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I was going how fast, officer?

Troubleshooting computer problems often requires what one friend of mine calls "forensic data processing" to try and determine just what the cause of the problem is. Today I'd like to point out one tool available for determining speed problems.

I've had people tell me that their computer is "running slow." In order to figure out why, it's necessary to get more information. Are all programs running slowly? Just certain ones? Is this at certain times of the day or always? What, if anything, has the person done to troubleshoot the problem already?

If the answer is "when using my browser/email/watching YouTube or some other Internet related program, one of the first things to look at is the Internet connection speed. Just because your Internet Service Provider (ISP) sold you 15 Mbs/sec downloads and 6 Mbs/ uploads doesn't mean that you'll get that all of the time (or even most of the time). If you check the fine print of your agreement, you'll see that those are maximums, and that they aren't guaranteed. So how can you determine if the problem is related to your program (Mail acting up) or with the ISP?

One way to tell is to check the speeds that you are actually getting (as opposed to the maximum). I like to use the speed test provided by Speakeasy. Speakeasy is an ISP providing all sorts of services (and there's plenty of their ads on the page to remind you!) but you don't need to use them to use the speed test. I like their test because it's pretty simple and uncluttered. Some of the other speed tests have too many options – I just want to run it quickly and get a result.

The Speakeasy speed test is written using Flash, which means you can't run it on your iPhone (we'll get to that) but you can if you have Flash on your system (and most everybody does). When you go to the page, you'll see a screen like this:

Speakeasy Speed Test1

 

I usually pick Chicago as I get the best results from there. (The fastest result you get from anywhere is the speed you are getting locally at that time – at least, and maybe better. Remember that there's a lot of equipment between you and the other end! So I try to minimize the distance.) When you click on a city, you see a couple of disl appear and what the test in progress. When it ends, you see something like this:

Speakeasy Speed Test2

 

Now, just because you get a good reading once doesn't mean a lot. You need to take several readings, especially at the times when the slowdowns are occurring . If the browser/mail/whatever program is slow and you get a good reading, the problem is on the computer or with the other end, but your ISP is in the clear. If you see some low numbers, chances are that's the cause of the slowdown. Of course, you also need to make sure nothing else is running on the network on that computer or any other (if someone else is streaming a movie, you will probably see a slowdown on your computer!). You should also try to test wired and wireless if the connection is normally used wireless to see if there is a significant difference.

Again, this is just one tool to use to troubleshoot a problem.  Next week we'll take a look at another important troubleshooting tool.

(If you're on an iPhone or iPod Touch, this won't work for you, since you can't run Flash. And quite honestly, the processors in the those devices are not in the same class as any Mac from the past few years, fast as they are. You won't get a good test of your home network by using one of these to test. But if you're curious about what speeds you're getting there are apps in the app store for that. There are a few free ones – I like to use Speedtest because I can save off the data and compare it. )

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  • jan

    So Jack I have done this many times in the past and I still don’t why I feel so underserved even with my new ATT userve service. My results at 5:30 pm this evening were 2617 download and 922 upload to Chicago. I feel sooooo small !!!!

  • Jack Beckman

    Try a few different cities and see if you get better results. Perhaps the path from your house to Chicago isn’t a good one.

    If you can’t get a decent score on this test to any city at serveral different times, you might want to call AT&T about it.

    Do you have any extra switches or routers besides what AT&T provided between your computer and AT&T’s gear? Sometimes older gear can cause slowdowns too.