Does your Internet connection ever seem unusually slow? The problem may stem from your PC (buggy software, for example); a bad phone line; an oversubscribed ISDN, DSL or cable system; system trouble at your ISP or the high-speed service it connects to; or a poorly configured router thousands of miles away. More often, however, slow connection rates are due to a swamped Web or file server at the other end of the connection.
Unlike problems with your computer, your ISP and even the phone company's equipment, which you have some power to fix, busy servers and similar problems are usually beyond your control. But how do you know where the problem is coming from? No one tool can pinpoint the cause, but Microsoft Corp.'s Bandwidth Speed Test page (http://www.computingcentral.com/topics/bandwidth/speedtest500.asp) is a good place to start. Besides displaying your current download speed in kilobits and kilobytes per second, the page provides information on factors that can affect your connection speed. Speed information in kbps (kilobits per second) is useful for comparing your current connection speed to the rated maximum for your modem or your connection type. KBps (kilobytes per second) info is useful for estimating how long downloading a file will take.
If Microsoft's site suggests that your download speed is what it should be, the culprit is probably a slow connection or server somewhere between your ISP and the page you want to view -- and unfortunately, you can't do anything about it.
But if Microsoft's site confirms that something is restraining your connection, you need to find out whether the problem is with your ISP, your computer or some element in between.
First, select Start*Programs*MS-DOS Prompt to open an MS-DOS Prompt window.
Next, use the Ping command to compare speeds inside and beyond your ISP: Type ping http://www.pcworld.com (or another remote Web site) to see how long it takes data packets to reach PC World Online's Web server in San Francisco. Ping reports the time (in milliseconds) a data packet takes to travel to the site and then return to your computer. A time of a few milliseconds indicates a fast connection. But anything over a couple hundred milliseconds is suspect, and time-outs (which occur when Ping gives up on receiving the return packet after an extended length of time) signify a problem.
Next, type ping www.myisp.com where myisp.com is your ISP's domain name. If the ISP's Web server pings much faster (that is, returns a much lower number) than the external site did, your ISP is probably having trouble with its connection to the Internet. If so, ping a few different sites (and ping each site more than the default number of four times), save the data to a text file, and e-mail it to your ISP's tech support; this information will likely help your ISP's support staff figure out what's wrong, so you'll probably get a swifter response. For example, use the command ping -n 25 www.pcworld.com >c:\test.txt to ping PC World Online's Web server 25 times, and then save the results in a file called test.txt.
If the Ping numbers are roughly the same for external sites as for your ISP's site, the trouble probably lies in the connection between you and your ISP. The ISP's modems might not be getting along with yours (something you can check with the ISP), or your modem and serial ports may be configured incorrectly. To check for the latter in Windows 9x, choose Start*Settings*Control Panel, double-click the Modems icon, and make sure that the modem driver listed there matches the hardware you have installed. If the right driver is installed, click the Properties button and then the General tab, and confirm that the value selected for 'Maximum speed' is fast enough for the type of connection you have. Pick 57600 for 33.6K-bps modems, 115200 for 56K-bps modems, and 230400 or faster for ISDN transfers.
If your ISP and your modem setup check out, the problem may be with your phone or cable company. Standard phone service slows when line quality degrades or when the phone company multiplexes several households onto a pair of wires.
Cable Internet access is prone to slowdowns because everyone on the line shares the available bandwidth. And DSL and ISDN connections can degrade due to phone company snafus, too. As with your ISP, you'll probably get snappier repair service if you document the slowdowns.
ICQ'S Unlocked Doors
America Online's ICQ chat tool provides lots of features other chat programs don't offer. But the more capabilities a Net-connected program has, the less secure it is. The ICQ disclaimer warns that the chat program is "vulnerable" and should be considered "unsecured." Specifically, its users may be subject to "spoofing, eavesdropping, sniffing, spamming, breaking passwords, harassment, fraud, forgery, imposturing, electronic trespassing, tampering, hacking, nuking, system contamination including ... viruses, worms, and Trojan horses causing unauthorized, damaging or harmful access and/ or retrieval of information and data on your computer and other forms of activity that may even be considered unlawful."
Still want to chat? Go ahead, but protect yourself from the foregoing list of threats. First, regard every file attachment as a potential attack. As in your e-mail program, executable files (files with the .exe, .com, .dll and .bat extensions) transferred through a chat program may contain viruses; and Word and Excel files may harbor macro viruses. Before you open any attachment, save it to your hard disk and scan it with an updated antivirus program. Recently, a password-stealing ICQ Trojan horse fooled hundreds of users by masquerading as an image file.
Second, as elsewhere online, the less you reveal about yourself, the better.
When starting out with ICQ, you need to disclose only your ICQ number and possibly your e-mail address. True, ICQ does offer you the chance to share your enchantment with pre-Columbian kitchen utensils, so you may prefer to ignore this advice. To lower your ICQ profile, click the program's ICQ button, select Add/Change Current User*View/Change My Details, and remove personal information.
To block spam, click the Main tab and choose Don't publish my Primary email address, use it for password retrieval purposes option. Don't share your addresses and phone numbers either. Anyone who needs to reach you can use ICQ, right?
Next, click the ICQ button, and select Preferences & Security*Security & Privacy. Click the Security tab, check the Do not publish IP address option, and make sure the Allow others to view my online presence on the World Wide Web option below it is unchecked. Do coworkers, kids or roommates have physical access to your computer? If so, select High in the Security Level area to prevent unauthorized use of your account. If you start to get ICQ pager spams, try turning off the service by clicking the Ignore List tab and checking Do not accept WWPager messages. You can also screen out normal ICQ messages that contain certain words or strings (such as 'sex' or 'XXX') by clicking the Words List tab, then the Unlock button. After entering your ICQ password, add likely spam keywords to your filter list by clicking the Add button. Check Discard events with objectionable words under Filter Action.
For more information on this subject, go to http://www.icq.com/features/security/security-tutorial.html.
Trim IE 5's AutoComplete Strings
Clearing your browser's history list is crucial if you don't want the next person who uses your PC to know where you've been. IE's Intelliforms feature leaves an additional trail, caching text you type into Web forms. Any Registry snoop can find that information, which may include credit card numbers and passwords. To clear out this cached data, choose Tools*Internet Options, click the Content tab and the AutoComplete button, and then click in turn the Clear Forms and Clear Passwords buttons.
Download of the Month
Improve Your Internet Security
Does your work require you to be online for many hours a day? The longer your PC remains connected to the Internet, the more it becomes a target to hackers searching for lax security settings. DSL and cable connections are especially susceptible in this regard because they're often connected permanently and they use a consistent, easily discovered IP address. MoonLight Software's US$25 NetWatcher 2000 keeps a close eye on your Internet connection, looking for unauthorized connection attempts. When intruders try to break into your system, NetWatcher shuts them out and records their IP addresses. The utility also scans your system's TCP/IP ports for security holes. Download a free 14-day trial version of the program from FileWorld or from http://www.moonlight-software.com.
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Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.)