, Wolfenstein 3D, Ibis Software's Play It By Ear, Doom 1.666 (which comes with the OfficeF/X card), and X-Wing all ran fine. I also tried a misbehaving demo which failed to produce any sound at all. On a ProAudio Spectrum-16, this demo exhibited the same silent behavior.
The only thing missing is a mixer application. There is no way to mix the Line-In, Mic-In, or CD with the SoundBlaster emulation from DOS. Once again, this is not impossible to do with Mwave, it just isn't provided.
To appeal to the hacker in me, I tried installing the Windows SAPI drivers for both the PAS-16 and the SoundBlaster to no avail. Wouldn't it be great to have both an FM synth and the Mwave wavetable synth available in Windows? No such luck. Without a SAPI driver, this won't happen. On an unrelated note, I was unable to find a native Windows application that accesses the SoundBlaster directly. I have no idea if this would work.
The WAV Audio driver in Windows works with no problems. I was able to maintain 44.1kHz, 16-bit stereo recording with no glitches. The Line-Ins are quieter than my old CD player, but seem noisier than the old WindSurfer. The Mic-Ins are rather noisy, probably due to interference inside the computer. Each computer is different, so your results may vary. The frequency response printed on the box is real flat, like the WindSurfer and the Turtle Beach cards. No specs on distortion are available at this time.
The WindSurfer had Q-Sound processing available on WAV file playback. This is not provided with the OfficeF/X. See the MIDI section of this review for more on Q-Sound.
The MIDI Synth now has 32-voice polyphony at the same 22kHz sampling rate. No provision is made for 16 voices at 44.1kHz which I'm sure quite a few people would like to see. This is the only place where Q-Sound can be found. The effect is quite convincing on a set of decent speakers. When a sound is panned far left, it appears to be coming from a point next to your left ear. This cannot be switched off, which is quite annoying in professional recording situations. The quality of the samples is average, making it unlikely that this synth would find itself used in professional recording. The samples themselves are quite large, and require a machine with at least 8 meg to perform satisfactorily. A bug that has been around since the early WindSurfer days is still present. If a sample lasts longer than the note that triggers it, the sample will be cut off by the next note to be triggered. This results in voices cutting off when there is plenty of polyphony. I've complained to IBM many times about this, but they insist that this is normal. This is a good indication of how serious IBM is about the Mwave MIDI synth. I would really like to see other vendors create MIDI synths that truly (and correctly) utilize the capabilities of the Mwave DSP. The chip has a lot of untapped power.
The MIDI port brings some interesting surprises in this new OfficeF/X card. At the physical level, the interface is identical to the SoundBlaster and Pro Audio Spectrum cards. A 15-pin D shell connector is provided that carries both MIDI and Joystick signals. A MIDI cable is not supplied, but several are readily available from your local computer store. Two cables were used for this review. The first comes with the MIDISOFT MIDI kit. A copy of MIDISOFT's Recording Session, and a 4 foot MIDI cable is provided with this kit. The MIDI cable terminates in male MIDI connectors which was highly unusual. This forces the first MIDI device in the chain to be within 4 feet of the back of the computer. The second MIDI cable used for the review was Advanced Gravis' MIDI Adaptor. This cable is professional strength with two LEDs to indicate MIDI data flowing through the MIDI In and Out ports. The connectors are female which allows connection of longer MIDI cables to get to the equipment on the other side of the room. As a pleasant surprise, the cable portion of the MIDI Adaptor is long enough to reach from a desk to the floor without suspending the connector box in the air. The LEDs came in handy when debugging a quirk of the OfficeF/X MIDI port. At power-on and power-off, the MIDI port blasts out a ton of garbage MIDI data. This caused my MIDI keyboard to crash repeatedly. At power-on, the situation is really bad because this flow of garbage MIDI data lasts from power-on to the loading of the Mwave/OS.
The MIDI port performed quite well under Windows with the Mwave MIDI port driver supplied. Under DOS, things were unusual. Surprisingly enough, the OfficeF/X card is an MPU-401 UART-mode compatible card. This capability is present even without any driver software loaded. Equally surprising is the fact that it is not SoundBlaster MIDI compatible with or without the DOS SoundBlaster emulation loaded. My two favorite MIDI titles only offered the option of using SoundBlaster FM with SoundBlaster MIDI or MPU-401 by itself. MPU-401 is fine when there is a way to listen to my MIDI keyboard through the soundcard. Unfortunately, the lack of a way to mix the Line In with the SoundBlaster emulation in DOS prohibits this. The card is not MPU-401 compatible under Windows. The MPU-401 drivers that come with CakeWalk initialize properly, but will not actually work. In a Windows DOS box, the MPU-401 interface does not work. A pop-up dialog in Windows interrupts the DOS box and indicates that the MPU-401 is in use by Windows even though no MPU-401 drivers or applications are loaded.
On a more professional note, synchronization of MIDI sequencers with external mechanical devices like tape recorders is certainly possible with the Mwave DSP. Unfortunately, a MIDI port driver to provide this capability has yet to surface. The DSP could easily do MIDI Time Code, SMPTE, and FSK synchronization. As with improvements to the MIDI synth, I don't expect to see these features coming from IBM.
Unfortunately I do not have the resources to test the CD-ROM interfaces on the OfficeF/X card. The Panasonic and Sony proprietary interfaces are supported. Several drives are available from these manufacturers that will connect to the card and should work just fine. It is unclear as to whether drives faster than double-speed are supported by these interfaces. It is probably a safe bet that they are not. Neither Sony nor Panasonic currently produce a quad-speed drive.
Unlike with the WindSurfer, Q-Sound processing is not available for the CD audio on the OfficeF/X. See the MIDI section of this review for more information on Q-Sound.
A new Mwave utility called "Aura" is bundled with the OfficeF/X. Aura provides two services. First, it warns the user when the Mwave DSP may be overcommitted. As an example, if you were to load the v.32bis modem, and the 32 voice MIDI synth, Aura will warn you that this is unwise. Secondly, Aura will automatically launch the Mwave application required by another application. For instance, when you launch your communication program, Aura will automatically start up the Mwave modem for you. This second capability is extremely convenient and I've found it indispensable. The DSP overcommittment warnings are too frequent (and unnecessary). Fortunately they can be disabled.
The Mwave DSP is designed to multitask. Multiple Mwave functions can be running at the same time as long as they don't compete for resources like the phone line. I was able to maintain 44.1kHz, 16-bit stereo recording and playback while downloading a file at 14,400bps. It was as if the modem wasn't there at all. The big test is the MIDI Synth together with the Modem. Since these are the largest Mwave functions, they have the potential to seriously stress the architecture. Here's what I found:
2400 9600 14400 (Error Correction, no Compression) 16-voice Yes Yes Yes 24-voice Yes No No 32-voice No No NoThe matrix above shows whether the DSP could handle various combinations of MIDI Synth polyphony (16-voice, 24-voice, 32-voice) along with various speeds of modem communication. Since the modem and MIDI synth are fighting for two kinds of resources, space (DSP memory) and time (DSP clock cycles), boosting the clock speed of the DSP to its rated maximum of 33MIPS may or may not change the above table.
MKS Internet Anywhere is a UUCP e-mail package that is integrated with Spectrum's Switchboard. Internet e-mail appears along with FAXes, and voicemail in Spectrum's mailbox window. I didn't have access to a UUCP account at the time of writing this, so I haven't seen it work. Internet Anywhere can be scheduled to call your UUCP provider and get e-mail at regular intervals. It will also retrieve mail on-demand. The default access provider is "Portal Information Network", and all the nitty-gritty details of signing on to Portal are already configured. I was unable to find any information on Portal in an Internet access provider book that I have. There is a provider named "Portal Communications Company", but I'm not certain that this is the same provider. There are several good reasons to choose a provider other than the default. There may be a local provider that would save on long-distance charges, and their rate-structure for UUCP connections might be better than Portal. MKS gives some helpful advice when looking for another provider, and the configuration considerations are covered in their User's Guide.
Delrina WinComm Lite is a modem-oriented communication package. Z-Modem upload/download protocol is supported as well as VT-100 and ANSI-BBS terminal emulation. WinComm Lite is just as difficult to configure as any other modem software, even for folks like me who have done it a hundred times. Dialing directory entries appear as icons in the WinComm window, and selecting a direct connection to the modem didn't work as expected (it prompted for a phone number!?).
MIDISoft's Sound Impressions is also bundled with the OfficeF/X. It is a WAV Audio, Standard MIDI File, and CD Player application that looks like a home stereo stack. Of particular interest is the WAV editor that is included. The editor supports many cut-and-paste operations, and numerous non-real-time effects algorithms (Chorus, Flange, Echo, Maximize...). Only standard non- compressed WAV files are supported (no ADPCM or u-law).
Mwave is getting better. The remaining big weakness of the Mwave DSP platform is the lack of drivers for operating systems other than Windows. It would be awfully nice to be able to use the modem in DOS without having to load Windows. IBM's OS/2 support for Mwave products has been in Beta-test for months now. Spectrum has no official position on OS/2 support for the OfficeF/X.
For Windows users, this is an easy to use FAX/modem with DOS games support, a CD-ROM interface, a Joystick/MIDI interface, and Windows WAV/Wavetable MIDI audio support. The promise of a v.34 (28.8kbps) upgrade from IBM (who had orignally promised v.34 in September 1994 for WindSurfer owners) figures favorably into the value of the card. The cost of the v.34 upgrade is unknown at this time, however.
OfficeF/X; $239 MSRP (2/8/96) from Spectrum Signal Processing, 1-800-667-0018.
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The content of this review is primarily the opinion of Ted Felix, and no one else. Ted Felix is not affiliated with Spectrum Signal Processing, or IBM in any way.
This review Copyright ©1995, Ted Felix, all rights reserved. Permission is hereby given to distribute this review in a not-for-profit fashion. Any other use is a violation of copyright law. Violators will be prosecuted.