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We all know how exasperating personal computers can be when they don't work. But every once in a while the PC industry comes along with a new application that is so useful, so cool, that it almost makes you forget the daily frustrations.

One such tool is the cellular modem, which allows you to connect your laptop PC to any other computer, or to the Internet, without any wires. You can send and receive faxes as well. If you have a cell-phone, this device means you never again have to worry about finding a telephone with the right kind of connection and the right kind of dial tone to send or receive information.

It means, in essence, freedom.

Best of all, this gadget actually works. For example, we're filing this column right now, wirelessly, while riding a train in London. And if you are reading it with no glitches in your newspaper, that means the cellular modem performed %xcgh3ly, with no $fgqm%ts.

(Hahaha. That was a joke. It really did perform perfectly, with no problems. Honest.)

Several modem and telephone makers now sell cellular modems, including U.S. Robotics and Nokia. We happen to have a Nokia cell phone (Model 2110), which has a tiny plug on the end called the "data connector." Using a "Cellular Direct-Connect Cable," a two-foot-long chord, we hook this to a Nokia Cellular Data Card, which is a credit-card sized peripheral that fits in the PCMCIA slot of a laptop computer.

That sounds complicated, because there are three different pieces of gear involved. But for most PC users, going cellular is easier than that, because you'll probably be buying the cellular modem card, the cable, and the data connector for the phone as a single package.

Most new laptops automatically will recognize a cellular modem card as soon as you put it in the slot. If the computer gives you a two-tone "beep" as soon as you insert the card, that means it is ready to go.

If you don't get the desired beep, you'll have to go through a bunch of menus under Windows 95 to tell the computer that the card has been installed. Essentially, you look in Windows' "Control Panel" folder, click on "System," and then tell Windows about the card.

The documentation that came with your modem should tell you how to do this; it takes 60 seconds. We found the user manual that came with the Nokia modem card to be quite good and easy to follow; that's a rarity these days, when more and more companies provide third-rate "online" help and no printed manual at all.

The only remaining step is to call up your modem program and tell it which "port" to look for to find the cellular modem. On the Toshiba Portege, the fast, small computer we're using at the moment, this is the port called "Com 4."

You may think, gentle readers, that a pair of computer wizards like us, who write a syndicated column about PCs, would have no trouble with a task as simple as inserting a card, hooking up a cable, and placing a call. But nooooo. As we've all learned, you can follow every step in the manual precisely, and still have problems.

In our case, we hooked up the cell phone exactly as directed and told the modem program to dial a number. We hit the Enter key. We waited. We waited some more. Nothing happened.

For the next hour or so, we fussed with cables, changed software settings, even turned the computer off and back on a remedy that solves mysterious PC problems in a surprisingly large number of cases. Nothing happened.

In desperation, we leafed back through the user manual. We found a warning that said the batteries in both the laptop computer and the cell phone should be fully charged when you use a wireless modem, because the operation is power-hungry. So we charged up both the PC and the telephone batteries and that made the difference.

We've also picked up a few other tips for carefree wireless computer communication. It helps a lot to aim the phone's antenna so you have the strongest possible signal. If you are having trouble communicating at a normal modem speed such as 14,400 bits per second, reducing the baud rate to 4,800 or 2,400 can make a difference.

And soon you too will be a wireless wonder, sending computer messages back and forth everywhere.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington, D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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