Anyone interested in getting high-speed Internet access is advised to do some homework and compare notes with current customers. Many people had to suffer a few headaches before getting connected, and it's wise to be aware of their experiences before you plunge in.
High-speed access generally comes via DSL (digital subscriber line), which is delivered over copper telephone wires, or via cable modems, with service provided by cable TV companies. It isn't an option for everyone just yet. Because of certain technical limitations, DSL providers have an easier time rolling out service in urban areas. Cable companies are racing to complete slow and expensive network upgrades to try to grab a customer base in the suburbs and outlying areas.
If you're one of the lucky few who actually have a choice between DSL and cable-modem access, what should you do? Which is faster? How concerned should you be about security? We've reviewed three Web sites that might help.
A number of DSL providers are taking a beating from disgruntled customers on the discussion boards at this Web site, which is dedicated to providing a user-friendly introduction and guide to DSL service. Even anonymous users who claim to be involved in the industry show up to post or respond to comments here from time to time.
If you're interested in getting DSL service, there are many tools for you here. Enter your Zip code and you can see which companies are offering service in your area and which companies are planning to roll out service ''soon.'' This rather thorough site will even tell you how far the nearest connected phone-company office is from your address -- an important piece of information in determining whether you'll actually be able to get DSL service.
There are also tools for people who are already connected. One lets users sign up to see how secure their computer is from potential attack, a useful service for those who think their Web connection is unsafe. You can also benchmark your download speed here to see what sort of performance you're actually getting. Finally, there are links to broadband-greedy sites where you can burn off that extra Web speed in a more enjoyable manner -- by checking out media-rich news sites, watching Webcams around the world or listening to online DJs broadcasting their MP3 collections.
Cable-modem access isn't nearly as relevant to business users as DSL, for the simple reason that cable companies have put more effort over the years into establishing networks in residential neighborhoods than in business areas. And Cable-Modem.Net, a site about cable-modem access, isn't quite as robust in its area of expertise as DSLReports. For example, the site offers to let you find out whether cable-modem service is available in your area -- enter your city and Cable-Modem.Net offers links to the Web site of your local cable company. That might sound adequate to you unless you've ever actually tried using a cable company's Web site for such a purpose.
But there is a good deal of useful information parked here, about standards in the cable-modem industry, recommended minimum computer requirements for potential customers and hands-on advice on topics such as how to build a network between two or more computers in your home or office.
Finally, cable-modem users and would-be users are able to post their comments, questions and experiences here. Of course, comparisons of cable companies' Internet service don't help you much because most consumers don't have more than one cable company to choose from.
The emphasis of this site is maxing out your computer's processor speed and getting the most out of high-speed connections, whatever the Internet connection source and whatever the user's operating system.
Both DSL and cable-modem customers will find good information here, but topics frequently delve into some arcane tech subjects (one of the big topics at this site, for example, is ''overclocking'' -- tinkering with computers, in a potentially risky way, to boost their speed).
Every topic of interest addressed here is backed up by specific user experiences or entire message boards for further discussion. This site is where the widest-ranging and most active conversations appear to be taking place; users post exhaustively on everything from security issues to the specifications of their dream machines while also exchanging tech-support tips, tips on good deals and general navel gazing as to the differences between DSL and cable-modem access.
This site also features downloadable patches to further speed up connections and a few downloadable tools and tweaks souped up by site users. This speed-oriented Web site also has a quick response time: Even though Windows 2000 was just released last week, the site has already published its opinions on how to adjust the business-class operating system to get the most out of DSL or cable-modem connections.
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