If your Internet experience was an animal, would it be a cheetah or a slug? A silly question maybe, but the answer is anything but silly.
That's because in today's globally connected world of computers, video streaming, and social media, the speed of your Internet connection could mean the difference between a mega bright smile and a mega bummer frown.
"If your connection is too slow, you'll have a really frustrating experience," says Phil Dunn, a technology specialist at Synapse Services Co., a web technologies and content development company.
"[Connection speed] is a quality of experience issue," adds Dunn. "The bottleneck with Internet use is that a lot of today's computer programs are relying on the Internet connection to work, such as video streaming with Netflix or YouTube or streaming music, to name just a few."
On the flip side, some people might not need the more expensive lightning-fast speeds certain Internet providers offer, according to Dunn.
Keep reading for tips on how to match your Internet speed to your lifestyle speed.
Tip #1: Determine Your Speed Need
When it comes to your Internet connection, your need for speed is a function of what tasks you go online to perform. According to Dunn, the more data rich stuff you do - such as streaming videos and music or playing online games - the faster your connection to the Internet needs to be.
"Let's say you're a family with a TV that's streaming Netflix through an Internet connection, and a few kids who are streaming songs, and you have a slow Internet connection," Dunn says. "You're going to run into problems. Things will stall because the bandwidth just isn't big enough."
So how can you calculate your Internet speed? This can be done over the Internet at certain sites. For example, a June 2012 Consumer Reports Magazine article "Cut your telecom bill" suggests using this website: www.broadband.gov/qualitytest. All you need is your address, and it will tell you your connection speed within a minute or two.
And to help you decide if it's time to upgrade your speed, here are some suggestions based on your amount of online usage, according to the "Cut your telecom bill" article:
Light Usage: You only have two people using the Internet simultaneously, Web surfing, downloading short, standard-definition videos, emailing, and perhaps playing simple Internet games.
Speed Suggested: Up to 3 megabytes per second [Mbps]
Moderate Usage: Occasionally up to three simultaneous users. They are commonly video streaming, with some high definition (HD) content from places such as iTunes. Also, some HD interactive game playing and uploading of high-resolution photos to a cloud storage service, which keeps your data at a remote location to free up your hard drive. You can tolerate the occasional quality compromise.
Speed Suggested: Up to 6 to 12 Mbps
Heavy Usage: You have up to four people online simultaneously, some perhaps using a tablet or smartphone. They are doing content-rich stuff like streaming movies or videos or uploading big files or photos to cloud storage services. Users also might demand high speeds. Professional photographers and videographers could fall into this group.
Speed Suggested: At least 15 Mbps
Tip #2: Get the Right Type of Connection
When it comes to connecting to the Internet, you have a lot of options, says Dunn. They range from snail-paced slow (dial up) to fabulously fast (the best cable) and everything in between. Below is a breakdown of some of the many options available, according to Dunn:
Option 1: Dial-up Connection: This option uses a traditional phone line to access the Internet.
Speed: Very slow by today's standards.
Typical Cost: Free to very inexpensive.
Expert's Take: "This is the minimum. Someone on a dial-up modem trying to use Skype or watch videos is going to have a horrible time," says Dunn. In addition, you need a home phone line, which more and more people are replacing with their cell phone.
Option 2: DSL (Digital Subscriber Line): This option also uses a traditional phone line to access the Internet, but it's a bit faster.
Speed: Slow by today's standards.
Typical Cost: Low to moderate.
Expert's Take: "When you go beyond basic email and get into more graphic heavy stuff or videos, you're going to want DSL at least," says Dunn. "But it's still going to be frustrating at times."
Option 3: Cable: This option uses the same cable line as your cable TV. The bigger line offers the opportunity to transfer more data at a time, thus it's much faster.
Speed: Fast to Very Fast. Anywhere from 2 Mbps to 100 Mbps. (See chart in Tip #1)
Typical Cost: Ranges widely, depending on speed and whether you bundle your service with cable TV and home phone, which makes it less expensive.
Expert's Take: "This is typically very fast," says Dunn. "For most families, this is the option that will allow them to do all the things they want to do, from watching movies and streaming music to photo sharing and playing online games."
Tip #3: Use Cafes and Libraries for Web Access
Next time you're at a cafe and order a chai latte with soy, you might think about ordering up a side of Internet access. That's because in today's Internet-fueled world, many businesses give customers Internet access for free - or as a premium when they buy a drink or meal. Public spaces often have this feature as well.
Typically referred to as hotspots, they range from cafes and bookstores to libraries and airports. Conceivably, a consumer who doesn't have good Internet access at home - or doesn't want to pay for it - could supplement their usage by frequenting these places, according to Dunn.
But it's not all whip cream and chocolate cookies; there is a downside.
"They typically don't offer great connections because it's an expense that they have to make up by selling an extra cup of coffee or muffin," says Dunn. "They also have to support all the freeloaders who come in and buy a Coke and hang out for five hours."
This brings up another potential problem: the more people sharing the connection, the slower each of their connections will be, says Dunn. So especially in public places such as libraries and airports, that could really wipe out your Web surfing plan.
Tip #4: Make Sure You're Getting the Speed You're Paying For
Are you paying for cable Internet, but your favorite website is taking more time than usual to load? It may be time for an Internet service upgrade. In other words, time to go shopping.
But first you might want to check to make sure the cable company is delivering the speed they promise, and that your equipment is not to blame.
To start, check that your connection is as fast as you believe it to be. "Performing a speed test to determine your [Internet connection] speed is a good start," says Dunn.
Next, make sure you are connecting your computer to the cable modem (the box that connects your computer to the cable coming into the house) in the best way possible.
"If your computer is connected to the cable modem with a line, your experience is going to be much better than if you're using a router and Wi-Fi [a wireless connection that uses radio waves]," says Dunn.
"Wi-Fi slows things down, depending on what kind you have," adds Dunn. Why? Because it relies on radio waves instead of an uninterrupted copper wire connection.
But if you love to go mobile, routers with Wi-Fi might be essential to your lifestyle. If so, two things to remember about routers and Wi-Fi: update the software often and newer routers will provide faster speeds (look for the term 802.11.n). To update your router, you can check your router instructions or call the manufacturer's tech support.
Tip #5: Check for Speed Killers
If you've done all you can to ensure a great Internet connection speed, but you still can't seem to stream the latest blockbuster, make sure you haven't fallen victim to a computer virus.
"The big one that's going to kill you with Internet speed is malware or viruses, or Trojan horses," says Dunn. "Those are all under the security category and are really going to cause damage."
These programs are designed to break into your computer and perform things you don't want happening in your circuitry.
But how do you get these viruses? By visiting sites or opening emails from hackers who want to use your computer and connection to perform illegal activity, such as pirating movies or music, says Dunn. Their computer programs [the malware, viruses, and Trojan horses] are loaded onto your computer and perform the illegal tasks.
"So you think your Internet connection is slow, but it's really this third party who is using part of your bandwidth to do their nefarious deeds," says Dunn.
So how do you avoid it? "Virus and malware software, like Microsoft Security Essentials, or Norton, or McAfee, are pretty good at protecting your computer," says Dunn.
But he adds that these anti-virus software programs are not perfect, so keeping your computer healthy is a balance between having those protection tools installed and being careful what sites you visit.
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