HOWARD BLOOM has a need for speed.
A self-described Web addict, Mr. Bloom, a 65-year-old author who lives in New York, would rather be unconscious than offline. “If my computer’s down and I can’t use the Internet, I sleep,” he says. “I do not have motivation to be alive that day.”
But Mr. Bloom’s problem is not power failures; it is slowdowns.
“The Web is agonizingly and inconsistently slow,” he says. “The whole thing needs to be faster.”
In the beginning, the Internet was fast enough for most. Checking e-mail and reading a Web site did not require scads of bandwidth and any broadband connection was more than enough.
But a funny thing happened in the last few years: Many people became power users.
People started buying albums from iTunes. They started downloading episodes of “Mad Men.” And they watched endless videos on YouTube. All this added activity calls for a faster Internet.
When that day comes, there will be much rejoicing. But until then, there are things users can do to make sure their connections are as fast as possible. Here are a few ways:
GET THE RIGHT CONNECTION Consumer broadband is split between two competing technologies: digital subscriber line, or DSL, and high-speed cable. Depending on how many providers are in your area, you may have a choice. Generally speaking, cable is faster.
But — and there is always a “but” — cable speeds can be affected by how many people are online at once and even by how close your connection is to your local broadband source.
There is also a new competitor to cable and DSL. Verizon has been introducing a new fiber optic service called FiOS, which is faster than DSL. It rivals, and may exceed, cable’s fastest speeds. At this point, FiOS is only available in some areas (for a listing, see verizon.com/fios).
Even with cable and DSL, there are choices of speeds. Most service providers offer more than one tier of Internet access. Pay a higher monthly fee, and you will have faster maximum download and upload speeds.
There is a catch. What is advertised as a maximum may rarely be reached. Many Internet service providers do not configure their services to the maximum speed because they are configuring them for shared networks. Their aim is to make sure most users are satisfied, not to cater to the small group that wants the fastest possible speeds.
For example, raising your maximum download threshold from 1.5 megabits per second to 10 megabits per second, which are the tiers offered by Time Warner Cable, should have a positive effect over all on your browsing and downloading.
UPDATE YOUR COMPUTER The second link in an Internet connection is your computer itself. Web sites today demand more from your PC than they did even two years ago, so some upgrades may be in order.
The single most effective thing you can do to improve your computer’s performance is to add more random access memory, or RAM. If your machine has fewer than 2 GB of RAM, you should add more. Fortunately, adding RAM is not terribly expensive (an additional gigabyte costs around $40) and is fairly easy to do (you might need a small screwdriver and, at most, five minutes). For an instructional video of how to install RAM, go to cnettv.cnet.com and search for “adding RAM.” The first search result will show you how. Aside from hardware upgrades, some other tweaks can eke out some extra speed from your PC. The more programs you leave open and running, the more your computer has to keep track of, so close applications you are not using.
If you’re connecting to the Internet through a wireless connection, limiting the number of users who share the wireless signal can help.
It also just may be a good time to invest in a new computer. If your PC’s central processing unit is running at anything less than 1.5 gigahertz, you will have a tough time keeping up with graphics-heavy Web sites.
For Windows users, viruses can also be a major bottleneck for online connections. If you don’t have it already (and you really should have it already), antivirus software from companies like McAfee or Symantec will keep your PC clear of unwanted programs.
TWEAK YOUR BROWSER Another player involved in Internet speed is the browser you use to navigate the Web. Choosing the right browser has become pretty simple: Most experts recommend Firefox, which you can download free from mozilla.com/firefox.
Firefox’s open-source architecture means it has been tested and tweaked by far more people than proprietary browsers like Internet Explorer from Microsoft. Firefox also uses less of your computer’s memory, freeing it up to handle other tasks. (Microsoft says it will release an upgrade in August that will increase the speed of Explorer.)
But Firefox’s real advantage is its collection of user-generated add-ons. These are small, free modifications to the Firefox browser that can do many things (like change the browser’s appearance, help manage content and integrate third-party search features).
If you’ve ever noticed that a site is slow to load because of graphics-heavy ads, you can install the Adblock plug-in, which eliminates ads from your browser (blocking ads has benefits beyond improving speed — cleanliness and tranquillity are two that come to mind).
Sites that use a lot of animation (known as Flash animation) can also be slow; Firefox has another plug-in, called Flashblock, that allows you turn the Flash portions of a site on or off. For these reasons, Macintosh users may also want to download Firefox. While Apple’s Safari browser is quick (and far less susceptible to viruses), it does not work with any of these add-ons.
Another simple thing to do is to periodically clear your browser’s cache (what Microsoft calls Temporary Internet Files). Frequently visited pages are stored there for quick access, but things can also get bogged down.
More advanced users may want to adjust some of the more esoteric settings of their browsers. To simplify the process, the Web site Broadband Reports has a “tweak tester” that will suggest settings to modify (dslreports.com/tweaks). Speedguide.net offers a similar tweaker, called TCP Optimizer, as a download for Windows 2000 or XP users (speedguide.net/downloads.php).
Extending beyond browser settings, Google has a free application in beta, or test mode, for Windows users called Google Web Accelerator, available at webaccelerator.google.com. The application aims to speed up the way pages load by employing a variety of strategies (compressing data, storing frequently visited pages and others). Using Web Accelerator means that all your surfing is routed through Google’s computers, but if you’re comfortable with that (all of your surfing already goes through your I.S.P., remember), the application should improve your site browsing (it will not, however, improve download speeds).
All these applications cost nothing, and are based on proved methods. Enough free downloads are available that anyone charging for a miracle remedy should be looked at askance.
“I do not recommend any software that claims to boost Internet speed, especially ones that cost money,” says Justin Beech, founder of Broadband Reports. “They are selling snake oil.”