Of Bandwidth and Benchmarks

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - Availability is still the deepest barrier between us and fast access to the Net.

Way back in 1992, I worked on a story about a then-hot broadband technology called ISDN. In that article, we lamented the "last mile," the distance--both physical and metaphorical--from the phone companies' switching offices to the average PC user's small business or home. Fast-forward eight years and we're still talking about that last mile. As we found out working on this month's report about high-speed connections, "Broadband or Bust," availability is still the deepest barrier between us and fast access to the Internet--more than cost, security, or delayed installations. There is good news, however. Competition between the telcos and cable companies is hot, giving small-business and home Internet users something new: choices.

Of the two leading technologies, DSL and cable, the latter leads the availability race--primarily for home use. For the 50 percent of U.S. households with cable TV, the connection is already in place, awaiting only upgrades by the cable companies to add Internet service. Providers like AT&T@Home and Comcast Corp. are hard at it. According to Comcast, 75 percent of its 6 million cable TV subscribers can add Internet service immediately. And over the next 18 months, the company will be upgrading its equipment to accommodate the rest of its customers. Competition is spurring price wars, too:

Recently, a bright red AT&T mailing arrived at my home, pushing free installation and rates rivaling inexpensive dial-up services.

DSL Better for Small Businesses

DSL is also rolling out to American homes, but its prime destination is small businesses. A case in point: Builders Booksource, a specialty bookstore in Berkeley, California. Co-owner George Kiskaddon, an old acquaintance, remembers life before DSL. With one dial-up line, his staff had to take turns conducting research and business on the Web. Moreover, the connection was painfully slow, and staff often got knocked offline by the ISP.

For two years, Kiskaddon nagged his local phone company about DSL service but was told the store was too far from the phone company's central office. Then he received a flier from a local ISP, LANMinds Internet Services (www. lmi.net), offering service in conjunction with national DSL provider Covad Communications. Technicians tested the store's lines and decided DSL could work.

Twenty days later, Builders Booksource had six networked PCs happily sharing a 192-kbps DSL line, for $109 per month. After eight months, Kiskaddon is extremely pleased with his choice: "It's in use all the time, and the e-business opportunities are amazing. We check with distributors for ship dates and inventory, do research, and check out the competition."

His experience is far from unique. As we report in "Broadband or Bust," a recent PC World survey of cable and DSL users found that most respondents would never go back to life with an analog modem.

PC WorldBench 2000 Lifts Off

That huge sigh of relief coming from the PC World Test Center is thanks to the launch of WorldBench 2000, our latest (and most ambitious) application for measuring PC performance. Two years in development and beta testing, PC WorldBench 2000 debuts in this issue's Top 100 charts and in the Top of the News story on fleet 1-GHz PCs.

What's new? Compatibility with Microsoft's latest OS, Windows 2000, tops the list. PC WorldBench 2000 also runs on Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 98SE, and Windows NT 4.0. Plus, we've expanded the number of test applications from six to eleven--the better to test today's incredibly fast PCs. As with all of our previous versions, PC WorldBench 2000 uses common applications like Microsoft Word and Excel, Intuit's Quicken, and Adobe's Photoshop to measure PC speed.

Automated scripts for each of the eleven apps mimic many of the common tasks we all perform on our machines. PC WorldBench 2000 times each of the automated scripts and converts them into the final performance score you'll see in our Top 100 charts.

People frequently ask how they can get PC WorldBench. The short answer is, you can't. As computer journalists, we know the complexities and costs of supporting a software application. And given the choice between putting our resources into more and better stories for the magazine and PCWorld.com or into technical support for a public version of our benchmark, we believe you'll benefit most from the former.

For more details on PC WorldBench 2000, check out www.pcworld.com/benchmark on PCWorld.com.

Tracey Capen is PC World's executive editor for Reviews.

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