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Stop tinkering with your cache

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Stop tinkering with your cache
 

Bit Player for July 6, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Modern PCs and Macs give you a lot of power. You have fancy software that can pop images onto your screen instantly, play CD-quality sounds with a single click and show movie clips with almost the same quality as TV.

This empowerment of personal-computer users is a good thing, but it has an unintended side effect. Many of you have decided to control a function of Web browsers that used to be hidden away, working all on its own. You've started tinkering with your browser's cache.

I'm sure there are a few billion things that can cause worse problems, so don't take my admonitions the wrong way. But I do think a modern browser knows more about managing its cache than you or I do. So I'd like to suggest that you leave your cache alone for a month or so to see how things work out. I think you'll find it will do just fine.

The problem is not in the way most of us handle the overall size of the cache. All modern browsers let you set limits on the size in one way or another, and you should balance off the usefulness of a large cache (and I mean here a REALLY large one of perhaps 20 megabytes) with the drag that puts on all operations.

Let me explain. The browser cache (pronounced "cash'') is a storage area on your hard drive where the browser keeps the various parts of pages you have opened recently. The most important parts are the images, which usually take a long time to load across the Internet. If the browser can find the same images in its cache, the images load almost instantly.

This speeds up your Web browsing dramatically. Usually.

The qualification has to do with the size of the cache. If the cache is too small, it won't hold enough recent images to help the browser load them from its local storehouse. If the cache is too big, the operating system will sometimes struggle to find the right image among the thousands that are stored, and this can take time, too.

So you need to balance the requirements. Your browser needs of a big selection of recent images and your operating system needs a reasonably trim directory. (Microsoft's Internet Explorer tries to get around the problem of having thousands if files by breaking up the cache into four folders and using a fast acting index. This does not help much, however, if your cache is just plain humongous.)

So that's the decision we all need to make. Actually, we all make a decision whether we realize it or not. The defaults are used if we don't choose to change the settings, which means we've decided to let the browser decide for us.

OK so far? The next part may come as a surprise to many of you. But the others know who you are.

Some of you have been tinkering with the contents of the cache to try to speed things up or possibly to get rid of material that isn't suitable for kids. As a father and grandfather, I'll never argue with the second reason. But the first one makes no sense, and I'll tell you why.

When you open your cache folder and start rummaging through the files, you generally have no way of knowing what's what. You see a lot of images and a lot of other files. If you were intent on deleting images from the cache because the cache is getting too big, you'd naturally trash the biggest ones first, right? But that's silly, because the biggest ones take the most time to load from a remote site, and so they're the most help when the browser finds them in the cache.

Deleting a lot of small images makes little sense, because you're probably not going to know which images go with certain sites. If you get rid of some of the images that go with a certain page but leave the others, and if that page is on a site that's very busy, your browser will plod along trying to load replacements.

This kind of tinkering is pointless. If you really want to know what's in the cache of a Netscape or Internet Explorer browser, use a cache manager. The best one I've seen is a European program called Cache Explorer that comes in Netscape and Internet Explorer versions and costs very little. You'll find a link to the program's home page in the Files page at my site, http://www.dreamscape.com/afasoldt/. You'll also find a full mirror of my site at the newspaper's site, http://www.syracuse.com/pluggedin/.


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