SAN FRANCISCO (04/07/2000) - If you want to impress your friends with your new broadband Internet connection, a tour of the usual sites may not do the trick.
"Sure, it's faster," my friend Buddy admitted as I flipped through portals, chat sites, and online mini-malls, "but is it fast enough to be worth an extra $30 a month?"
Before I could answer, Buddy thrust a finger at the screen. "Hey, what's with the big delay here?" That's an overloaded server, I explained, or maybe a traffic jam at a network access point. After all, my slick new Digital Subscriber Line connection doesn't save me from foul weather on the Internet--it just opens a broader window on that foul weather.
I jumped to a sports site and we resumed peak speed just in time to click through some baseball photos. "Hey, that's really fast," Buddy said, showing a bit more interest.
Try this on for size, I told him, and started downloading a hefty MP3 file.
With downloading, I explained, you really see the power of broadband. Once you get going, the server works with you to give you first class treatment--you may even see bursts of speed beyond your peak bandwidth. But Buddy was not unduly impressed that the file downloaded at a tenth the time it would take on a 56-kilobytes-per-second modem.
I was losing him--time to pull out the streaming media.
I linked to a multimedia site, and sequentially sampled an audio clip that had been saved at different bit rates.
The jump from 56 kbps to 80 kbps made the sound notably richer, with far fewer gaps and hisses. Then I tried the 128 kbps version. Not quite CD-quality, but full, rich, and as Bud agreed, very easy to listen to.
Next I tried video. The postage-stamp sized 28.8 kbps clip was downright unbearable--who watches this stuff?
The frame size increased on the 56 kbps clip, but the corners were still dark and murky, and the scrambled faces were unrecognizable except for one scene that featured a well-lit talking head close up. Then the screen froze for five seconds while flashing "buffering, buffering, buffering," and the rest of the clip was more slide show than video.
When we moved up to 128 kbps, we could see slight improvements. But it was the move to 300 kbps that made for a whole new experience.
The video frame was larger, taking up a quarter of the screen, and we could suddenly see a new layer of reality: actual facial expressions and colors, important details emerging where only dark shapes lurked before, and action sequences that didn't disappear into a blur of pixels. I clicked the right mouse button to zoom the image to full screen, and like many 300 kbps clips, it looked just fine (from a few feet back). Better yet, we made it through the clip with little more than a minor pause or two.
"Well it's not TV, but it doesn't suck," said Buddy. "Where do I sign up?"
I've got him, I thought, patting him on the back. Of course, soon I would have to tell him about the month-long installation process, the endless parade of technicians, the long waits on hold.
Or maybe not, I thought; maybe this one would get lucky.