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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 February, 2004, 09:23 GMT
Breathe new life into dial-up
While more people are switching to broadband, many still rely on dial-up modems to go online. BBC ClickOnline's Spencer Kelly looks at how you can speed up your connection.

Internal modem
Get more from your old dial-up modem
The dial-up modem used to be the symbol of the hi-tech home user.

For millions of computer users, it meant access to the world wide web, and all the information you could ever want.

But gone are the days when a good bit of text was all we wanted to download. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is also a lot of data.

So how do you speed up those old modems? Ads for internet boost services scream out loud from their banners, claims of speed boosts of 200% or 300% are common.

Most will tweak the system settings, fine-tuning a computer, something that would otherwise need expert knowledge, but which is not impossible to do on your own.

Some claim to do more than that, to actually compress the data you are trying to download, thus reducing the amount your modem has to cope with in the first place.

Compressed web

This is not at all a new concept, well-known programs like WinZip have been compressing files for years.

Keep the cable short and clear
make enough room in the memory cache
Avoid traffic, go online at off-peak times
Turn off your graphics
Update your modem driver
But new products like OnSpeed claim to offer much better compression. They do it by breaking a web page into its constituent parts.

Pictures and graphics are compressed using one technique, while text is handled by another specially suited technique.

But pictures and music are already stored in a compressed format on the internet, can such programs really claim to compress them further without losing quality?

"When we compress an image some of the content does get lost, and it looks a bit fuzzy, but you can control that with our software," said Jonty Slater of OnSpeed.

"You can say that you want it almost exactly as you would via the web page, or you can say I don't really care, I want more speed, I just want an idea of what the image looks like.

OnSpeed also offers the option of downloading a page in its full quality, by manually disabling the compression.

Computer bottlenecks

Critics are not convinced that accelerator programs alone will cure a slow modem.

"Undoubtedly it will deliver some kind of improvement, whether it's an improvement you'll notice is another matter," said Andrew Charlesworth, Editor of PC Advisor magazine.

"One of the really simple ways of increasing speed is to turn off the graphics in your browser. This sounds quite mad because it means all you will get is the text
Andrew Charlesworth, PC Advisor
"You really need to address the whole thing from end to end. There is no silver bullet, no one solution that will make your modem work more quickly."

Before trying compression, there are some other tricks you might like to try. Start with the cable. Keep it as short as possible to reduce any signal degradation. And while you are about it, try unplugging anything else that shares the line.

"There will be various bottlenecks within your computer system, and one of those might be the amount of system memory," said Mr Charlesworth.

"The memory is used to cache the pages, to store them temporarily, so that when you click on forward or back buttons on the browser they come up instantly. If they've dropped out of the cache because it isn't big enough, because you've not got enough memory, then the machine has to go and get them from the website again."

You have control over the amount of hard disk space given over to this kind of caching. The more there is, the less work your modem will have to do.

Off-peak surfing

Even if everything is running fine at your end, general internet traffic may clog up the browsing experience.

The US in particular has an awful lot of users, so if you want a faster service, go online when America is asleep.

"One of the really simple ways of increasing speed is to turn off the graphics in your browser," said Mr Charlesworth. "This sounds quite mad because it means all you will get is the text.

"The page that you are asking your computer to download comes down much more quickly because it has not just the pictures stripped out, but all those little animated graphics, the gifs, which take up a huge amount of bandwidth when they're loading."

Different modems need different commands to control them, and this is handled by the modem's driver. Every so often these driver programs are updated with better and faster technology.

So find out who makes your modem, and look for a new version to download. Microsoft's Windows update page is a good place to start.

But at the end of the day, there is only so much that can be done to speed up what is becoming an archaic way of getting online.

BT sets date for faster broadband
23 Oct 03  |  Technology
Making rural broadband a reality
17 Oct 03  |  Technology
Broadband at the price of dial-up
09 Oct 03  |  Technology
UK broadband hits two million
22 May 03  |  Technology

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