You started downloading the latest version of the popular shareware game, Totally Blast All The Little Green Dudes, Version 3.1, about 10 p.m., hoping to get a couple of rounds in before bedtime. Now it's 2 a.m., and you're awakened by the sound of your computer beeping like crazy because you've fallen asleep and drooled copiously into your keyboard. And the download still isn't complete. You feel the Need for Speed.
It doesn't take very long for the average Internet user to realize that faster is better. No matter how fast your connection to the 'Net is, sooner or later you will find yourself wishing that it were a little (or a lot) zippier than it is. What are your options?
First, let's go over some of the basic terminology of speed on the Internet. There are two kinds of speed that computer folks talk about: processor and connection.
Connection speed is that at which data is transferred to my computer from the Internet and vice versa. This is the speed (or bandwidth) of my connection.
The speed of an Internet connection is measured in bits, kilobits or megabits per second. A bit is the smallest unit of data that a computer can deal with (it takes seven or eight of them to make a single character, like "A" or "3" or "?"). A kilobit is about a thousand bits (from the Greek word "khilioi," meaning, "a whole bunch"), and a megabit is about a million bits (from the Greek word "megas," meaning, "a lot more than a whole bunch").
Obviously, the more bits -- or kilobits, or megabits -- you can push through the wire in a given time, the better. Fast modems today run at 28,800 bits per second (bps) or 28.8 kilobits per second (kbps) -- that's about as fast as you can go with a typical dial-up Internet account from a local Internet Service Provider. A school district, small college or business might have a 56 kbps dedicated connection that doesn't require the use of modems at all. A larger college, university or business might use a T1 connection (about 1.5 megabits per second, or mbps).
Processor speed is a measure of how fast the microprocessor chip in your computer runs, measured in megahertz (MHz), or millions of pulses per second. Computers have circuits inside that generate pulses of electrical current. Each time there is a pulse, the computer does something, like add two numbers, move a piece of data from one memory location to another, etc. It's not rocket science to figure out that the faster those pulses are generated, the faster your computer gets things done.
My computer runs at 60 MHz, which is pretty fast compared to my pocket calculator but slow compared to the fastest microcomputers today, which run at 200 MHz or faster. What does this have to do with the speed of things on the Internet? Not that much, actually, unless your computer is particularly slow.
I was using a 32 MHz machine (a Mac IIvx) at work, and when I upgraded to a 120 MHz machine, I noticed a dramatic increase in performance when using the Internet. It wasn't because the data was actually getting into my computer faster, but my faster computer was able to process and display things like Web pages a lot faster than before.
Information moves from one computer to another over a network connection at a speed that depends on several things: the processor speed of the computers at both ends, how busy those computers are while data is being transferred, the speed at which each of those computers can send and receive data, and the speed at which the connection between them can move the data. Two blazingly fast computers connected via phone lines and 28.8 kbps modems still will only be able to communicate at 28.8 kbps, regardless of how fast their processors run.
The average $15- to $20-per-month dial-up Internet account provides a 28.8 kbps connection to the net. But if you're feeling a Serious Need for Speed, what can you do? Patience, Grasshopper. Next week we'll look at how money can buy you speed (sometimes), and more acronyms than you can shake a stick at.
-- Doug Heacock is director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock