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GET THE SCOOP ON ...
Finding an ISP that gives you the best connection
* Deciding whether to sign up with an online service
* Improving the performance of your hardware and
modern setup, and learning what it really costs to
upgrade * Maximizing the equipment you already have,
such as a less powerful computer or a slower modern,
for Internet use
Souping Up Your Access
I'm sure that you've already connected to the Internet through an Internet service provider (ISP), online service, or your school's or company's connection, and spent some time on the Net. Whether you've been online for a day or a year, you've probably already discovered one thing—it's too darn slow!
There's not a single Internet user who doesn't wish Web pages would display quicker, software would download faster, and online video and audio would actually look and sound the way it's supposed to. One reason for this is that we're all used to television, and today's computer technology just hasn't caught up. Also, most of us can't afford the fastest connections and most advanced multimedia computers.
But there are ways that even home computer users can get more bang for their buck. This chapter helps you improve your Internet access.
What to Look for in an ISP
Many people turn to a national ISP or online service when first joining the Internet, because these companies spend the big bucks on advertising. But most often, the small, local ISPs offer the best value for your monthlyInternet access fee, in terms of customer service and connection speed. Unless you live way out in the boonies, you should be able to find an ISP in your area.
New ISPs are starting up every day. As in any other business, some are exceptional and some are duds. With very little information about these companies, it might seem like a constant process of trial and error to find one you can live with, and even harder to find one that you really like. But you can narrow your choices and make a reasonably good selection if you follow a few simple guidelines.
When putting together a list of ISP candidates, compile a checklist of necessary qualities that the ISP must have:
· Local access: The ISP must have Points of Presence (PoPs) in your local dialing area, or you'll wind up spending a fortune in long-distance charges.
· Online time: Your ISP should offer a reasonable amount of hours for the monthly access fee; unlimited access is best. Avoid ISPs that charge by the hour.
· Price: If you're paying more than $30 per month for Internet access, you're paying too much. Again, be sure that you're paying a flat monthly rate and that there are no hidden, startup, or "per hour" charges. Some ISPs even offer a free trial period so you can give them a test run.
· Connection speed: Your ISP should support connections of at least 33.6Kbps. Try to find an ISP that supports 56K and ISDN connections, so that you can upgrade.
· Simple setup: The installation and configuration process should be fully automated. The best setups build the connection without making you enter a single IP address.
· Technical support and customer service: The ISP should offer a toll-free line with a minimal on-hold wait (no more than 5-15 minutes). You'll be lucky to find 24-hour technical support, but look for an ISP that offers help on Saturdays or in the early evenings. (Keep in mind that tech support problems are the number-one complaints about ISPs.)
In addition to these suggestions, you might want to add more requirements to your checklist, based on your Internet needs:
· Software: It's standard for ISPs to provide a full suite of Internet tools with your account. You might want to choose an ISP that offers the newest versions of standard software or gives you a choice of browser (although you'll probably end up downloading newer versions of what you need). What is crucial is that the ISP enables you to use any software you want, without locking you into one email program or browser.
· Email: Every Internet access account comes with one mailbox, but some offer several for one price. You might want to look for an ISP that enables you to create subordinate mailboxes with their own addresses and passwords, so everyone in your small office or household can have one. If you don't want to download all your mail to your hard drive or if you want to take advantage of the latest email programs, choose an ISP that supports the IMAP standard.
· Usenet: Some people spend all their time on Usenet; some don't use it at all. If it's important to you, find out how many newsgroups the ISP supports. If you have a favorite newsgroup, ask whether the ISP provides it.
· Web server space: Most ISPs provide a small amount of Web server space as part of the account. If you plan to publish personal home pages, be sure that you get at least 10MB of Web server space. And ask how much it costs to rent additional server space. Also find out whether the ISP supports CGI scripts.
Locating an ISP
There are lots of ways to find local ISPs, both online and off. Start by trying the phone book and collecting recommendations from friends and colleagues. Also try comprehensive online lists, such as The List (http://thelist.internet.com/) and ISP Finder (http://www.pcworld.com/top400/isp/), both searchable by area code. These kinds of lists are best for building an initial list of local ISPs, but they don't give you a clue as to the ISP's quality and service.
After you've chosen several local ISPs, you can then eliminate the duds from your list. First, and most obviously, give each ISP a call and be sure that it fulfills all the requirements on your checklist. Also, visit each ISP's Web site and see whether you can easily find basic information, such as how long they've been in business, their rates, features included with an Internet access account, and local access numbers (see Figure 1.1).
If possible, send email to a few of the ISP's customers and ask whether they're happy with the provider. (Search a few of the major directory services for email addresses that use the ISP's domain name to find people who use the ISP; you'll learn how in Chapter 5, "Email Magic.")
Even after signing up, you might discover that the ISP isn't for you. In that case, you can always switch. Just be sure your initial contract isn't long-term; look for ISPs that offer free trial periods or short-term contracts (month-by-month is best). Later, if you like the ISP, you can sign a longer term contract and perhaps get a rate cut in the bargain.
If you can't find a local ISP or if you're limited in choices and don't like the ones offered by your local providers, then consider a national ISP. National providers are also a good choice if you travel a lot and need Internet access while on the road, or if your operations are located in more than one area, such as branch offices.
All in all, the quality of national ISPs falls somewhere between that of local ISPs and that of online services. Generally, national ISPs' customer service and technical support aren't as good as you're likely to get from a local ISP, because the national provider has more customers and can't spend as much time serving each individual. Establishing a connection and connection speed might be problematic for the same reason. But unlike most online services, national ISPs offer choice—choice of software, choice of Internet activities, and generally fewer restrictions.
Of course, the national ISP that you choose should fulfill all the requirements outlined in the previous section. In addition, look for a national ISP that offers 24-hour customer service, local access numbers across the country so you won't have to pay long-distance charges, and competitive prices or extra services to entice you to sign up.
Table 1.1 describes the major national ISPs, including contact and pricing information and some notes about the special features each provider offers. (All phone numbers and rates were verified at the time of publication, but might have changed by the time you read this.)
So, what's the difference between an online service and an Internet service provider? Well, online services hold the user's hand quite a bit more than ISPs. They organize the content found on the service and provide the proprietary software needed to access that content. Access to the Web, Internet email, and Usenet are just a small part of the overall service, which can also include pay-per-view content, chat rooms, games, and the like. ISPs, on the other hand, generally provide full Internet access but no organized content, except what might be found on their Web sites.
Some people like online services because everything is laid out for them neatly, with little fuss and bother. Seasoned Internet users know that you can get everything on the Web that you can get on the online services—and much more—at a cheaper price and a higher speed; you just have to work a little harder. Another advantage of connecting via an ISP is that you can use the Internet software you want; you aren't locked into an online service's proprietary Web browser or email client.
If you're new to the Internet, an online service can help ease the transition into cyberspace. You'll learn how to use Internet tools and functions in a familiar, user-friendly environment. Then, after six months or a year, consider making the switch to a national or local ISP to take advantage of the faster access times, greater software options, and unlimited access to the Web and Usenet that an ISP can offer.
Table 1.2 outlines the major online services, their contact information, and their rates for unlimited monthly access. (Note that phone numbers and rates were verified at the time of publication, but may have changed since then. Pricing for online services changes frequently, and trial offers and special deals are offered all the time, so shop around.)
Upgrading for the Internet
Now that you've found a good ISP, you probably want to improve the speed with which you interact with the Internet. This generally means an upgrade in your computer setup or your Internet connection or both. (You might be able to avoid paying a lot of money by optimizing the hardware and connection you've got for Internet use—more on this in the next section.)
Before upgrading, decide exactly what you want to do on the Internet. Then, you can target your computer system and connection for those activities and avoid buying new components that you don't need. Tables 1.3 and 1.4 describe the optimal configurations for three levels of Internet use:
· Low-end: Sending email, reading Usenet, and other text-restricted activities
· Midrange: Basic email, chat, and Web browsing, but infrequent multimedia playing, software downloading, and access of high-end technologies
· High-end: Full-out, fast Web browsing, including playing streaming video and audio, interacting with the latest technologies, and frequent downloading and uploading of files
Note that setting up and using a shell-account connection, specified for the low-end system, is not easy. It requires some knowledge of UNIX and a willingness to tinker around for a while before you figure out what you're doing. Also, it might be nearly impossible to locate an ISP that supports your system. You'll have an easier time going online if you upgrade your entire system first.
If you don't have a computer or you're considering investing in a new system, go ahead and buy a system that meets or exceeds all the specifications for the high-end system. This will give you all the Web-browsing power you need, plus the ability to play the latest multimedia formats, such as RealMedia, Shockwave Flash, and MP3. The cost of such a system runs around $1,000, and prices are dropping every day.
Upgrading Your System
Improving one or two components of your computer system might significantly increase overall performance when browsing the Internet. If you have the money, consider upgrading each component to the levels specified for high-end access in Tables 1.3 and 1.4. If you have the means to upgrade only one or two components, look at your processor and memory first. These two components (other than the modern) play the largest role in Internet performance, because they are most heavily used in displaying Web pages, particularly pages that include multimedia, Java, and the like.
Upgrading the Processor
Upgrading the CPU in your Macintosh computer—moving from a 68KB Macintosh to a PowerPC, for instance—can significantly increase your computer's performance. The newer chip might also offer features that your old chip didn't have; for example, the 68020 doesn't support virtual memory, but the 68030 does. Whenever possible, get the Floating Point Unit (FPU), which makes a big difference in many kinds of activities. Accelerate Your Mac (http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/) has reviews of CPU cards and video cards for upgrades, including price lists.
On the PC, replacing a slower, first-generation Pentium CPU with a faster MMX part is one of the most sensible upgrades you can make. Never attempt a CPU upgrade unless you have the motherboard's original documentation, and select the upgrade processors listed in the documentation. The CPU manufacturer's Web site also generally has documentation, compatibility information, and installation instructions; Intel (http://www.intel.com/), AMD (http://www.amd. com/), and Cyrix (http://www.cyrix.com/) are the major manufacturers. Prices range from 50 dollars for some of the AMD processors to several hundred dollars for Intel CPUs. For most processors, you also need a heatsink and fan, so order one if it isn't already included in the kit.
Increasing memory makes surfing the Web and other computing activities seem faster and smoother, because it lessens dependence on virtual memory. More memory also makes complex operations, such as playing Shockwave movies or running Java applications, run quicker with less tendency to crash. When buying memory, the rule of thumb is to get more than you think you'll need. Memory is not that expensive, it is the easiest upgrade to make, and there is no such thing as extra RAM.
On the Macintosh, a 16MB upgrade costs around $20-$40. Going up to 32MB RAM increases the cost to roughly $45-$60, and a 64MB upgrade runs between $65 and $100. (PowerBook memory tends to be much more expensive.) But how much RAM can your Macintosh really handle? There are some design limitations in older Macs (check your documentation), but most of the later Macs can go to 32MB or more.
On the PC, you must determine how much memory you have and what kind it is before upgrading. Also, you can add memory only in fixed increments, depending on your CPU. To determine what size SIMM you have, either check the original documentation or just look inside the box. All 386s that use SIMMs and older 486s have 30-pin SIMMs, which have 30 contact points. Newer 486s introduced 72-pin SIMMs, which (obviously) have 72 contact points.
After finding out what kind of SIMM your system uses, count the number of SIMMs that are installed; compare the number of SIMMs to the total amount of memory to calculate the size of the SIMMs in megabytes. Also count how many open SIMM sockets are on the motherboard, which is where you will add the new SIMMs.
Finally, count the number of chips in the SIMM (turn the computer off and then remove the SIMM to do this). SIMMs with an odd number of chips are parity SIMMs, and you should buy the same type for your upgrade. While you're holding the SIMM, look on the chips for a number following a dash (-100, -80, -70, or -60), representing the speed of the chips—the lower the number, the faster the chip. Upgraded SIMMs should be the same speed or faster.
Depending on your computer, expect to pay between $25-$75 for a 32MB memory upgrade. SIMM prices vary greatly, so shop around.
Upgrading the Hard Drive
As with RAM, there's no such thing as too much hard drive space. Eventually, you will use it. Where the Internet is concerned, more hard drive space means more room for storing the more advanced programs, such as Web browsers that get bigger with each release.
Most Macintoshes were designed for a single internal drive, so your first decision is whether to replace the internal drive or purchase a second, external drive. Internal drives are less expensive and can be faster than external drives, but they are generally more difficult to install, and you have to figure out how to move your data from your old drive to your new one. With an external drive, you just copy the data from the old drive to the new one. Also, you can reuse an external drive when you buy a new computer. Finally, an external drive adds more capacity to your original drive, instead of just replacing it. You should be able to find a good internal hard drive for under $250. An external drive will cost you $50-$80 more.
If you have room inside your PC, you can add a second hard drive at a cost of $200-$300. Also consider removable hard disk media, such as the JAZ drive; figure on about $300 for the drive and one 1GB cartridge, plus $80 for each additional cartridge.
Upgrading Your Connection
The most reliable way to increase Internet access speed is to upgrade to a faster modem or connection. You have a lot of choices in this area, ranging from moving up to a 33.6Kbps modem to putting in ISDN. Again, base the upgrade on what you want to accomplish online and how much time you intend to spend there; you probably don't need an ISDN connection unless you plan to spend a great deal of time online and frequently download large files.
Upgrading Your Modem
When buying a new modem, stay away from those bargain-basement models, no matter how tempting the price. You've already invested a lot of money in your system and you're paying a substantial monthly fee for Internet access, so why scrimp on your primary connection to the Internet? Save yourself a lot of grief—stay with the name-brand models, produced by companies whose primary business is making modems.
You probably already have a 28.8Kbps or 33.6KBps modem, so if you're considering upgrading, you're most likely looking at the 56K modems. The first thing to do is find out whether your ISP supports 56K connections and how many 56K modems your ISP has on its side of the connection. Also find out whether your ISP's 56K access is based on the 3Com x2 or Rockwell/Lucent K56flex standard, and buy a modern that works with your ISP's standard. Be aware that some ISPs add a surcharge for 56K connections. (If you're not getting the answers that you want, this might be a good time to shop around for a new ISP.)
Even with 56K modems on both sides of the connection, you probably won't get on the Internet at that speed. The local telephone network largely determines how well your 56K modem works. Although some of you will see vast improvements, others will get only a slight increase in speed because of noisy phone lines and other factors that are largely beyond your control. (It's a good idea to be sure you can return the modem for a refund if it doesn't work well for you.)
The good news is that 56K technology is improving as it gets cheaper, so a 56K modem is only slightly more expensive than a 33.6Kbps modem. In some cases, you might be able to upgrade your existing modern to 56K by downloading a ROM revision for a minimal fee—check your modem manufacturer's Web site.
|I Working the Web||7|
|1 Souping Up Your Access||9|
|2 Choosing the Right Tools||33|
|3 Getting More Out of Navigator||61|
|4 Getting More Out of Internet Explorer||87|
|II Into the Net||107|
|5 Email Magic||109|
|6 Secure and Spam-Free||137|
|7 Getting Personal with Real-Time Chat||169|
|8 Neat Net Tools||195|
|9 Cutting Through the Hype||219|
|10 Internet on the Desktop||239|
|III Power Surfing||265|
|11 Searching Savvy||267|
|12 Safe Surfing||301|
|13 Secret Sites||327|
|14 Going Shopping||353|
|15 Putting Your Web Site to Work||377|
|16 Promoting Your Site||407|
|B Unauthorized Resources||463|