The World Wide Wait

 

IT WAS only a matter of time before the World Wide Web was nicknamed the World Wide Wait.

The utopian technocrats might assure us that this is a powerful communication system, where packets of data can travel from one side of the planet to the other at the speed of light. They can promise that one day there will be faster links and cable modems, and smarter software for handling data. They can talk about something just around the corner called an information superhighway.

But in the meantime or us mere mortals... for ordinary users at home or in schools or small businesses . . . using the Web can be. .. an incredibly... frustrating.. . and expensive.. experience. Basically it's far too slooooooow.

How, then, do you gain a bit of speed?

First let's get some technobabble out of the way. In order to look at a Web page, your machine (which in computerspeak is referred to as the "client") sends a request for it to the Web site - i.e. to the computer which stores the Web page you want; this other computer is called a Web "server".

The client then has to copy the text and graphics from the server. The "pipe" between them, the link you're using to transfer information back and forth between the client and server is, to a large extent, the Internet. So when people talk about "bandwidth" problems, they're usually referring to this pipe's capacity. Trouble is, the bottlenecks can occur at many stages between your client computer and the server.

1: Your computer

Let's start at your end of the equation: your computer. Its speed can be a major factor - particularly the rate that it can display Web graphics. So it's worth considering moving from, say, an old PC based on an Intel 386 chip to the much faster Pentium models. Having said that, most PCs and Macs under two years old are fast enough for most networking purposes.

2: Your modem

Next there's the modem the device which sits between your machine and the network, and which transfers data into forms that both can understand. The modem has a maximum speed at which it can download so many bits (a bit is the basic unit of data in a computer) in a given time. Normally this speed is measured in bits per second (or bps), and manufacturers usually talk in terms of thousands of bits per second (kbps).

Most modems currently in the shops have speeds of 28.8 or 33.6 thousand bits per second (kbps), so it pays to buy the fastest modem you can afford. A 28.8 kbps modem might cost twice as much as a 14.4 kbps one, and the latter can be bought by mail order for as little as £50, but if you spend a lot of time online that short term saving has to be measured against higher Telecom bills.

Such is Telecom Eireann's tariff structure that if you're using the Internet during weekday business hours, a 24.4 kbps modem will (all else being equal) justify its higher price in terms of lower phone bills after 20 or 30 hours online, so if you've a 14.4kpbs modem it's good financial sense to upgrade to a faster modem.

3: Your ISP

The next bottleneck down the line could be your Internet service provider (or ISP). Even if you have the fastest modem (and PC) in the world, it will only load the Web pages as fast as it receives them. So your stonking new 33.6kbps modem can't take advantage of its extra speed if your ISP doesn't have any modems at the other end faster than, say, 28.8kbps.

The speed of the ISP's own connection (or ramp") to the Internet is also critical. Therefore ask other customers before choosing your first ISP or while shopping around for a new one. Also, if you can, watch out for your ISP's ratio of users to lines.

4: When to go online

The actual time you go online is people are on the Internet at the same time it turns into a traffic jam. And as the Internet becomes enormously popular, its main arteries are becoming increasingly clogged with more users.

Since the most critical mass of users are in North America, try to avoid them. If at all possible, go on the Web while the US sleeps. The East Coast gets up at around 1 p.m. our time, when you can sometimes notice the global network beginning to creak and stutter. But the big peak online hours are (in US times) 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., when office workers take lunch and do some recreational Web browsing. The Net is also quieter and faster at the weekend.

5. How to search

Many people who complain about the speed of the Web simply don't know how to navigate within it, or how to use the leading search engines and Web indexes. These are important starting points in looking for information, so spend 10 or IS minutes on reading their "help" documents properly. It's a chore, but it will save you hours and hours in the future.

6: Your home page

Your browser is configured to load a particular page (called a home page) when it starts up. But if you find you're always going to a home page that you never use (for example, the very graphics heavy but boring front page of your ISP) you can change it to a more useful one such as your favourite search engine. This is done in the "options" menu.

For even more speed, download your opening page from your own computer. For example, load your Explorer "favourites" (they're in a file called "favorites.html") or Navigator "bookmarks"

("bookmarks.htm").

Better still, create your own "start page" on your PC, containing a few dozen links to the sites you regularly use. And best of all (for sheer speed) is to open on a totally blank page.

7: What target?

While a very popular Web site you're looking for might be in the US (say), in order to spread the load it might also have a "mirror site" closer to hand in Europe (say). The latter's pages should be exact copies, but as they are much nearer they are theoretically quicker to download.

Next, there are FTP (or File Transfer Protocol) sites. These are like large stores of files for downloading, ranging from games and graphics to documents and programs.

But FTP sites use a different "protocol" than Web pages (hence the "HTTP" in Web sites' addresses - it stands for "HyperText Transfer Protocol"). While you can use your Web browser to look through an FTP site's directories, it's much quicker to download the files using a dedicated FTP program.

8: Your browser

The Web browser software you use is important; Netscape Navigator 3.0 is noticeably faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 at displaying Web pages. But there's a price: we find Explorer much more sturdy and less bug ridden than Navigator.

Very early browsers (e.g. Navigator 1.1) have very few bells and whistles, so while they miss out on features such as animated graphics and Java they can seem surprisingly fast. The trick is to have both a very old browser and a much newer version: use the former when time is ultra critical, and the latter for "sightseeing" on the Web.

9: Bookmark

To make an instant note of a page you've just visited, you can make a "bookmark" of it: the browser adds it to a special file called "favourites" (by Internet Explorer) or "bookmarks" (by Navigator).

Once you've added 60 or 70 page addresses to this list, though, it can become very unwieldy. The solution is to group together the addresses in particular folders, then spring clean them regularly. Some summer pruning wouldn't do much harm either.

10: Type less

If you're typing a Web address (also known as a URL), you don't have to type http://for any URL that begins with www. Some browsers have other shortcuts: you can skip the www bits too (eg to go to http://www.irish-times.com simply type www.irish-times.com or just irish-times.com).

More importantly, get out of the habit of typing Web addresses if you can - instead, copy and paste them from the relevant documents into your browser. Besides being quicker, it's more accurate.

And instead of using the browser's scrollbar, try using the page up and page down buttons.

11: Spare windows

If you've clearly hit a traffic jam on a particular site, there's a temptation to hit the "Stop" button and backtrack elsewhere. Instead, try creating a new window (in Navigator's file menu it's called "New Browser"), in order to start a separate journey through this second route of Web pages while the contents of the first window gradually materialise.

Another trick: instead of saving all the text and graphics of a very long Web page when you only want a few words or paragraphs from it, open a texteditor (such as Simple Text or Stickies on a Mac, or Notepad on a PC) and copy and paste the relevant words. In fact, if your computer has enough memory it's almost always worthwhile launching a text editor before going online, so that you can switch to it at any time.

12: Cache size

Your Web browser saves (or "caches") the data from each page it visits in an area on your hard disk. It does this to save time the next time you want the same Web page: instead of waiting for the data to go from the server to the client all over again, right across the Net, most or all of the page's data can be uploaded directly and quickly from this cache on your PC's hard drive.

So if you increase the size of the cache within reason (say five to 10 megabytes - or more if you can spare it) this should speed things up a bit.

13: Cache 22

There can be a dawn side to the cache: as it fills up, the browser makes room for the new pages by deleting the oldest ones. So even if your cache is quite large, once it's full the browser begins to feel decidedly groggy, as it makes room for the new files by stacking the old ones up and trashing them. Solution: be ruthless - clean out the cache or "history folder" regularly (from inside the browser's options or preferences menu).

Mac users can also take advantage of some nifty "Automated Tasks" (for example, look out for the CacheBeGone! script for Netscape).

Another problem is that because the browser has to write to your hard drive quite frequently, the files often have to be subdivided and scattered across the drive. This is known as disk fragmentation, leading to errors and slower access times. One remedy is to "defragment" the drive regularly, using tools such as Defrag (in Windows 95's System Tools folder), or the Mac's "Rebuild Desktop" command (hold down Apple+Alt on startup).

A further trick has nothing to do with the National Question: you can repartition the hard drive and move the browser to a separate partition. Drastic but it works.

14: No graphics

If you're really, really, really in a hurry, turn off the pictures: switch off the "autoload images" option (in Explorer, select Options from the View menu and then "deselect" pictures, sound and/or video). OK, the resulting pages might not be so satisfying to look at, "a picture paints a thousand words" and all that, but even small graphics can be equivalent (in terms of bits of data) to 10,000 or 20,000 words, and are subsequently speedhogging.

15: A good book

Finally a reminder: the computer industry has a major, even unhealthy fixation with speed.

Yet once you've bought all its timesaving products, from word processors and spreadsheets to email programs, mobile phones and laptops, what has happened to all the time you've saved?

Equally, every time the Web makes an evolutionary jump, from simple text based pages to ever more elaborate, data heavy, all singing all dancing experiences, it claws back all the advances of faster and more efficient modems/PCs/networks, and we're back to square one again.

But do not despair. The next time you go onto the Web your best advice might be to bring a good old fashioned book - to dip into while the Web pages download...