How to Optimize Dial-up Performance

Dial-up access to the Internet is an older technology that is rapidly being replaced 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 broadband can reach at least 6Mbps (megabits per second).

A dial-up connection is a connection from an end user to an ISP (Internet service provider) that can be created over a conventional telephone line in a matter of minutes and without any special arrangement with the telecommunications carrier. Dial-up access is still in widespread use and will likely continue to be so for years to come because of its substantially lower user charges and the high cost 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 optimize their experience with dial-up connections and, in some cases, even make their Internet experience comparable to that attained with broadband. In fact, some users 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 device that converts the digital signals used in computers to analog signals so that they can be carried over conventional analog telephone lines and which also converts analog signals from such lines back into digital signals. Most modems produced in the last several years conform to the V.92 standard. In the case of external modems, the standard is usually indicated on the modem; in the case of built-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 same downstream bit speed as V.92, it can actually be slower because it employs an 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 experience than V.90.

(2) Confirm that the computer itself is operating at maximum efficiency. It is very common for computers, mainly those using the Microsoft Windows operating systems2, 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 computers are, of course, less noticeable with broadband.

But often the best solution is to optimize the performance of the computer. There 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 and limited memory and (c) the presence of viruses or other malware. Typically, the first of these is the easiest to correct; this can be accomplished by removing 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, they 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 browsers 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 browsers are generally the fastest3. Reasons for these high speeds include improvements in coding and in how previously visited pages are stored in the browser cache. Internet Explorer should be avoided because it is the slowest of the major browsers, because it has inferior security and because it lacks other advanced features. 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 browsers such as Firefox and Opera that allows multiple pages to be open simultaneously in what appear to be different pages in a single browser window. Each of these 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 simultaneously. Moreover, it can also speed up the web surfing experience by making it 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 single 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 automatically 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 automatically. 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 accessed either by clicking on the Red Hat icon (i.e., small image) in the bottom left hand corner of the screen and then searching under Internet and then under More 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 found by pressing the Setup button on the KPP panel, followed by opening the Device panel.

(8) Avoid unnecessary browser plug-ins, which are downloadable software that is designed to add functionality to browsers. Plug-ins can substantially increase web page rendering time because they allow additional data to be downloaded for many 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 animated advertisements. Thus, for users who have no interest in waiting for and seeing such images, it is best to not download the Flash plug-in, or if it is already downloaded, to disable it. One convenient way to disable a plug-in is to locate its file or directory and then make a slight change name to that file or directory, such as by adding the letter x to the start or end of it; then, if it is desired to reactivate that plug-in at a later date, all that is necessary is to restore the original name.

(9) Turn off pop-up windows. Such unrequested windows, which are usually used for extra advertisements, consume bandwidth and can slow down the rendering of desired pages by browsers. They are also a nuisance because the user has to click them 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 Internet Explorer as of early 2006.

(10) Turn off web page images. This is probably not desirable for most people, but 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 clicking on the Edit menu to open the Preferences panel, clicking on the Web Features icon and then removing the check mark from the Load Images check box. Finally, click the OK button at the bottom of the panel.

A number of programs are available that promise to optimize modems. However, they 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 untrusted sources, as it may contain spyware or other malicious code.

1 If using Linux or another Unix-like operating system, it is important to confirm that the modem is compatible with such system. For more information about choosing 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 Microsoft Windows operating systems to degrade quickly is that they are highly vulnerable to viruses, spyware, trojans, worms and other malware. This vulnerability is the result of a number of factors, including numerous security holes in such systems, poor security features in Internet Explorer and the fact that most malware 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 done, there are several steps that can be taken to minimize the chances of acquiring malware, with the consequent system slowdown, including using anti-virus programs, installing a firewall and switching to a more secure browser.

3The increase in speeds is clearly noticeable in some cases, such as the difference between Firefox 1.0 and Firefox 1.5. Thus, it can easily be worth the minimal amount of effort required to download and install the newest version.

Created January 2, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.