Do Web accelerators really work?
Cheap speedup alternatives like Web-caching utilities and modem-bonding software can speed up your surfing. Just don't expect miracles.
February 5, 1999
by Glenn McDonald
(IDG) -- Broadband technologies such as Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, Integrated Services Digital Network, cable modem, and satellite promise superquick Internet access, lightning-fast downloads, and TV-like multimedia, as well as sunshine, flowers, and world peace. But if these aren't available where you live -- or they're just too expensive for you -- what are your options?
We examined two alternatives that claim to boost your Web access speed without costing you an arm and a leg. Browser accelerators attempt to turbocharge your Web browser by adding a smarter cache and by trying to anticipate where you'll go next on the Web. Modem bonders, as their name suggests, harness a pair of modems to give you a double-barrel pipe to your Internet service provider.
Of the two approaches, modem bonders yielded better results. At best, they may double your Internet access speed. They didn't do that in our tests, but they did improve the loading speed of a typical Web page markedly -- in one case, by 67 percent. These gains come at a cost, however: The modem bonders we looked at require two separate modems and phone lines, and you'll also have to pay for two ISP accounts. Those demands generate cumulative costs that fall in the same range as DSL or even ISDN. (See "Bandwidth on Demand," link below)
Browser accelerators cost considerably less than modem bonders, because they require no financial investment beyond their modest sticker price; and they work with your existing modem setup. Unfortunately, reports of their efficiency have been greatly exaggerated. We saw far less improvement than we had hoped.
Browser accelerators: Boosts or blunders?
When they hit on all cylinders, browser accelerators make Web pages pop up noticeably faster. But the magnitude of the speed boost you get depends on the accelerator you use and the way you surf the Web. In our formal lab tests involving a static Web site, none of the four accelerators we reviewed yielded any appreciable speed increase; and in some cases, they actually slowed us down. Only in our informal, hands-on tests, conducted over several days, did our surfing speed improve over what we obtained using no browser accelerator at all. The products we tested tended to increase our Web access speed only after learning which sites we repeatedly visited.
How they work
Most browser accelerators rely on one of two technologies: smart caching or read-ahead browsing. Smart caching first replaces your browser's existing cache and then pulls elements from your hard drive, the Internet, or both to accelerate Web surfing. The best products log the pages you frequent and keep them cached on your hard drive. Ideally, they draw only new content from the Web.
Read-ahead browsing works by prefetching text links (and sometimes graphics) while you're still reading a page. For the most part, read-ahead accelerators grab all the links on the current page, and then dump them into the cache in the background. When you finally get around to clicking a cached link, the destination page should pop up instantly from your hard drive.
How well the process works depends to a large extent on how the software is set up. At their default settings, most browser accelerators prefetch only text, and in some cases they limit the size of the text file. (PeakSoft's PeakJet 2000, for example, restricts prefetched files to 96KB, by default.) These limitations are necessary so that prefetching doesn't overwhelm your hard drive or your modem, especially when you download lots of graphics files. Every product uses a different set of defaults, however, and allows a wide variety of tweaks. Consequently, you'll probably have to tune the accelerator to your style of browsing.
NetSonic leads the pack
In our informal, hands-on testing, NetSonic 1.02 seemed to work fastest, effectively using both read-ahead browsing and smart caching. NetSonic's read-ahead browsing technique works best with text-heavy sites that contain relatively few links. We used this function when calling up the latest edition of the Onion, a weekly satirical online newspaper. NetSonic downloaded the initial page and then preloaded all of the main page's 15-odd article links. By the time we were ready to click over, the pages were all cached and appeared instantly. (Unlike its peers, NetSonic prefetches only text; there's no option to prefetch graphics.)
Two other features recommend NetSonic: We found it by far the easiest browser accelerator to install, and it's the only one we looked at that costs nothing. (A $39 deluxe version, NetSonic Pro, adds a handful of useful improvements, such as graphics prefetching.)
Like NetSonic, Surf Express Deluxe version 1.5 ($39 from Connectix) has an efficient smart-cache system. It loaded pages noticeably faster when we used it to revisit pages it had already cached, and it can cache up to 10MB. But Surf Express lacks prefetching capabilities and can't cache graphics larger than 100KB.
PeakSoft's $29 PeakJet 2000 version 2.0 showed occasional performance gains as well. Like NetSonic, it uses both caching and prefetching. To keep your modem from putting in too much overtime, it limits prefetched files to a default size of only 96KB. It does, however, give you a number of useful options for controlling what it caches.
Kiss Software's $50 Speed Surfer Internet Toolbox version 4.0 was the most difficult accelerator of the bunch to set up, for formal testing (with Navigator 4.5) and informal testing (with Navigator 4.06). In both kinds of testing, the program regularly stumbled over Web page graphics -- once substituting a tiny icon for one of our large test graphics -- and sometimes skipped them altogether. It hung up the browser on multiple occasions, too. On the other hand, Speed Surfer does offer such desirable Internet security features as anonymous cookies and e-mail encryption.
Our overall take? Browser accelerators work best on text-heavy Internet sites that you revisit frequently. If you go ahead and install one, though, don't plan on achieving huge speed gains.
Modem bonders: Two is better than one
Unlike browser accelerators, modem bonders harness the brute force of the modems themselves. They're pricier than browser accelerators because they require two modems, two phone lines, and two separate ISP accounts.
But at least the bonders deliver what you pay for. With two 56-kbps modems working together, you can realize combined throughput rates upwards of 90 kbps. (Despite marketing claims, the promised land of 112-kbps access is still a dream, since even 56-kbps modems seldom hit their maximum potential.)
Two modem bonders we tested (Diamond Multimedia's $149 Suprasonic II software and hardware kit, and the free Windows 98 Dial-Up Networking) took advantage of the multilink point-to-point protocol, or MLPPP, the Multilink option built into Windows 98's Dial-Up Networking. Both delivered smooth, fast performance, loading a static version of PC World Online's home page up to 62 percent faster. Unfortunately, these modem bonders require that your ISP support MLPPP--a potential problem if you use a national provider. Among the few national ISPs that currently support MLPPP: Netcom (recently purchased by Mindspring) and A+Net. Several regional and local providers support it, however.
The second type of modem bonder relies on the older point-to-point protocol, which all ISPs support. PPP has one other advantage over MLPPP: Though you still need two accounts, they can be with different ISPs--very handy if one service temporarily goes down. We tested three PPP-based modem bonders for this review: the Imass portion of Amquest's $69 Comsuite Software, MidCore Software's $49 MidPoint Teamer version 3.11, and Ragula Software's $49 FatPipe Internet Home Software version 3.0.
In our tests, bonded modems using Imass and MidPoint Teamer showed virtually no speedup versus a single-modem connection when loading the static version of PC World Online's home page. But they accelerated downloads of big graphics (four files totaling 1.1MB) and text (a 172KB file) by at least 70 percent.
FatPipe, on the other hand, produced healthy performance boosts across the board. Though less impressive than Imass or MidPoint on large graphics and text files (offering a modest 21 percent enhancement), FatPipe matched the MLPPP-based products' record of accelerating the download time of PC World's Web site by 67 percent versus a single modem. And the configuration process was as painless as Diamond's setup.
The MLPPP gotcha
If your ISP does support MLPPP -- and that's a big "if" -- Diamond Multimedia's $149 SupraSonic II modem kit with Shotgun technology, or Windows 98's Multilink option, is the way to go. Windows 95 users can get into the act, too, by downloading the free Dial Up Networking 1.3 for Windows 95; to obtain a copy, go to www.microsoft.com and instruct the site's search engine to find "Dial Up Networking 1.3."
Diamond Multimedia's Web site lists ISPs that support MLPPP. Most of these providers are regional and local companies.
In our tests, both of these MLPPP-based bonders demonstrated significant performance boosts across the board compared with Web surfing on a single modem line. Most impressively, they increased the download speed of large graphics files by 70 to 80 percent.
Diamond's Shotgun Technology software, part of the SupraSonic II kit, is available as a free download to current users of any 56-kbps Diamond SupraExpress modem. (At least one of the two modems you're using must be a SupraExpress. We tested the SupraSonic II's performance using its pair of included modems.) The SupraSonic version of Shotgun adds a voice-priority feature that senses incoming telephone calls or fax transmissions and allows them to ring through on your second phone line.
With a free Windows option available, does it pay to buy the $149 Diamond kit? If you don't already have a 56-kbps modem or don't want to fuss with Windows' Dial-Up Networking, Diamond does the dirty work for you--and the $149 price tag also covers a matched pair of modems. Plus, the two modems on one board take up only one ISA slot. If you aren't daunted by Dial-Up Networking, buy one modem and use the built-in Windows 98 Multilink option.
Modem bonding won't answer all your prayers, but it offers a viable alternative to ISDN. And it beats waiting until cable or DSL come to your town.
If your ISP supports the multilink point-to-point protocol, your best bet for a modem bonder is Diamond Multimedia's SupraSonic II. Its $149 price tag includes the cost of two modems, making it an especially attractive package if you're planning to upgrade your current modem. The kit takes the pain out of setting up dual modems, and in our tests it provided excellent performance overall.
Of the four browser accelerators we tested, we liked Web 3000's NetSonic freeware version 1.02 best. In our informal tests, it learned which pages we visited most often and loaded them noticeably faster. Best of all, it's free.
If your ISP supports only the older point-to-point protocol standard, we think FatPipe Internet Home Software ($49) from Ragula Systems is the top choice. FatPipe is easy to set up, and it loaded our sample home page 67 percent faster than a comparable system using a single modem did.
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