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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky

Volume 8 Issue 11
November 2014
How to Measure Your Internet Speed, and Possibly Improve It For Free

Have you ever felt that your internet connection was slower than it should be? Have you ever wondered if you could find out how fast your internet speed actually is? You actually can, but it's a little tricky.

The quick way to measure your internet speed
If you google "internet speed," you'll find a number of web sites that can measure the speed of your internet connection.

Doing an internet speed test is fairly simple:
  • You open your web browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Chrome, etc.) and go to a web site designed to measure your internet speed.
  • You click a button to start the test.
  • The web site will download a fixed amount of data to your computer and measure how long that takes. The data doesn't contain anything meaningful, and gets discarded immediately.
  • The web site will then upload a similar fixed amount of meaningless temporary data from your computer and measure how long that takes.
  • You'll probably see an entertaining animation showing the progress of the test, which is likely to require Adobe Flash Player and JavaScript to work. You may also see some advertising.
  • You will then see the resulting Download and Upload speeds, probably in Mbps (megabits per second), along with other information. It is normal for your Download speed to be faster (larger) than your Upload speed. Except for web designers or other developers, most users download far more data than they upload.
  • There will probably be another button you can click to repeat the test. I recommend taking at least 3 measurements and see how much they vary.
There are many "speed test" web sites to choose from. Almost every ISP (Comcast, Verizon, etc.) has one, and you can use any web site you want (or try them all), you don't have to be a customer.

The web site I've used most often for this is: http://speakeasy.net/speedtest
For example, just now I measured 28.30 Mbps Download Speed and 5.98 Mbps Upload Speed on my connection. Since I'm near Boston, my habit is to click its "New York" button each time.

Note: Don't confuse Mbps (megabits per second) with MBps (megabytes per second). There are 8 bits in a byte, and therefore 8 megabits in one megabyte.

The more thorough way to measure your internet speed
While it's easy to open an "internet speed test" web site and click a button, without some advance preparation, the measurements you get may not be accurate or useful.

Measuring your internet speed is like measuring your water pressure - There are a lot of things that can affect your measurements, some of which you can control and some you can't.

Here's what I suggest if you want more accurate measurements:
  • Pick one computer to use to measure your internet speed.
  • Shut down (or sleep or hibernate) all your other computers.
  • Turn off all smartphones, tablets, and any other devices that may be using your internet connection.
  • If you know how, power your cable or DSL modem off and on again to "freshen it up."
  • If you have a separate router, power it off and on again as well.
  • Restart your computer.
  • Don't open any of your regular programs (email, web sites, Netflix, Word, etc.). Turn off any Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
  • Open your web browser and go to the speed test web site you prefer. Close any web sites that your browser may have opened by default, and don't open any other web sites.
  • Perform multiple speed tests.
  • If your computer is using a wireless connection, consider plugging it directly into your modem or router using a network (CAT5) cable and measuring the speed again. If you notice a big difference, look into getting a newer wireless router (or modem/router combination device).
  • Your effective internet speed can vary due to issues at your ISP or beyond, so repeat your speed measurements at a different time of day or day of week.
  • Check with your ISP (Comcast, Verizon, etc.) and find out what internet speed you're currently paying for.
The goal here is to make your internet connection (and your computer) as "quiet" as possible, so your speed test will have minimal "competition," both for your computer's attention as well as for your internet connection's "water pressure."

Don't pay for a higher internet speed before doing some measurements and reviewing them carefully. Poor internet speed can be caused by issues on your computer and may have nothing to do with the nominal speed of your internet service.

You might even find that your effective internet speed is higher than what you're paying for.

Factors that can reduce your internet speed, what you can do about it
There are a number of things that can affect your effective internet speed.

Some of the things you can control include:
  • Multiple users, computers, smartphones, tablets, and other devices sharing the same connection can compete with each other and slow down your connection. If you're trying to measure your internet speed while someone else in your house is watching YouTube or Netflix videos, your measurements will be off.
  • Since it's on 24 hours a day, your cable/DSL modem might be "tired and cranky." Powering it off and on again can "freshen it up," or if it's more than a few years old, getting a newer model might help.
  • If you have a separate router, it could also benefit from being powered off and on again, or possibly being replaced by a newer model.
  • Your internet connection may be fast but your computer may not be operating at peak efficiency for various reasons - not enough RAM, unnecessary extra active software, infections, excess dust causing it to overheat, etc. Simply Restarting your computer can "freshen it up," or turning it off and letting it cool down might help, but sometimes a more in-depth "tune-up" is needed.
  • If you're using a wireless connection, there are numerous things that can interfere with or block your Wifi.
Don't pay more for a higher internet speed before checking (or having someone check) your equipment and situation.

Some of the things you can't control are:
  • The particular web site or email server you're trying to access may be experiencing technical problems, or there may be a lot of other people competing with you for access to it.
  • Your ISP may be having a problem.
The simplest first step is to wait a few minutes and try again, but it can be tricky to pinpoint a root cause.

Using speedtest as a proactive "speed-boosting" tool
I have a colleague who not only likes http://speakeasy.net/speedtest as a measurement tool, but is also convinced that after measuring his internet speed a few times, it actually gets faster, at least in the short term. His theory is that his ISP notices that he's checking the speed, so they give him more speed just in case he's dissatisfied enough to change companies. I think it's plausible, so you might try his technique for yourself, and getting that speed boost may not be limited to just that one speedtest site.

Where to go from here
And here are some good speed-testing sites:
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2014 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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