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Most Internet users who haven’t yet got a broadband connection (but would like one) will be aware of the issues.
On the one hand you’ve got the Government making noises about getting everyone wired to that great information highway in the sky (that’s the one with pies in it), and on the other hand you’ve got network providers, and I’m not JUST having a 'go' at BT here, wringing their hands with that ‘well, we’d like to, but we’ve got shareholders to answer to’ look on their faces.
It all comes down to economics – BT is the only organisation with a network that penetrates everywhere but then only for speech – you’ll notice that the cable TV companies aren’t exactly rushing to wire out villages in the middle of Norfolk, or anywhere else for that matter: no, it all has to ‘cost in’, and many people in a rural setting will be aware of the dreaded BT ‘threshold’ for broadband ADSL provision. This effectively means that unless you can get enough potential interest in broadband, a little like a petition, then BT won’t be upgrading the local exchange to ADSL. Of course, you’ve still got that old ‘distance from the exchange’ thing to worry about, so you could still be up S*** Creek, or Church Road, Potter Heigham in my mother-in-law’s case.
What’s obviously needed in the interim, is something to maximise the potential of dial-up lines, something to make them SEEM a lot faster even if 46kbits/sec is really all that can be managed. (In my experience, you’d have to be living in the basement of the telephone exchange to get 56k).
I’ve seen utilities that claim to make your internet connection faster before, and as ‘.Net Magazine’ pointed out when I read about it yesterday, they’ve always concentrated on making some obscure alterations to your Windows settings, since realistically that’s all they COULD do. Ironically, if you know what these are, you can change them yourself. The other thing notable about these miracle fixes, is that they only work at your end. They have no effect on what you're actually surfing
This is where I firmly believe that OnSpeed, offered via (surprise, surprise) www.onspeed.com just might be the best of the bunch by a VERY long way.
When a company starts making claims in public, that you get 70% of the benefit of broadband at a fraction of the cost, you tend to sit up and take note, if only to see if it's a scam.
It’s not just me either, but .Net Magazine gave it 5/5, and perusal of OnSpeed's website shows that they are not alone either in singing the praises of it. Since then, PC Advisor have also given it a good write-up, with reservations, which I’ll come onto later.
WHAT IS ONSPEED?
OnSpeed is a 3.7mbyte utility that you download from their website after parting with £25 in an electronic credit card transaction – subsequent year’s rental of the facility is also £25 so it's worth making a note on a calendar, in case you've gone broadband by this time next year - you might want to cancel it rather than get into a slanging match over rebates after your credit card bill lands on your mat.
Once installed, it sits in background whilst
WHAT DOES IT DO?
When you type a URL in or load a ‘Favourite’ and send it on its way by hitting the RETURN key, the background utility part of OnSpeed ‘hi-jacks’ your Internet request, and re-routes it to their own server, rather than the preferred one of your ISP, where the requested page is sought on your behalf. Before returning it to you, the OnSpeed server applies a number of compression techniques to the page, so that effectively, it can be sent back to you a damned sight quicker than normal, primarily because it’s now smaller. It needs more than one compressor because some are best suited at shrinking text whilst other a better at pictures, and so on.
All of this happens ‘on-the-fly’ and in background, so to all intents and purposes, you appear to be loading pages at those "similar to broadband speeds". So far so good.
SO HOW FAST IS IT?
According to .Net Magazine, which used the www.bandwidthplace.com download tests, they were getting around “225k” out of a 40k line. So what if it’s a party trick? So what if that's only half the speed of entry-level broadband? If it helps you surf faster (under this independent test it was 6x faster don't forget), then it’s got to be worth a try.
Still so far so good.
It also works on broadband connections raising their already high download rates to even higher planes. In working with broadband, OnSpeed have a proviso that the benefits may not seem pro-rata, but you can guess who's done it anyway can't you?
I paid for it, loaded it and, yes, it works. According to the aforementioned test site, I'm now a 1.9mbyte connection, not 1.1 mbyte.
However, at times when OnSpeed's server is busier than normal, taking longer to compress a page, the advantage for an existing broadband user is lost, since it would have been delivered a damned sight quicker than dial-up anyway with or without the compression. I'll keep this under surveillance, and decide whether I'm keeping it on beyond the first year. Dial-up users needn't let this concern you. Even if they take three seconds more compressing a page when they are busy, it should still mean that you get to see it quicker, compared to not using OnSpeed at all.
Maybe I should save £120 by telling Telewest what they can do with their £10/month upgrade from 512K, and just keep paying 25 quid a year for OnSpeed instead, after all, I do seem to be the kind of surfer they are aiming at.
OnSpeed does have one or two minor adjustments that you can make yourself. For example, if you feel that your compressed pages are now looking too ‘blocky’ with poor picture content, you can alter the compression parameters in a dialogue box. An example of this is the slight amount of extra pixellation that you experience on pictures like Ciao user profiles if you 'turn it up' full.
Of course, this will slow down the downloading, although the ‘damage done’ will be lessened by slight improvements in the time clawed back by the less stringent compression process.
Separate ‘sliders’ apply to surfing and e-mail, and there’s a preview screen so you don’t overdo it, and slow the process down too much unnecessarily.
My sliders are set 75% in favour of speed over quality, and to be honest, pages like Ciao look fine with the exception of any photos. They also burst onto the screen with a new vigour I hadn't noticed before, and those photos that we can now upload look 'OKish' too. If for example, you want to dump high quality images from the web, OnSpeed can be disabled very easily with a right-click on the tray icon, and switched back on again afterwards. I can foresee that my wife, who uses an 'artchive' to download famous paintings as teaching resources, will need to turn this off completely, otherwise her 'Monets' are going to look like a load of 'Jackson Pollock's' if you know what I mean.
YOU SAID “KIND OF SURFER”?
Yes, to every silver lining, there’s a cloud.
Whilst OnSpeed can make dramatic improvements to the download times of web pages, especially picture and text rich ones, it CANNOT improve the download time on existing compressed formats like .zip files or music downloads. Kazaa junkies will have to look elsewhere, or go to a shop and buy the bloody CD for a change, and getting the latest software/drivers off the web will be as slow as usual (hence the “70% of the benefits…..” claim no doubt).
IS THERE ANY OTHER BAD NEWS?
Yes, but nothing too disastrous for the majority of users.
For obvious reasons, in no way can this benefit uploads, so large e-mail file attachments are still a "pain in the POP3s". Generally speaking, I try not to send large ones, for two reasons – my upload speed is still only 25% of my download speed and I’ve got a lot of contacts still using dial-up who aren’t going to thanks me for sending them 2meg files of our holiday snaps.
Oh yes, the licence is on a per/machine basis, but subsequent machines can be added on which gives £1 discount on the price per machine (whoopee-doo, book my next holiday mother, I’ve just saved us a quid)
The initial version of the Onspeed software only catered for mainstream (aka Microsoft ) browsers and e-mail clients, but the latest version issued in May 2004 (version 3.6.68) and now installed on my machine covers Opera and Mozilla browsers and Mac users.
Remember, it’s not just a “boost your Internet settings” utility, which is where I came in……..
MAY 2004 VERSION
Apart from the increased flexibility mentioned above, the new version also carries a few more bells and whistles. For one thing, it includes a Pop-Up Stopper, which seems to work better than my old ‘freeware’ one which was starting to cause me problems with the more persistent pop-ups. There is also a Live Support link, which enables users to ‘chat’ on-line with a support assistant during opening hours. Outside of opening hours, this diverts to an e-mail screen for you to type your query.
There’s a ‘Tell A Friend’ sign-up incentive – you get an extra month’s membership per sign-up at the end of your year.
An ‘Internet Abroad’ link merely takes you off to another web-site promoting and ISP with world-wide access.
More interestingly for a nerd like me, there
OnSpeed Quality v. Speed Settings
are some enhanced statistic screens to show the overall compression and ‘virtual’ speed increase of your connection. These can be left running or reset at intervals, and they do give an insight into what OnSpeed actually does. For example, starting from scratch, loading the Ciao homepage, I see that a page of 62K was compressed to 16K, a ‘speed increase’ of 3.73 fold. This was composed of a massive increase in text speed (40Kbits became 472 bits), which is an 88-fold increase whereas my graphics weren’t compressed at all (my choice, that’s how I’ve got it set)
DOES IT REALLY MAKE YOUR DIAL-UP CONNECTION FASTER?
Once your line has been fully tweaked by BT for data, no it can't - nothing can, except moving to the cellar of the telephone exchange.
DOES IT SAVE LINE TIME?
Yes it does. It puts the control into your hands - you get to decide just how much visual quality you want, instead of the designer of the web-page, some of whom seem intent on adding moving banners and ‘things that flash’ onto every page.
TYPES OF USER - IF you are mainly interested in surfing the text content of a site, like for example, a Ciao user might be, then OnSpeed 'does what it says on the tin' and is a worthy boost to your (apparent) line speed, and at £25 a year, it's a snip compared to ADSL/Cable broadband, although I’d still want the latter as it became available.
Other users, like music downloaders can forget it. Sad but true. If it’s nothing to do with browsing or e-mail forget it.
BETTER FOR DIAL-UP THAN BROADBAND - If you have broadband, then the improvement is marginal, although I still feel it’s been a worthwhile experiment. I think I’ve been able to put my finger on why this is. It all depends on how large a proportion of the total time to load a page is taken up with OnSpeed’s compression process. Here’s an example.
The almost 2X speed improvement I mentioned before (1.9 meg instead of 1.0 meg broadband) can be eaten up by the time taken to compress the file. Say for example, they take 1 second compressing a file to 1/6th its usual size, and then 1/6th of a second to send to me, the total is 1 and 1/6th seconds to send me a file that was going to take only one second without compression.
I’m not saying that their server DOES inject a one second delay, but just supposing as it got busier that this became the case. This goes some way to explaining why, to me as a broadband user, it sometimes seems measurably faster, and sometimes, dare I say it, no quicker at all.
Of course, in the case of dial-up, where a similar page might have taken 10 seconds to load normally, and only 1.5 seconds to load with compression, then their injected delay, making it 2.5 seconds in total, is still 7.5 seconds faster than without using OnSpeed.
NOTES ON TESTING IT - Whilst nothing to do with OnSpeed per se, that www.bandwidthplace.com site, the one for testing your line speed, only allows a certain number of free trials per month from the same IP address. This is not a problem for dial-up users, as you'll probably connect to a different modem every time you log in. However, for me on broadband where my IP address can stay the same for weeks on end, or even forever, I found myself blocked from making any more tests until next month. Dooooh!
Sounds useful, just been offered a two week free trial so may give it a whirl.
sue.51 16.01.2004 23:07
Interesting, although being a firm broadband user, I will probably give it a miss, - still pondering on whether to switch to NTL's 1Mb offering when I move house - even with assistance I could never go back to a dial-up.
Sally3 11.01.2004 19:41
This sounds just the job for my usage - I'm off to check it out! Thanks, Chris. Salx