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Despite the rapid spread of broadband, in many countries a large proportion of internet users still use a dial-up connection.  For general surfing, emailing and smaller downloads, a dial-up connection should be fast enough for most people, providing the small amount of bandwidth is used efficiently.  On a 56k connection you should expect a connection speed of around 30k – 45k, although depending on the quality of your phone line you may get a higher or lower connection speed.  Here are our tips for making the most of your connection.

The first thing to check is the hardware. Your extension cable from your modem to the phone point should be as short as possible, and a high quality one, preferably stating that it is suitable for use with a modem.  Also avoid knocking or jiggling your phone connections while you are online.  Only your modem should be plugged into the phone line, so unplug any phones as you want all the available line capacity.  Also note that some modern phone features such as call waiting can affect your modem badly, so check to see if they can be disabled while you’re online.

Although 56k modems are available very cheaply, the more expensive makes do give a better connection and upgrading to a better quality modem can give a noticeable increase in connection speed.  Better quality modems also allow you to continue surfing without errors while downloading a file (albeit rather slowly).

The quality of your phone line is of course the most important factor in deciding your connection speed.  If there is a lot of hissing and clicking when using the phone, then a modem connection is going to be poor.  Your telephone provider has a responsibility to provide a reasonable phone connection, but not a good modem connection, but if you have a very poor connection, contact them, explain the problem and they may be able to help, although there may be a charge for any improvements, so check beforehand.

Your ISP (Internet Service Provider). The big advantage of using dial-up is that you can sign up for as many different pay-as-you-go services that you want, as you only pay for the cost of the phone call. So you can try different ISPs, to see which one gives the best quality connection.  There can be a considerable difference between providers, with some being difficult to connect to and prone to cutting you off frequently.  If you find that the connection with your chosen ISP gradually becomes less reliable over time, complain, and they will probably give you a new number to call.  If not, vote with your feet!

Useful web site – Find ISP. A site listing available ISPs by country, along with features and comments.  Very useful if looking for a new ISP.  A very good list of ISPs globally is located here:  http://www.whichisp.com/finddialup.php

Using the right browser can make a difference. Independent tests at Browser Speed have shown that the fastest browser currently available is Opera.  Its greatest advantage over Internet Explorer is not the speed at which it displays pages, but how it stores previously viewed pages (caching).  This enables it to instantly return to previously viewed pages, something IE struggles with.

You can also turn off some web features, such as sounds in web pages, java and plugins such as Flash. This reduces the amount you need to download and reduces the work your browser has to do.  Do not turn JavaScript off, as this will affect the way that many pages display, although you can stop some of its affects, such as resizing windows.  You can place a tick box on your toolbar, to turn any of these options on and off, which can be useful if you like Flash games, as I do.

The very popular Firefox browser is rather slow to load initially, but once running performance is on a par with Internet Explorer for loading new pages and significantly faster than Internet Explorer when loading previously viewed pages. Firefox is however quite heavy on resources and not the best choice for older computers, although tweaks are available to streamline it somewhat. I would personally recommend GoogleChrome for older machines, its streamlined interface and optimized browsing engine works well on older machines.

Some web pages will only work with Internet Explorer, for instance if you are registering or buying something online.  In cases like this it is wise to use the browser extention IETab, for GoogleChrome and Firefox

Keep it streamlined. Avoid having too many applications running at once while on the internet. This is particularly important if you are using a older computer.  For best performance have only your browser, firewall and antivirus running, only run your email program if you need to check for messages.  If you use an instant messenger program, use a multi protocol one that is light on system resources, such as Miranda.  Close any browser windows that you no longer need.

Turn off automatic updates. Far too many programs automatically check for updates in the background, consuming bandwidth, so always set update checks to manual.  This includes Windows and antivirus updates.  Manually check for updates once a week, downloading once you have finished browsing the internet.  Pro Tip: Despite the dire warnings of security experts, providing you practice safe surfing it is not necessary to update your antivirus program every few hours.  If an alert is released for a particularly virulent virus, do an extra manual update as soon as possible.

In Conclusion. Hopefully this article has shown that with a little effort and inventiveness, browsing on a 56k connection need not be a negative experience.  Even with a slow connection it is still possible to play Flash games, download files, be active in forums, run your own web site and generally have fun.

Adam Brown Technical Director