Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

If your new faster internet connection doesn't perform as expected there are several things to look at, but the age of your machine probably isn't one.

I just upgraded my internet service from 1.5 mbps to 7.0 mbps. I called tech support because I felt my computer is still running slow. The tech support says I may need a get new computer to be compatible with the 7.0 mbps.

I purchased my computer in July 2004. How often should one buy a new computer?

I heard that company A's service is faster than company B's. What do you think about that?

With all due respect to tech support - they're wrong.

Your four year old computer should be able to keep up just fine with a 7 megabit connection. Heck, 10 or 15 years ago it wasn't uncommon for slower computers to run on a faster 10 megabit Ethernet connection without problems.

Let's look at what might really be happening.

Start by running a speed test. I tend to use the test out at SpeakEasy, but there are other suitable alternatives as well.

Remember that due to overhead and other small issues, you'll never actually get your fully rated speed. For example, my connection, which is 1.544 megabits up and down, tests out at 1.455 down and 1.450 up. 95% of rated speed is acceptable - particularly when I have seven other computers that might have been doing small things on the internet at the same time.

And that brings us to the first point: for an accurate reading you should turn off everything that uses your internet connection. Disconnect other computers, if you can, turn off services that might use the 'net (I had to turn off the streaming audio I was playing, for example), and basically try and set things up so that the speed test is the only thing accessing the network.

"Remember that due to overhead and other small issues, you'll never actually get your fully rated speed."

(As an aside, I've also found that for some reason some versions of FireFox reported incorrect results for upload tests, and Internet Explorer was more accurate. This may have been fixed, as the numbers I list above are using FireFox 3, but it's something to be aware of if you're not getting the numbers you think you should.)

If your download speed isn't what you expect (say less than 1.3-1.4 mbps for your 1.5 connection or less than 6.4-6.6 for your 7 mbps connection), and you're positive that there's absolutely no other network activity on your network and/or internet connection, then the next place to look before blaming the ISP is your computer.

And in your case it's not your computer's age we'll care about.

The issue is frequently that there's simply too much other "stuff" running on your machine. That can easily impact your computers ability to "keep up" with faster internet speeds. Certainly for the test you should make sure to exit all other programs, turn off any unnecessary services and just generally try to ensure that aside from required software the browser running the test is the only software running on your machine.

Now this leads to a really common question: What's the minimum set of processes needed to run Windows XP? Sadly there's no easy answer, since it depends on the machine, the software you use, the hardware you have installed, and much more. If you suspect that there's too much, only some research on what's running on your machine can lead you to some safe choices.

Once you know there's no network activity, and your machine is doing nothing but the test, it's time to move on to other things. If you use a router your ISP will of course tell you to remove that from the equation by connecting a single computer directly to your internet connection (turn on your firewall first!). That's certainly something worth doing once to rule out a router problem. (On successive calls to my former ISP diagnosing a problem they had me do this - every - single - time. That's why they're my former ISP.)

If, at this point, with a clean machine, on a clean local network (or no local network at all, by connecting directly) you're still not getting the speeds you expect, it's time to complain to your ISP.

But, in all honesty, most apparent speed issues are related to other machines on your local network trying to use the internet as the same time as you, or by other software on your machine impacting the software you're using from reacting fast enough to network traffic.

And yes, that's where a new machine might help - but it's overkill. You're better off spending a little time cleaning up the clutter on your own machine.

There's one last thing we do need to mention: the ability of your ISP to deliver on its bandwidth promise.

Regardless of how you connect to your ISP, at some point you share your ISP's upstream connection to the internet with some or all of your ISP's other customers. In the case of cable internet connections, you may be sharing with your physical neighbors as soon as the connection leaves your house. In the case of DSL, you may be sharing with other customers that happen to land on the same networking equipment at the ISP.

But in any case, you're sharing.

And if all those other customers happen to all start using the internet heavily at the same time that can impact your ISP's ability to deliver the bandwidth they promise. The 7 mbps connection is probably sold as your "maximum" bandwidth, but your actual available speed could be less due to many other factors you don't control. Like your ISP's capacity, and how quickly that capacity is impacted by other customers.

How much capacity do they have? How many other customers will it take to impact you? There's no way to know.

But that's the kind of thing (along with customer service) that can make ISP A better or worse than ISP B. And even that can vary from location to location, or even neighborhood to neighborhood.

Article C3523 - October 6, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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13 Comments
J F REES JR
October 7, 2008 10:06 AM

AS LEO SAYS, MUCH OF THE SLOWDOWN IS AD & SPYWARE, BUT ADDITIONAL RAM MEMORY WILL CURE MOST ILLS, FACTORY SUPPLIED 128 / 256 MB JUST WONT GET IT. YOU GOTTA HAVE A MINIMUM OF 1GB, IT HAS CURED PROBLEMS ON EVERY SLOW MACHINE I HAVE WORKED ON.

Susan Lauer
October 7, 2008 10:41 AM

A friend recently told me that the number of websites I have on my desktop is slowing down my computer. I will admit I use the desktop instead of "Favorites," because they are right there within my vision. Thanks! Susan Lauer

Howard B. Evans, Jr.
October 7, 2008 11:33 AM

Even with a full-bandwidth connection the problem can still be on the other end of the pipe: overloaded servers at the web site you are visiting may not be able to fill your pipe as fast as your connection can empty it.

Tom
October 7, 2008 12:18 PM

Leo,
First day on the site and really like it. However, I did the SpeakEasy test and it gave me results in kbps (2577 down and 321 up). That did not give me much for comparison. Is there a conversion or is this on another level altogether.
Thanks!

lrk
October 7, 2008 12:46 PM

[quote]: I did the SpeakEasy test and it gave me results in kbps (2577 down and 321 up)[/quote]

That seems a bit strange indeed, but is due to the provider; I have the same: download is around 15 MB, but upload is around 1/9 of it; goes with the offered "package" apparently, although I still would like it going both ways at the same speed. So Leo, is there any other reason which may affect the upload speed ? LRK

Not sure I understand the concern. Most DSL connections are actually ADSL, meaning for "asymmetric". That means that the download speed is typically much faster than the upload speed since people typically download much more than the upload. (Mine are symmetrical because I have what's called a dedicated T-1, not DSL).
- Leo
08-Oct-2008
Lorne Babcock Sr.
October 7, 2008 2:18 PM

To start with talking about your Internet speed in terms of megabits/sec is very misleading. The fact is that your download speed is in megabytes/sec. Let's just say you are on uTorrent. Your speeds will be shown in megabytes/sec. Megabits is misleading because you think you're really getting a tremendous amount of speed when in fact you really are not. You need to divide megabits by eight and then consider the overhead and the best way to divide is by 10 so a 5000 megabit/sec speed would really be divided by 10 or 500 megabytes/sec. My Internet connection at its top speed is 1.7 megabytes/sec which is more than necessary for most users. People are a lot more impressed if they see a number like 11,700. Any older computer way back several years will take advantage of these newer faster speeds. If you are getting a speed around 500 megabytes/sec or better you will have quite sufficient bandwidth to do pretty much anything that the home user might want to do with the possible exception of transferring very large files or using bit torrent programs. The other issue is that your upload speed will be substantially slower than your download speed. My upload speed is around 350/megabytes per second with the download speed of 1.7 megabytes per second. Do not expect to get the same upload speed as your download speed.

Hopefully this helps.

Gil Strachan
October 7, 2008 5:28 PM

In addition to PC Tools Spyware Doctor, I use PC Pitstop Optimize to keep my 8 year-old Pentium III generic desktop running in fine form! (600MHz, 768MB RAM, running XP-SP2) I scrounged-up some more PC133 RAM on eBay, and will bump "Freddy" to 1.5GB along with a $20 dose of USB 2.O any day now. It's true... more RAM is the most effective way to add speed to your system. A hefty video dispay adapter, with plenty of on-board memory, also works wonders.

Lorne Babcock Sr.
October 7, 2008 8:34 PM

Contrary to what many believe, adding more ram will "not" increase the speed of your internet connection. They have nothing to do with each other.

Octav
October 7, 2008 9:04 PM

Well, obviously, we're forgetting one major factor in this question: is the original question referring to the OS and applications running slowly (my guess from the mention of "my computer" there) or referring to the network speed appearing sluggish.

The difference can be hard to explain to a technologically-challenged person, but it boils down to these questions:
1. Do you mean it takes a lot of time to start Office/Internet Explorer/whatever? or
2. Do you mean it takes a lot of time for web pages to show up, downloads to complete, etc?

Leo's answer here covers the latter (in excellent detail), but not the former (though there are other articles here that do!), and for that case, some suggested answers would help:
- running anti-virus/anti-spyware (just one of each!), which you should already be doing;
- running fewer applications at the same time (including some system-tray applications, too -- a few of them can be surprisingly resource-intensive (Google Desktop Search, I'm looking at you));
- finally, adding more RAM often tends to solve perceived (or actual) sluggishness.

As a last resort, reinstalling the operating system from scratch (losing all settings and data in the process, so back up first!) will return the computer to its original glory, which 99% of the time is faster than a "well-worn" OS (to varying degrees), after which anti-virus and anti-spyware should keep it in decent condition for a long-ish period (on the order of years if you don't install too many things).

Either way, the important point is to know which we're talking about -- the computer speed very rarely affects download speeds negatively in my experience, and vice-versa.

Nicholas Gimbrone
October 8, 2008 7:26 AM

Check out www.DSLReports.Com which has not only speed tests, but tuning tweak suggestions based upon tests you can run there.

Asymmetric speeds (higher download than upload) are not unexpected, in fact, they are normal for most home connections. Most home connections are by the design of the ISP setup this way.

Icons on your desk top have no real bearing upon the speed of your computer, except as outlined in an earlier article on this site... and they certainly do not affect your network speeds.

As a simple counter example, I have a 500Mhz 512MB notebook from 1999 that sits in my home, and it is quite capable of making as full utilization of my network connection (6-15Mb/sec down, depending upon some of the external load factors noted earlier) as my 1997 2Ghz 1.5GB dual processor system.

It is always interesting to use tools such as task manager (and others discussed on this site) to monitor your memory, cpu and network usage when running these sorts of tests... while it does not always tell you something, it can reveal the "oops, there's a CPU burner like the windows update deamon running in the background". ;-)

More likely is that your cable/dsl modem may be the issue if it is the older machine. I recently replaced mine (from 1999) and saw an immediate improvement (from about a 4Mb limit up to 10-15Mb burst speeds)... it had reached the end of its useful life, and it was a free upgrade as I don't own it, but rather rent it as a part of my monthly ISP bill.

All that said, if you are using an external/addon network card, it may be worth checking to see if it is a "16bit" or "32bit" card, and how much on card intellegence it has... it is possible, if you are seeing high CPU (near 100%) usage during your speed tests that a minor upgrade of that card might do much for your total bandwidth availablity, though it is unlikely to have much effect until you are already getting over 10Mb/sec or so. (Been there, done that.)

Craig
October 8, 2008 11:46 AM

If your computer is running slow and "just not right", you might have a lot of unneeded / un wanted services running in the background. Goto www.blackviper.com and check out the section on services.

Clive Allen
June 6, 2009 2:09 AM

I have been searchinh on your web site to obtain some clarity for the need to increase RAM.I have been advised that new computers marketed at 4GB of ram does not represent value for money.I am undecided whether I should go for 3 or 4 KB.Can yo help

seth
August 23, 2011 7:24 PM

With all due respect to you sir, you are wrong. Hopefully EVERY computer in the world can stand a 7 megabit connection, that's just 7 million bits which is 875 kiloBYTE connection, BIG difference between BYTE and BIT; there are 8 BITS in a BYTE, better get it right before posting brother.

I'm not sure who it is you're scolding, but to quote the article: "Your four year old computer should be able to keep up just fine with a 7 megabit connection."

Leo
24-Aug-2011

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