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Dialup at DSL speed?


Dialup at DSL speed?

Several Internet Service Providers are marketing dial-up service that they claim rivals DSL in speed.  This article from the Washington Post discusses the reality.

Nice but No Substitute for 'Always On' Broadband

By Rob Pegoraro

Sunday, September 21, 2003; Page F07

It's possible to download Web pages as fast over a dial-up connection as over broadband. Really.

No violation of the laws of physics is involved, just some clever optimization of old-fashioned modem connections. This "dial-up acceleration" or "Web acceleration" builds some shortcuts into the path data travel on the Internet, allowing the Web to wend its way to your screen faster than usual.

In the past year, dial-up acceleration moved from an extra-cost add-on to a bonus component of America Online's and EarthLink's latest software, as well as that of other companies. Both America Online and EarthLink tout it as a reason to choose them over competitors.

After timing each service's Web speed-up features, I can attest that the technology works. Pages snapped onto the screen as fast -- sometimes faster -- than they do over my digital-subscriber-line connection.

For example, The Post's online front page took about 20 seconds to appear over EarthLink and AOL's standard dial-up, but just 10 seconds or so with acceleration enabled -- only a second more than it required over DSL. The District's home page required roughly eight seconds over regular dial-up, but on average only four seconds with acceleration, the same as with DSL. The pattern prevailed with each of the eight sites I clocked, which ranged from almost all-text pages to graphics- and animation-rich constructions.

Dial-up acceleration, with some differences among vendors, works by trying to bring the Web closer to the user. Instead of making you download all of a page from a remote Web server (except for whatever graphics files your own browser has already cached on your hard drive), dial-up acceleration systems use an intermediate server to store copies of popular pages.

It can send these copies down to your computer in compressed form over proprietary channels that run faster than the standard Internet protocols. It also copies frequently-viewed parts of the Web to a part of your computer's hard drive, beyond your browser's usual cache.

If only part of a page has been updated, the intermediate server can send only the new material, with the software on your computer stitching everything back together. (As a result, you'll see only a tiny speed boost the first time you hit a Web page; these systems work best with pages you visit every day.)

All this allows Web pages to fly onto the screen at an impressive rate. To claim this reward, I didn't have to do anything more complicated than sit through a software installation. In EarthLink's case, it came as a separate download for its Total Access 2004 software, while AOL 9.0 includes the feature by default; both, however, worked about as well in my experience.

But nothing comes free online.

The obvious trade-off in dial-up acceleration is picture quality. Accelerators compress pictures, sometimes dramatically -- EarthLink's version, provided by San Jose-based Propel Software Corp., condensed a photo file on The Post's site by a factor of four.

As a result, images look anywhere from slightly off to terrible under acceleration, depending on what settings you enable. EarthLink's Propel software offers six levels of compression and allows you to reload an image at full quality, while AOL's is only on or off, with no ability to see a photo in its original condition.

Plain graphics, like the headers and navigation toolbars on many Web pages, generally look fine under acceleration. But photos can resemble watercolor renditions of the original files, with blurred colors and shapes.

Because dial-up accelerators apply the same degree of compression to every picture online, those images that have already been prepared for quick downloads will look the worst afterward. "If the image has already been optimized for Web display and there isn't a lot to remove out, you're more likely to notice what we do," said David Murray, Propel's executive vice president.

Outside of Web browsing, dial-up acceleration can't do much. Downloads get no dramatic boost; e-mail transfers and streaming audio or video run just as slow as before.

The greatest shortfall of dial-up acceleration, however, is connection time, not download time. It does nothing to shorten the wait for your modem to squawk and screech its way online. Only improvements in modem technology can address that, and Internet providers are still (slowly) absorbing the most recent update.

By contrast, the speed my DSL connection provides is never unappreciated -- it makes downloading even Microsoft's and Apple's most bloated system updates manageable, and the high-quality webcasts it brings in have made my computer a much better radio than my stereo.

But the more important thing about DSL is the fact that it's always on, barring a rare service interruption.

"Always on" means that I can look up things when I want, not 45 seconds later. All I need to do is wake the computer from sleep and click on my e-mail program, instant-message software or Web browser.

"Always on" is the norm with electricity, TV and the phone; nobody would dream of requiring people to log into Pepco, Comcast or Verizon before using their services. Someday, that will be true with the Internet as well.

In the meantime, acceleration software can make dial-up much more palatable for those who can't get broadband or can't afford it.

But it can't substitute for the real thing, even factoring in the money it saves compared to DSL or cable. If you want a faster Internet connection, it's going to be a lot easier to find $15 or $20 in savings elsewhere in your monthly budget than it will be to convince yourself that "accelerated" dial-up is a replacement for always-on broadband.

Here's some additional information:
Accelerated Dialup
An after-thought
Written by Justin Beech
The Washington Post ran an OK article that compared some of 56k dialup acceleration products. Our past stories on accelerated dial-up can be seen here.

As we read the article, fair as it was, we realized there were a few things that perhaps should have been mentioned in addition to the negatives that were detailed (when comparing these products to broadband).

1. Dial-up acceleration, if it provides meaningful speed increases, is a fairly complex bit of software that attempts to cache pages closer to the user, and minimise the amount of connection setup and tear-down and multiple server contacts that normally occur when browsing the web. It also re-compresses images at low quality. This added complexity means that inevitably, there will be more things to go wrong. Is a site down, or slow, or corrupt? or is the dial-up acceleration mucking it up? how would one know?

2. Accelerator products may cache popular sites. But what about sites YOU use? benchmarks may compare the time to load the CNN home page, or yahoo, because they are so well known. But drill down on these sites, or move to others, and it would become unlikely that a convenient cache would be at hand for spectacular speed gains.

3. Accelerator products may be only good when newly launched. Early adopters always find fast relatively un-used infrastructure (the caching servers). How about later, when the number of subscribers rise?

4. Dynamic websites. Some of the most interesting websites are constructed on the fly or custom for the user. They are extremely unfriendly to caches, and will not work correctly if a cache attempts to get in the way. Removal of the ability to cache a page near the user will hobble the effectiveness of any web cache.

5. Secure connections. If you spend a fair amount of time signed on using banking or brokerage sites, you will be using the web over a secure, uncacheable connection. No product will speed this up.

If you have no broadband options, or no affordable ones, then by all means look into "accelerators", but be careful the product you are purchasing is not hype without substance, and steer clear of contracts without being absolutely sure any claimed speed gains are real, and apply to much of your online time.

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