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Is cable access really 100 times faster? Yes and no
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Is cable access really 100 times faster? Yes and no 

Bit Player for April 5, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Time Warner says its Road Runner cable Internet service is 100 times faster than what you're used to with a standard modem. Can that be true?

Yes. Or maybe no. It all depends on which direction things are traveling. And, just so we don't forget, it also depends on how healthy your computer is.

Let's start with the basic assumption Time Warner seems to be making. If you have a modern PC, and if your PC has a PCI bus (a central connector in the PC for add-on circuitry), and if the cable system isn't loaded down by a lot of other users, and if you are running a clean, uncluttered version of Windows 95 or Windows 98, then you surely will get a bang out of your cable connection. You'll zoom. You'll go 100 times faster than you're going now. Maybe 200 times faster.

A lot of "ifs" populate that assumption, so let's see what they mean.

If you have a modern PC: If your PC barely makes the grade—if it's a 486 model and not a Pentium, for example—it probably won't have a fast enough processor to handle some of the intensive networking demands of a cable connection without slowing down the rest of your operations. (Keep in mind that a 100 MHz 486 is not as fast as a 100 MHz Pentium because of the way the two chips work.)

If your PC has a PCI bus: PCs without a PCI bus put a bigger strain on the processor when they do such things as networking. PCs more than three years old probably don't have a PCI bus.

If the cable system isn't loaded down: Go to your favorite fast-food restaurant for a hamburger at 3:30 p.m. and you'll get one faster than you would at 6 p.m. Makes sense, right? Networks are the same way: Fewer users, faster response. Once all your neighbors and all their neighbors are on the cable system and everybody's downloading a zillion files at the same time, you'll say goodbye to that 100-times-faster number. In such situations, cable access could be only 10 times faster than standard modem access.

If you are running a clean, uncluttered version of Windows: You're not going to rocket along through the Internet if your operating system is half dead. Do yourself a favor and reinstall Windows 95 on a clean, blank hard drive before you subscribe to Time Warner's cable service. (Better yet, install Windows 98 on a clean, blank hard drive. Windows 98 will be available at about the same time as Time Warner's Road Runner system is.)

If you are measuring the speed of downloads only: More-or-less hidden in the specifications of the Road Runner service is the fact that the 100-fold speed increase applies only to stuff coming into your computer. Things you send out—e-mail, video images during a conference call, files you send through such programs as ICQ—will travel at a slower pace. Actual testing shows that files sent out can be expected to travel about 20 times faster than they would through a standard modem connection. That's one-fifth the speed Time Warner lists for stuff coming into your computer.

The speed difference is intentional, and helps to keep the download side of the operation faster. (You're much more likely to want high speed during downloads, anyway.)

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