Many people are surprised (shocked even) when they replace their ancient computer with a brand spanking new machine with 10 times the horsepower than their old one but the new computer still crawls at a snail's pace when connected to the Internet.
I often get calls from frustrated people who tell me stories such as, "I just got a new machine but my home page takes forever to load" or "every time I try to watch a video online, it freezes, goes for a bit then stops again over and over! I can't stand it!"
The frustration is usually mixed with confusion because they figure since it's a new machine with gobs of ram and all sorts of processor power, it should be much faster than their old machine.
Now as a rule this is usually true. The new machine is actually much faster than their old machine and if you set the two of them up side by side you'll see the new one start up much faster, open programs much faster and visibly outperform the old machine with every test you throw at it. That is until you start doing things that depend upon a fast Internet connection.
You know things such as watching a YouTube video or waiting for a page such as the Yahoo portal to load. Then, if the Internet connection is not what it should be, things grind to a halt and start working at the same pace as the old machine.
When people start off by telling me that watching videos over the Internet is frustrating because it pauses and "skips," I usually tell them about the old work around of starting the video and then immediately hitting the "pause" button for a while. (I still use this technique just to make sure, especially if it's a long video. I'll start the video then pause it and go get a cup of coffee or something. Then when I come back I'll hit play and it usually plays without a hitch).
What we're doing by starting it and pausing for a while is giving the data stream a good head start before releasing the play head in the hopes that the point of the video we are watching doesn't catch up with the data stream that's downloading.
If the Internet connection is slow and we hit play and don't hit the pause button, the video will sometimes play faster than the computer can download the data that makes up the video and the whole thing stops while it downloads a bit more. This process is called "buffering" and has more to do with the speed of the Internet connection than it does with the speed of the computer. Pause the video and give the data stream plenty of time to buffer and when you hit the play button again the play head won't have a chance of catching the data stream and it should play smoothly.
With YouTube videos you can even see it in action. Start a video and hit pause, then watch and you'll see a thin red line start to grow from the left to the right even though the video isn't playing. That line is an indication of how much of the data stream is downloaded and the trick is to make sure it's far enough ahead.
Catch up to the line and the video will pause and try to buffer on its own but usually the automatic buffering doesn't give the data stream enough of a head start and the process repeats itself over and over.
OK, so we know that even a brand-new computer will come to a screeching halt if it's trying to do something over a slow Internet connection but how does one go about testing that?
One way to check is to fire up your web browser and go to www.speedtest.net and click the "begin test" button. This will run a series of tests and give you a good idea of just what your download and upload speeds are measured in mega bits per second or MBPS.
One rule of thumb is you want to see at least two MBPS to be able to watch Internet video streaming without it buffering and the speedtest.net website will tell you just what kind of download speeds you're getting.
Get anything lower than two MBPS and it's time to call your Internet provider and complain. After all a brand-new computer deserves a lightning fast connection, don't you think?
Sean McCarthy fixes computers. He can be reached at (888) 752-9049 or help@ComputeThisOnline.com (no hyphens).