Commentary
4/5/2005
04:37 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary

Langa Letter: How To Test And Tune Your Online Connection

From simple tune-ups to total overhauls, here's information from Fred Langa to help you get the most from your network, cable, DSL, or dial-up connection.



Sometimes, a question from a reader touches on a subject that--like one of those Russian matryoshka dolls-within-dolls--leads you deeper with each succeeding layer. Take this reader E-mail, for example: On the surface it's about a fairly common problem faced by those of us who have to contend with multiple Internet connection types at different locations, such as LAN, DSL, and dial up. But the letter also leads to much deeper and more generally applicable issues about diagnosing, tuning, and improving Internet connections in general, no matter what the type:

Hi, Fred, I developed a problem with my dialup connection. This problem came up when I installed and used [a connection monitoring tool]. Let me mention here that I have a Sony laptop and desktop...After [installing the tool]], the speed dropped to 3.7 Kbps. I uninstalled [the tool] but, unfortunately, the 3.7 remained. For cable or DSL there's not much loss, but for dialup it is. My question is this: If the drivers or adapters have been corrupted, how do I go about reinstalling them? Or it may not be that at all.
--Apostolos H. Moussatos

Let's address reader Moussatos' specific question first, and then we'll look at the more general issues:

All At Once
The simplest way to restore a system that's suffered a mysterious slowdown for any reason is simply to roll everything back. Most users don't prepare for this, however, so I won't spend a lot of time discussing it. Instead, let me just point out that if you make a disk image before you install new hardware or software, and then something goes wrong, it's a simple matter to restore the image. In just minutes, your system will be in exactly the same problem-free state it was before. A backup or "roll back" tool also may similarly help, but neither works as well or as reliably as a true disk-imaging tool. But, of course, you have to have used such a tool before the problem occurred. Truth be told, most users don't.

Fortunately, there's a reasonably fast alternate fix you can use in the event a full image or roll-back isn't available, and that's the approach that reader Moussatos was asking about: It's a way to strip out and rebuild your PC's connectivity, in-situ, without having to tear down or reinstall the entire operating system. Discussing it in detail may make the process seem longer and harder than it actually is. But in reality, it doesn't take long at all:

Step By Step: 1
Visit the vendor sites for all the hardware and software implicated or associated with the connectivity problem. For example, grab a copy of the latest drivers for your modem or network adapter card. Likewise, if you're using any special software associated with the problem (e.g., "connection-accelerator" or "connection-monitoring" software, third-party dialers, and so on) visit those vendors' sites and get the latest updates for that software. If you no longer have the original install disks for this software, get the full setup from the vendor site rather than just the update files. Store all these new drivers, updates, and other software on your hard drive; but don't actually install anything yet.

Step By Step: 2
Remove or uninstall any/all software implicated or associated with the connectivity problem. Again, this would include "connection-accelerator" or "connection-monitoring" software, third-party dialers, and so on. Turn off or disable any other software that may be using the connection in question (Web browsers, E-mail, etc.). If you have heavy security on your connection, temporarily relax or disable that.

Step By Step: 3
Use Device Manager to remove/uninstall the hardware implicated or associated with the problem: Right-click "My Computer," select Properties, then Hardware (or open Control Panel/Performance and Maintenance/System/Hardware). Click on Device Manager. Find the general type of device you're having trouble with (for example, "modems" or "network adapters") and click on the plus sign next to that device type. Device Manager will then show you the specific devices of that type in your system. When the specific devices are shown, right click on any device(s) that you think may be associated with your connection trouble, and click Uninstall. Repeat this process until Windows has uninstalled its settings for all the hardware that may be contributing to your connectivity problems.

Step By Step: 4
Power the system all the way off, then restart. Windows will wake up, discover the "new" hardware, and install the necessary drivers, if it can. If Windows doesn't have built-in drivers for the hardware in question, it will ask you to supply them: Point Windows at the drivers and/or setup files you downloaded in Step One of this process. But, at this point, install only what Windows specifically requests--leave out any optional Web accelerators, add-in third-party connection management tools, and so on. For now, we just want a bare-bones, minimal connection setup.

Next, test your bare-bones connection, using any of the sites and tools listed below in the "Connection Test And Tuning Sites" section of this article. If the connection's not OK at this point, then you'll know the problem is pretty fundamental, because you haven't yet installed any higher-level add-on software and utilities; they can't be the cause of the trouble.

One of the best, if not the best, site for solving fundamental networking problems is the "World of Windows Networking". If your connectivity problem lies inside your PC's basic network settings and configuration, that site probably holds the answer.

But if not, then the previously mentioned "Connection Test And Tuning Sites" section of this article may help.

Step By Step: 6
If everything's OK with the bare-bones connection in Step #5, restore just your online security tools to normal operation, and then test again. If the connection's OK, go on to the next step. But if the connection's now not working properly, you've isolated your security tools as the source of the problem.

Explore the helpfile and all the settings offered by the problematic tool to see if there's a way around the trouble. If you can find no solution, your best option may be to look at using the same kind of tool (firewall, antivirus, anti-malware...) from an alternate vendor.

Although it's dangerous to paint with a very broad brush, I have generally found that the more all-encompassing a security tool or suite tries to be, the more likely it is to cause a problem or unexpected interaction somewhere else. If you run into intractable problems with one of the do-all suites or tools, you may find that simpler, more tightly-focused tools will give better, more reliable results.

A Google search will reveal a huge number of security tools you can try; most offer at least a free trial (and some are free, period) so you can see what effect the software will have, for good or ill, on your PC.

In general, one good firewall (Sygate, Zone Alarm...), one good antivirus tool (Norton, NOD32, AVG...), and one good real-time anti-malware tool (I'm using Microsoft's AntiSpyware) will provide most PCs with just about all the protection they'll need. Add in protection from SpywareBlaster and a startup monitor (Mike Lin's StartUpMonitor, WinPatrol...) and periodic scans from tools like Ad-Aware and Spybot S&D, and your PC will be locked down about as well as it can be.

Tools worth investigating:

  • Sygate

  • ZoneAlarm

  • Symantec/Norton

  • NOD32

  • AVG

  • Micrososft Windows AntiSpyware

  • SpywareBlaster

  • StartupMonitor

  • WinPatrol

  • Ad-Aware

  • Spybot S&D

  • The above isn't a definitive list of security tools, of course--other good tools are out there. But the above will at least get you started.

    Once your connection is working well while also protected by security software such as the above, you're ready for the last step.

    Step By Step: 7
    If everything's OK in Step 6, you can now restore any remaining software (from Step 2) in sequential fashion. That is, restore any "connection-accelerators" or "connection-monitoring" software, third-party dialers, and so on, one by one. After each piece of software is installed, re-test your connection to ensure that the new software hasn't created a problem. If the connection isn't OK, you need to remove the software that caused the problem, and either not use it again, or find a setting in that software that will solve the problem, or find an alternate tool to accomplish the same purpose but without the problem.

    As a side note, I personally try to avoid the extra complexity of this type of software: For me, the fewer things that can go wrong, the better. Unless your connection accelerator, connection monitor, third-party dialer, or whatnot offers such amazing benefits that you can't live without it, you may wish to consider getting by with a simpler, and perhaps more reliable, setup.

    But if not, continue with the install/test sequence until everything's back and working the way you want it.

    The only way to know how your connection's performing is with a third-party test; or better still, with several independent tests from widely-scattered sites (to eliminate the variables caused by network topology).

    The site I use more than any other is Broadband Reports, which used to be called DSL Reports, a name that lives on in parts of its site and pages. Although its full suite of tools is aimed at testing and tuning high-bandwidth connections, it's actually useful for testing just about any kind of connection, including dial-up.

    Broadband Reports offers simple and complex tests for connection throughput, basic security, more in-depth security, line quality, and more. A separate Tweak Test examines your Internet connection settings for common misconfigurations, and then can present suggested fixes for any settings that may be less than ideal. A free tool, DrTCP makes it simple to adjust 13 separate variables affecting your Internet connection; and DoctorPing lets you compare your ping time to those achieved by other users at more than 100 different geographically scattered servers. Most of the tests are available to all; a few require that you establish a free login on the site. Commercial access to the tests is available for extensive or repeated testing. PC Pitstop offers four free tests and two free utilities geared toward analyzing and improving Internet connection performance. (The rest of the site focuses on overall system performance.)

    A much simpler site, TestMySpeed.com, is a front end to a large number of independent testing sites and services, broken into East Coast US, West Coast US, and International. In all, literally hundreds of test sites are listed.

    The "Navas Cable Modem/DSL Tuning Guide" doesn't offer testing per se, but instead provides a wealth of information geared to somewhat more-experienced users who wish to optimize their cable or DSL setups.

    SpeedGuide.net and its forums is another good source of information; on the main site, try the menu items at the top of the left-hand navigation pane.

    BandwidthPlace provides a simple speed test that anyone may use up to three times a month for free; a paid subscription to the site allows for up to 1,000 tests a month.

    Microsoft's free Internet Speed Test is very basic, but good for a quick-and-dirty snapshot of connection performance.

    The Modem Speed Test Page and the related Modem Speed Tips is one of the few speed-testing sites still geared primarily for dial-up users. A wholly separate and unrelated discussion forum at Software Tips and Tricks also focuses specifically on dial-up issues.

    Toast.Net's Performance Tests provides easy access to two dozen test sites with a range of options, including both small and large test-file sizes.

    Your Tests?
    What test, tune-up, and diagnostic sites and tools have you found to be useful? What tips or tricks have you used when faced with connectivity problems? Please join the discussion and share your knowledge!


    To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

    To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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