People who have tried them, curse them. They're seen as bulky, clumsy, and decidedly low tech. Yet acoustic couplers are about the only way to ensure that you will be able to definitely, without a doubt make a connection with your modem from nearly any phone, in any town, in any country in the world. Acoustic couplers may be universally loathed, but whether you need to send a fax or go online, couplers are a form of insurance that is too attractive to disregard.

Some of you may remember the early ancestors of acoustic couplers, modems with two large rubber cups that operated at blazing speeds of 300 baud or less. You'll be pleased to know that even though today's couplers resemble their predecessors somewhat in appearance, there are few other similarities.

First, today's couplers only couple. They no longer have built-in modems. They must be used in conjunction with your regular laptop modem. Second, couplers are no longer limited to prehistoric transmission speeds. In fact, they are quite capable of operating at 24.4 or even 28.8 kbps.

The role of the coupler is to convert audio signals that are traveling over the phone lines to the analog signals that your modem normally encounters when it is connected directly to a phone line. To do this, the acoustic coupler attaches - in a rather inelegant fashion - to the telephone receiver (handset), with one small rubber cup pressing up against the mouthpiece and a second pressing against the earpiece.

This simple technique of pressing the coupler against the telephone receiver eliminates many headaches. No more fidgeting with phone line adapter plugs, screwdrivers, alligator clips, or digital phone line converters. With couplers you simply put the receiver in place on the two rubber cups, secure firmly in place with the large Velcro band that is attached, and you're up and computing.

Of course, it's not all as easy as that. Using a coupler means learning to work around the equipment's quirks. It means learning a new set of tricks. But in the long run, you may find that acoustic couplers are an efficient and economical way to stay online.

Road Test

To test my new acoustic couplers under a variety of circumstances, I decided that I would only use the couplers to go online during a week's trip to central Europe. I traveled with a SureLink AcoustiCoupler 100 sold by Port Inc., a computer accessories company in Norwalk, Conn. I used it with a 28.8-kbps PCMCIA modem in an IBM ThinkPad. I found the learning curve steep at first, but it didn't take long before I achieved quite satisfactory results. Soon I was making connections from phones that I would never have been able to connect from before, including Swiss pay phones.