As most users of the internet will know, spam is a particularly unfair way of bombarding us with marketing information as it's virtually free to send but costly to receive, taking into account internet call charges and wasted time.
If you waste any more than a minute a day downloading spam, you should invest in some kind of anti-spam service. By this we mean a service that identifies suspected spam before you download it and gives you the choice of deleting it unread.
MailWasher is a powerful and free application that shows you all incoming email, automatically filters the good from the bad and the not-quite-sure, and lets you download only those messages that you positively want to receive. This, of course, saves time spent online.
Many ISPs now also offer spam-filtering as either a bonus feature or an optional extra. For instance, BT Yahoo currently offers free email filtering to all subscribers, Tiscali provides an add-on service for £6 per year, and even Hotmail offers configurable junk mail deletion.
Using the internet is not a one-sided process and you can waste just as much time uploading files as downloading. Say you have to email a group of files to a contact. Rather than sending them as simple attachments, you can compress them first to shrink the overall file size.
The smaller the attachment, the faster it will leave your computer and the sooner you can come offline. It will also be quicker for the recipient to download at the other end.
Compression results vary considerably according to the type of file you're compressing. Word processor documents and spreadsheets can usually be shrunk dramatically but you'll see less gain with files that are already compressed, such as MP3 music files and JPEG images.
A utility like WinZip will compress your files for you and is both effective and easy to use. However, WinRAR also lets you turn a large file or a group of files into several smaller compressed files that can then be emailed individually and stitched back together at the other end.
This is ideal for circumventing the limitations on the size of email attachments imposed by ISPs, which typically restrict attached files to a maximum of 5MB.
... and downs
There are few things more frustrating or wasteful than a large file download that stalls or stops halfway through and has to be restarted from scratch. This, though, is something that you should seldom, if ever, have to experience if you use a download manager to control the file transfer.
This software means it's usually possible to pick up a stalled download from where you left off. Admittedly, it won't work with all downloads, but these are the exception nowadays rather than the rule.
Go!Zilla, Download Accelerator Plus and GetRight will all help you to resume partial downloads. The latter pair will also let you download a file in several segments simultaneously. This makes the most of every available scrap of bandwidth and further speeds up the transfer.
In short, downloading over dial-up without a download manager is daft.
Tweak your browser
One of the simplest but most effective things you can do to speed up web surfing is instruct your browser not to download or display images on web pages.
On the face of it this makes the web a less visually appealing playground, but you may find that it suits you just fine for everyday surfing. Besides, you can reverse your changes whenever you need to.
To turn off images in Internet Explorer, select Internet Options from the Tools menu and open the Advanced tab. Now scroll down to the Multimedia section and uncheck the Show pictures box. Click Apply then OK. While there, you can also disable sounds, animations and videos. The net effect will be dramatic.
There is an easier way to do this, though. Install Avant Browser and you can stop Internet Explorer from displaying multimedia elements of webpages directly from the Tools menu. Avant Browser also brings tabbed browsing to Internet Explorer.
If you use the Opera browser, images can be turned on and off with a toolbar button, or you can press the G key at any time. Mozilla Firefox users can do the same by selecting Options from the Tools menu and changing the settings listed under Web Preferences or by installing a plug-in that adds a toolbar button.
Bandwidth is a measure of how much data can theoretically pass through a connection at any given time. In a nutshell, greater bandwidth equates to greater speed because you can transfer more data in a shorter time.
A dial-up modem connects to your ISP at a maximum bandwidth of 56Kbps, which means you should in theory be able to download a 1MB file in around two and a half minutes. In practice, it may take twice as long.
By contrast, a standard ADSL or cable broadband connection provides bandwidth of 512Kbps, with which you could download the same file in under 17 seconds. Again, it will take longer in the real world than on paper.
Broadband for all
Broadband has several benefits over dial-up, as modem users will doubtless appreciate.
It's an always-on service, which means no more dialling up to your ISP every time you need to visit a web page or check your email. It's also unmetered, which means everything is included at a flat-rate monthly charge, normally between £20 and £30.
On top of that, broadband is much faster than dial-up, doesn't tie up your phone line, and can be supplied via a cable service, a standard telephone line (ADSL), a wireless community network, a satellite receiver or, in a couple of parts of the country, through power lines.
It is not, however, available everywhere or to everyone. For instance, you may live too far away from an ADSL-enabled telephone exchange or in a non-cabled area.
To find out if you can get a broadband service immediately, your first port of call should be the online postcode and phone number checkers.
- For ADSL: www.bt.com/broadband
- For Telewest cable: www.telewest.com/home/index.htm
- For NTL cable: www.sales.ntl.com
If you can get ADSL, don't assume that you have to subscribe to BT, even if BT currently provides your telephone service. Broadband supply is a highly competitive area and there are always deals to be had.
For advice on getting broadband, including a feature that allows you to compare the services of up to six ISPs at a time, visit ADSL Guide.
If, however, you can't get ADSL, don't take it lying down. BT has announced trigger levels for many non-ADSL exchanges, so pre-register your interest as soon as possible. Better still, join or start a local campaign and brow-beat BT into taking action.
If BT still won't play ball, or if you are served by one of the 600-odd exchanges deemed economically unviable by BT, you may be able to persuade another ISP to come in and enable your local telephone exchange. Failing that, a community broadband network may be the way forward.
We tested four products that claim to speed up surfing. Although we took pains to establish a level playing field, internet speeds are vulnerable to fluctuations in the speed of the connection, the volume of internet traffic and changes to web pages between visits. We cannot therefore guarantee that your real-world experience will precisely match ours.
Propel Accelerator uses compression to reduce the size of web pages and in our tests managed to reduce the time it took to download webpages by a third. Crucially, images on web pages remained acceptably clear despite an obvious reduction in quality.
Accelerator can be enabled and disabled at any time by means of a Taskbar button so it's easy to turn off compression and reload a page if you need to see web images at full resolution. It also comes with a pop-up stopper and a banner ad blocker, both of which can further speed up everyday surfing.
Price: $60 (about £32) annual subscription or $8 (about £4.30) monthly
OnSpeed is essentially a very similar product to Accelerator. Whenever your browser requests a web page, that page is compressed and forwarded to your computer. We saw similar gains here, with OnSpeed loading pages around two-and-a-half times faster, although the Propel product just pipped it for pace over a prolonged series of tests.
Like Accelerator, you can progressively increase compression at the expense of clarity but we found the default settings were best: anything stronger and images on web pages became a fuzzy blur.
Price: £25 annual subscription
Webroot Accelerate makes tweaks to Windows settings to improve the performance of your modem. Unfortunately, in our tests the big, bold Accelerate Me! button had precisely zero effect. We also tried tweaking Accelerate's settings manually but again could record no gains. If anything, we managed to slow down our internet connection, which was a tad galling.
However, we fear that this is the nature of this particular game as success varies according to the quality of your telephone line, your modem's configuration and the way your copy of Windows is set up. You may fare better, but we would certainly encourage you to try the trial before shelling out for the full version.
Price: $20 (about £11)
TweakMaster does essentially the same thing as Accelerate but with a good deal more finesse. You can run through the step-by-step guide for a quick fix or take hands-on control immediately. The latter approach tends to be a rather complex process but the Help file is a pleasant surprise, being both well written and clear.
Usefully, you can save experimental settings as a file and return to them later should further tweaks proves fruitless.
The Professional version includes DU Meter, a tool that shows you how efficiently your modem is working. That once again we weren't able to see any gains despite repeated experimentation is not in itself a reason not to try TweakMaster for yourself.
Price: $20 (about £11)
Keep on dialling
Far be it from us to suggest that a dial-up connection to the internet is ideal. However, we do hope to have demonstrated that it needn't prove overly restrictive either. We achieved some very effective results with dial-up connection speed enhancement software for a very reasonable cost.
We would urge you to regard claims of 'near-broadband speeds' with scepticism but you should certainly see some real improvement nonetheless. Combine this with a download manager, a few well-chosen browser and email tweaks, and remembering to work offline whenever you can, and there should be plenty of life left in that old modem yet.
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