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How to Optimize Dial-up Performance

Dial-up access to the Internet is an older technology that is rapidly being repl
aced by broadband (e.g., DSL and cable) in many areas because of its much slower
nominal speeds. Whereas the maximum downstream (i.e., reception) speed for dial
-up connections is 56Kbps (kilobits per second), the downstream speed with broad
band can reach at least 6Mbps (megabits per second).
A dial-up connection is a connection from an end user to an ISP (Internet servic
e provider) that can be created over a conventional telephone line in a matter o
f minutes and without any special arrangement with the telecommunications carrie
r. Dial-up access is still in widespread use and will likely continue to be so f
or years to come because of its substantially lower user charges and the high co
st of extending broadband to rural areas, particularly in lower income countries
. Moreover, it is also used as an emergency backup system by broadband users.
Fortunately, there are several simple techniques that users can employ to optimi
ze their experience with dial-up connections and, in some cases, even make their
Internet experience comparable to that attained with broadband. In fact, some u
sers who utilize such techniques find that they are quite satisfied with dial-up
and feel little urgency to convert. The techniques are as follows:
(1) Make certain that the modem conforms to the V.92 standard, which remains the
most recent standard for dial-up modems as of the start of 2006. A modem is a d
evice that converts the digital signals used in computers to analog signals so t
hat they can be carried over conventional analog telephone lines and which also
converts analog signals from such lines back into digital signals. Most modems p
roduced in the last several years conform to the V.92 standard. In the case of e
xternal modems, the standard is usually indicated on the modem; in the case of b
uilt-in modems, it should be indicated on the printed instructions or disk that
comes with the modem, or it may be on the modem card itself.
If the modem is V.90 or earlier, it should be replaced1. Although V.90 has the s
ame downstream bit speed as V.92, it can actually be slower because it employs a
n older data compression technique than the V.44 used in V.90 modems. There are
also several other features of V.92 that provide for a better Internet experienc
e than V.90.
(2) Confirm that the computer itself is operating at maximum efficiency. It is v
ery common for computers, mainly those using the Microsoft Windows operating sys
tems2, to become sluggish after as little as a few months of operation. This can
make users think that their dial-up connection is extremely slow and can become
an incentive to convert to a more expensive broadband connection. Sluggish comp
uters are, of course, less noticeable with broadband.
But often the best solution is to optimize the performance of the computer. Ther
e are several causes of sluggish performance, most notably (a) a full, or nearly
full, hard disk drive (HDD), (b) an older computer with a slow microprocessor a
nd limited memory and (c) the presence of viruses or other malware. Typically, t
he first of these is the easiest to correct; this can be accomplished by removin
g little-used files and programs.
(3) Empty browser caches, which are directories that the browser uses to retain
copies of previously visited web pages. When these caches become very large, the
y can consume considerable space on a HDD and thus slow down computer operation
in some cases, including the displaying of web pages.
(4) Use a fast web browser. There are large differences in the speeds at which b
rowsers render (i.e., convert to the final form) web pages. The fastest is said
to be Opera, followed closely by Firefox. Also, the newest versions of these bro
wsers are generally the fastest3. Reasons for these high speeds include improvem
ents in coding and in how previously visited pages are stored in the browser cac
he. Internet Explorer should be avoided because it is the slowest of the major b
rowsers, because it has inferior security and because it lacks other advanced fe
atures. Opera and Firefox can be downloaded from the Internet at no cost and are
available for use with most major operating systems.
(5) Use tabbed browsing. Tabbed browsing is an innovation built into advanced br
owsers such as Firefox and Opera that allows multiple pages to be open simultane
ously in what appear to be different pages in a single browser window. Each of t
hese pages is easily accessible by clicking the appropriate tab along the top of
the window. This can be much more convenient than having to open each page in a
separate browser window when it is desired to have a number of pages open simul
taneously. Moreover, it can also speed up the web surfing experience by making i
t more convenient to be downloading other pages while one page is being read.
(6) Create browser bookmarks that consist of sets of URLs rather than just singl
e URLs. This is possible with browsers that have advanced tab capabilities such
as Opera and Firefox. Thus, for example, if a user visits a certain group of web
sites every morning, a bookmark titled Morning could be created that will autom
atically open all of those pages, each in a different tab. The same thing could
be done for afternoon, evening, days of the week, areas of interest, users, etc.
This can further speed up the effective web experience by eliminating the need
for some amount of mouse movements and typing.
(7) Make certain that the maximum speed setting for the modem is as high as the
modem allows. Most modern operating systems usually take care of this automatica
lly. However, some older systems have a default setting that is slower than the
current 56Kbps dial-up modem maximum. This setting can be easily confirmed using
the utility that is used to dial the modem.
For example, on Red Had Linux the default dial-up program is KPPP. It can be acc
essed either by clicking on the Red Hat icon (i.e., small image) in the bottom l
eft hand corner of the screen and then searching under Internet and then under M
ore Internet Applications. It can also be accessed by opening a terminal window,
typing kppp and then pressing the ENTER key. The connection speed can then be f
ound by pressing the Setup button on the KPP panel, followed by opening the Devi
ce panel.
(8) Avoid unnecessary browser plug-ins, which are downloadable software that is
designed to add functionality to browsers. Plug-ins can substantially increase w
eb page rendering time because they allow additional data to be downloaded for m
any pages. Perhaps the most notorious example is Flash, which is used for moving
images. These images are very common on web pages and are used mostly for anima
ted advertisements. Thus, for users who have no interest in waiting for and seei
ng such images, it is best to not download the Flash plug-in, or if it is alread
y downloaded, to disable it. One convenient way to disable a plug-in is to locat
e its file or directory and then make a slight change name to that file or direc
tory, such as by adding the letter x to the start or end of it; then, if it is d
esired to reactivate that plug-in at a later date, all that is necessary is to r
estore the original name.
(9) Turn off pop-up windows. Such unrequested windows, which are usually used fo
r extra advertisements, consume bandwidth and can slow down the rendering of des
ired pages by browsers. They are also a nuisance because the user has to click t
hem to close them. The ability to turn off pop-up windows is a major feature of
advanced browsers such as Firefox, Opera and Safari; it was not available on Int
ernet Explorer as of early 2006.
(10) Turn off web page images. This is probably not desirable for most people, b
ut for those who are interested solely in text, it can speed up the rendering of
pages considerably, particularly those which contain numerous advertisements or
other images. With the Firefox browser, for example, this is accomplished by cl
icking on the Edit menu to open the Preferences panel, clicking on the Web Featu
res icon and then removing the check mark from the Load Images check box. Finall
y, click the OK button at the bottom of the panel.
A number of programs are available that promise to optimize modems. However, the
y are not necessarily free and and there are questions about how effective they
are. Also, it is important to be careful about downloading software from untrust
ed sources, as it may contain spyware or other malicious code.
1 If using Linux or another Unix-like operating system, it is important to confi
rm that the modem is compatible with such system. For more information about cho
osing modems, see How to Select a Dial-up Modem, The Linux Information Project,
December 2005.
2The main reason that it is common for the performance of computers using Micros
oft Windows operating systems to degrade quickly is that they are highly vulnera
ble to viruses, spyware, trojans, worms and other malware. This vulnerability is
the result of a number of factors, including numerous security holes in such sy
stems, poor security features in Internet Explorer and the fact that most malwar
e is designed for such systems. Often, the best solution is to switch to a more
secure operating system, such as Linux or Mac OS X. However, if this cannot be d
one, there are several steps that can be taken to minimize the chances of acquir
ing malware, with the consequent system slowdown, including using anti-virus pro
grams, installing a firewall and switching to a more secure browser.
3The increase in speeds is clearly noticeable in some cases, such as the differe
nce between Firefox 1.0 and Firefox 1.5. Thus, it can easily be worth the minima
l amount of effort required to download and install the newest version.

Created January 2, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.