Q: I’m paying for an Internet service that’s supposed to give me higher than normal speeds, but it just doesn’t seem to be that fast. How do I know what I am getting? — Jon
A: The importance of a fast Internet connection in today’s multimedia world goes without saying, but understanding all of the variables that can impact your actual user experience is vital.
The first thing you must understand is that consumer grade Internet services are on ‘shared pipes,’ meaning that others in your neighborhood or others on the same service can have an impact on your overall speeds (DSL and cable share in different ways).
Think of it like you would water pressure: if everyone gets home at 6 pm and turns on the sprinklers at the same time, you will notice a difference in the water pressure.
Consumer grade Internet speeds are generally sold as ‘UP TO’ speeds, which is a clever way of saying “you aren’t likely to ever see those speeds.”
Most Internet providers tier their packages, so as long as your speed is within the range of the tiered package, they have provided the service that’s in their fine print.
For instance, Cox High Speed Internet’s first tier is its Essential (up to 3 Mbps) offering, while its second tier is called Preferred (up to 15 Mbps with ‘PowerBoost’ or 12 Mbps without).
If you choose the second tier assuming that you will get 12-15 Mbps of service on a regular basis, you are likely going to be disappointed. The reality is that as long as it is delivering more than 3 Mbps (the upper limit of the first tier), it has a compelling case for charging you more.
Unless you are willing to pay for a substantially more expensive business grade service that has a tighter guarantee of speeds, your actual speed on its ‘Preferred’ package at any given moment will range from 3-12 Mbps.
Another very important factor for anyone who wants to upload pictures and video to YouTube or Facebook or for those who want to remotely access their computers is the ‘upload’ speed.
In our various tests, the upload speeds were generally the biggest problem with what was perceived as a slow connection (ex: it takes forever to upload a video to YouTube).
There are a number of speed tests that you can run to check the average speed between your Internet connection and a remote Internet server, however, understanding how to use these tools is essential.
Running a speed test on one site, one time is absolutely useless as it simply gives you the speed for that one moment.
Since we know speeds will vary throughout the day, you should use at least three different test sites (running each three times in a row) at three different times of the day.
Taking the average of all of those tests will determine what you can generally expect as your actual Internet speeds.
CNET offers a simple bandwidth meter that will test the download speed only.
Speedtest offers both upload and download tests, but you must be careful not to be confused by all its advertisements (this link limits the ads displayed). Look for the aqua marine ‘Begin Test’ button just above the map graphic.
PCPitstop has a good bandwidth speed test (upload and download) buried within its ad laden Web site as well (here’s the direct link), so be careful to avoid the ads that prompt you to download optimizers — they aren’t necessary.
The FCC has a speed test at Broadband.gov that’s a program designed to collect data for a mapping project, so you will be required to put your location information in before running all of its tests.
If it seems to take forever to get anything on the Internet but your speed tests come up pretty decently, the problem could be one of the many malicious programs that can infect your browser.
Most of today’s malware is designed to work silently in the background of your computer (as a process) and jump into action when you launch your Internet browser.
The quickest way to see if you have excessive processes running in the background (a possible indicator of infection) is to launch the Windows Task Manager (Ctrl-Alt-Del) and look in the bottom left corner for ‘Processes.’
With nothing running, we like to see it in the high 30s for desktops and the low 40s for laptops. If you have 60+ processes running, you should consider having a qualified technical person take a deeper look at what the extra processes are to play it safe.
Ken Colburn Data Doctors Computer Services Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc. Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show