Why is my Internet Slow?

The first fact, of course, is that the internet isn’t fast enough. Any wait is too long for us impatient humans, but there are of course degrees of how slow is too slow.

Thailand’s ISPs are locked in an escalating arms-race to deliver the ‘fastest’ network speed, but what’s the real reason your YouTube video is staggering?  Well, it could be due to a number of reasons.

Your computer’s a wimp.
Web business managers don’t talk about web sites or web pages anymore, it’s about web applications, so the page you’re displaying may demanding more grunt to display than your computer’s willing to give, and as you keep open more windows or tabs this problem multiplies. Typically this problem arises on poorly designed sites (the people who made it probably have fast, shiny computers) on a machine that was old last year. Add to this the sad fact that web technologies value cross-platform compatibility over performance and it spells ‘Upgrade.’

Their computer’s a wimp.
If a site is being served by an under-classed machine or is particularly busy, you get what is called latency, which is the delay the server takes from receiving your request for a webpage or file, this can be as long as a few seconds and is pretty noticeable at your end. Latency also depends on the distance between you and the server, and a myriad of other factors that you need a physics degree to understand, but their server huffing and wheezing is the first one you’ll notice.

Network strangulation.
Now this is the bit that people are most familiar with, and where telecoms make their money. Be aware that if there’s a slow patch at any point in the route between you and the web server, that’s the choke point. This can happen at the server end, although these days it’s pretty unlikely, or in what telecoms engineers call ‘The Last Mile’ (from the exchange to your house), which is almost always the case. There is also the matter of the national internet gateways and the submarine cables that carry network traffic around the world. If you’ve ever been around when a ship’s anchor has severed one of these cables you’ll recall that internet traffic slows to a crawl when this happens. Yes, the internet was designed to be robust enough to survive a nuclear war, but can’t stand up to LOL Cats and chain-letter spam.

Speaking of submarine cables, it’s an important subject if you’re a net user here. Thailand is poorly cabled to the rest of the world (although this is changing) so, unless you’re hitting Thai websites, you’re sharing a spindly tube across the pacific with everybody else in the nation. What’s worse is that most of the Content Distribution Networks (‘CDN’s, provide copies of web content hosting in many locations around the world, reducing latency) don’t have a presence here. Why? Most Thais read websites in Thai, and they’re hosted here. There’s not a large international diaspora publishing stuff in Thai language internationally so most of the local traffic stays local. Also, telecoms networks charge by the byte and that has made international network capacity Baht expensive. This is changing as Thai telecoms sign peering agreements (traffic swaps) and new cable is laid.

But of course the thing that people are really interested in is how fast their home connection is. These days it’s almost always ADSL (short for Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line, by the way), and it’s an oft-misunderstood technology. But to give it its due, I’m going to write a full article on it… Next week.

Software System Cleanup

There are lots of packages on the market that promise to clean up your system and boost performance, but over the years they’ve earned a fairly spotty reputation.

Generally speaking, Windows is going to run at it’s fastest when it is first installed – a ‘clean’ install. When you start installing software, extra services are added to the boot process, making the computer slower to start, and the registry gets bloated with entries, making the whole system sluggish. Uninstalling software can help, but poorly written software usually leaves behind files and registry entries and generally make the system ‘crufty‘.

Back in the 90s we were all told to defragment one’s hard drive when the system slowed down. That’s no longer the case. Modern hard drives are much faster and larger capacities mean they’re less likely to fragment. Modern file systems also discourage fragmentation and Vista or Windows 7 will automatically defrag your drive when you’re not using it. In short, don’t bother defragging more than once a year or so, and given the size of modern hard drives, put aside an afternoon.

Ideally you should scrub your hard drive and reinstall your Windows system every two years or so. It’s quite a job to backup your data, strip down the system and restore data (but if you like you can ask one of our technicians to reinstall windows), so there are lots of products out there to ‘boost your system’.

Computer industry news site the Register recently ran a comparison of five of these products, ranging from the venerable Ccleaner(which is donation-supported), to fancy-pants iolo System Mechanic, which markets for $39.95. They tested for improvement of boot-time and tested performance using Office and Photoshop using an old laptop running XP and a more up-to-date machine running vista. They also tested performance after a memory upgrade, from 512MB to 1.5GB for the XP machine and from 2GB to 4GB for the box running Vista.

For the machine running Windows XP, the normal boot time was an agonising 125.2 seconds. Of the various software solutions, iolo was the only one to show an improvement – by about 10 seconds. All the other optimisers actually increased boot time. To be fair, however, most of these packages give the option to turn off services and programs that automatically run when the machine boots, which would offer further speed advantages. That said, installing an extra gigabyte of RAM gave the best performance boost, by 12 seconds.

It was a very different story in the case of the machine running Vista. In that case, upgrading the RAM from 2GB to 4GB only resulted in a four-second improvement (from 209s to 205s), which suggests that 2GB is enough to get Vista booted, or at least a lack of RAM wasn’t slowing the machine down. Surprisingly, ilolo increased the boot time, with the best improvement (of about 4s), going to TuneUp Utilities 2009($49.95, by the way).

TuneUp was also the only one to show an improvement in Office 2007 execution time under XP (from 95.5s to 92.1s to perform a set list of tests), although again the biggest boost was gained by adding RAM — from 95.5s to 83.3s. Under Vista it is a completely different story with all the reviewed utilities showing an improvement, but not much. The Vista machine was running the Office test at 62.4s with 2GB RAM and at 61.3s at 4GB RAM and Avanquest Fix-It Utilities 9 ($49.95 as well) dropping execution time to 60.5s.

A similar test was carried out with Photoshop, which tends to be very processor-intensive. Results were predictable, with the RAM showing an improvement under XP but not under Vista, and software optimisation not showing much improvement under either operating system.

Overall, the reviewers found that when RAM is deficient, it offers better value than software – a stick of RAM is usually under Bt1,000 these days. How do you know if you need more RAM? It really depends on your operating system. If you’re running XP, the most you can make use of is 3.5GB but you’ll find it runs slow with anything less than 1GB. Vista can address up to 4GB and shouldn’t really be run on less than 2GB. If you don’t want to crack open your computer yourself, Com2u can send over a technician to upgrade your computer.

On price Ccleaner offers the best value, being free, and offers many of the same options as the competition. However, it’s made more for geeks than fiddlers and isn’t the most user-friendly of packages. In conclusion, while some software optimisers do fulfil promises of faster computing, they can just as easily slow down your system, and at the end of the day, they’re no replacement for a qualified technician.

Read the review of the XP computer here
Read the review of the Vista computer here

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