Why Is My Internet So Slow?

Performance vs. Speed
There have been competing myths for some time in the high-technology industry. The first of these is that having a faster computer doesn't necessarily mean a faster connection to the Internet. The second, and potentially more confusing one, is that only the modem speed matters when evaluating how fast and efficient an Internet connection is.
The answer to the first one is quite a bit more simple than the answer to the second. Having a faster computer has nothing to do with the connection speed of that computer's modem. It is exactly like trying to compare the quickness of a car to the size of its gas tank. What matters most to people is the performance. How fast can I get my e-mail? How fast can I read the news? How fast can I download the latest "squirrel riding a skateboard" video on YouTube?

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Faster Machines increase Performance
Having a faster computer: more powerful processor, more RAM, faster drives, will increase performance, regardless of what that computer is doing. How fast data gets to the computer from a given user's e-mail server is a completely different question than how fast the e-mails are listed on the desktop or in the e-mail client. Same with web pages and video sites like YouTube. There is a lot of work for the processor, RAM, hard drive, data bus, video and sound cards and network card or interface to do when a client machine is processing data on the Internet. Slower or older components will have a tougher time getting that data processed, translated and where it needs to go quickly.

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The Key to Better Computer Performance
So which components matter most? The key to performance on a standard desktop or notebook machine is RAM, and lots of it. On a cost to benefit basis, there is no more efficient way to increase the performance of a computer than adding more RAM. Replacing RAM with higher performance chips can also help considerably, but always be sure RAM upgrades are compatible with the machine they are being installed in. RAM malfunctions are among the most frustrating and difficult to fix computer problems.
Faster CPUs and hard drives can also increase performance after a RAM upgrade. Of the three components, the hard drive is by far the slowest, since it is one of the few mechanical devices in a computer. Finding a drive with what is known as a "Serial ATA" interface can help if it is replacing a drive which uses a slower interface. Also, drives with faster "seek times" can increase performance slightly, depending on how they are configured and installed.

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Connection Speeds
The second consideration is the connection speed. Until recently, many Internet users connected to the web through a "dial-up" connection, using a telephone modem. Modem is a combination of two words: modulate and demodulate. Modems translate audio information transmitted over a phone line into a data stream. This sounds really high-tech but in practice it was just really slow at 56Kbps. That number means 56,000 KiloBits Per Second, which was really at its fastest only about 53,000. The fastest dial-up modems were capable of transmitting only a little over 6000 characters or 6K of data per second.
Most high-speed connections now use the same apparatus as cable television, which is a far higher capacity network since it must transmit numerous channels of video data in real time. Cable connections approach speeds of between 1.5Mbps and 3Mbps, or 1.5 Million Bits Per Second and 3 Million. Three million bits per second is just under 400,000 characters or 400K of data per second, some 70 times the speed of dial-up modems.

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Connection Types
There are numerous other kinds of connections with varying levels of availability including ISDN lines, satellite, DSL, commercial wireless, and so forth. Each of these has various advantages and disadvantages. ISDN hardware is a little tough to find these days. Satellite isn't all that useful in places where there is no clear view of the satellite signal's origin. DSL or Digital Subscriber Lines are by far the most widely available next to cable or dial-up, but they are not quite as fast as cable modems and can sometimes have limited coverage in a given service area. Commercial wireless is convenient, but can sometimes be expensive and slower than other connections, especially under heavy loads by other users.
Generally speaking, a "high-speed" connection should be at least as fast as DSL, which averages around 500Kbps, or about 35% the low-end speed of a cable internet connection. The low-end cable internet speed is roughly equivalent to what is known as a "T1" line, which averages around 1.5Mbps and has generally been the most popular commercial service connection type for businesses.
In Part Two, we'll discuss what happens when that massive crowd of packets goes running out on to the network looking for your stock prices. After you've invested all that time and money building a fast machine, if the Internet is still slow, you're going to want to know why and how to fix the problems. It's not that complicated, so don't miss it!
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