Be broadminded

Introduction

No doubt about it, the single best upgrade you can add to a G3 or G4 Mac is a faster Internet connection. Processor speeds are ever increasing, but replacing a 500MHz chip with a 1GHz chip won’t boost the rate of your Web browsing or file downloading. The internal 56Kbps modem in the dual-GHz Power Mac G4 won’t go any faster than the internal 56Kbps modem in the iBook – or even the one that shipped in 1998’s original iMac. As discussed in our recent feature on broadband Internet (Macworld, March 2002), the cost of a much faster home Internet connection has plummeted over the last couple of months. Where monthly prices used to start at over £40, a high-speed (broadband) Net connection is now affordable in the home, as well as the office, at under £30. There are several different ways of getting a broadband connection: Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), cable and satellite. A cable connection is usually tied-in with digital-TV and telephone services, while satellite broadband isn’t really affordable as a domestic or even small-office alternative. The cheapest route to broadband is ADSL. Upgrade your connection to ADSL, and you’ll achieve up to ten-times faster Internet download speeds while being able to use your phone at the same time as being connected. The connection is ‘Always On’, which means that you pay one set monthly fee of around £25-30 rather than forking out for each individual call. The only call-charges you pay are for voice; your Internet connection costs the same if you browse the Web for 15 minutes or 15 hours a day. If you do connect to the Internet for less than an hour a day, ADSL probably isn’t worth the money – unless you’re very impatient. On the other hand, if you’re connected for even just a few hours a day, you won’t be paying much more than you would for call charges, while enjoying all the benefits of a high-speed link. Anyone using the Internet in peak time during a weekday should seriously consider ADSL immediately. Home-office or small-office workers will be paying about £2 an hour in Internet call charges at these times. That makes a £25 set monthly charge for ADSL worthwhile – on cash savings alone – for a connection that’s on just 12 hours a month or 36 minutes peak-rate a day. There are other potential cost savings, too. Many people have a second phone line installed so they can receive voice calls on their main line while being connected to the Internet on the other. As ADSL allows you to be make and receive voice calls at the same time as being connected to the Net on the one phone line, you can cancel that second line – saving about £30 a quarter in service charges and line rental. Killing the second phone line saves you enough to pay for ADSL for a third of the year. Broadband on the run
The most obvious benefit of ADSL over a traditional dial-up connection is the raw speed-boost. A 56Kbps modem rarely connects at its theoretical maximum for various reasons explained in the sidebar “Why ADSL knocks spots off dial-up”. ADSL’s maximum speed depends on how much you pay your ISP. The recently available ‘Self Install’ ADSL service for home and home-office users offers speeds of 512Kbps for downloads (receive) and 256Kbps for uploads (send). ISPs also offer more expensive business options of downstream speeds of 1,024Kbps and 2,048Kbps – although the 256Kbps upstream remains. This disparity in downstream/upstream speeds is why it’s called Asymmetric DSL. The limited upstream speed of ADSL makes it unsuitable for those people who send very large files on a regular basis. Multi-channel ISDN and leased-line broadband connections make more sense in these cases, but are more expensive. For most of us, however, 512Kbps is more than enough after years of struggling with 56Kbps modems, which rarely reached the maximum anyway (see “Why ADSL knocks spots off dial-up”). There’s also no minute-long wait for the connection to be established, and no squeaky, splurgy, squarshy noises emitted from your computer. Click connect, and ADSL kicks-in in a couple of seconds. Unfortunately, ADSL isn’t available to everybody. Your phone line – which needs to be turned on (activated) to ADSL – is connected to a BT exchange, and not all exchanges are equipped for ADSL. BT claims that around a sixth of its local exchanges can handle ADSL. As these 1,000 ADSL-ready exchanges are situated in areas of densest population, most people should be OK. However, although BT says that it is updating its exchanges on an ongoing basis, it also admits that it will never offer ADSL to all of its customers. Some exchanges serve too few people to make it “commercially viable” for BT to add the expensive digital equipment. For instance, some exchanges in Scotland serve just 20 people. To make matters more complicated, even if your local exchange is ADSL-ready, you may be located too far away from it to take advantage of the fastest speeds. Again, this is likely to affect only people who live far from city centres. The best ISPs can now supply ADSL to users situated more than 3.5km from their exchange by using a new technology called Rate-adaptive ADSL (RADSL). This service extends the reach of ADSL to users up to 5.5km from an ADSL-enabled exchange. If you contact an ISP who says you live too far from an ADSL exchange, phone around to find one that offers RADSL. To find out how far your home or office is from your exchange, visit www.nothing-on.tv/adsl/std_query.html. Enter your post-code and phone number, and you’ll even be able to see your exchange on a local map. It’s easy to find out if your phone-line is ADSL-compliant. Go to www.bt.com/broadband, and click on the ‘Can I get it’ link for the Broadband ADSL checker, after selecting whether the service is for home or for work. ADSL is currently not available on non-BT phone lines. If you’re one of the lucky ones, your next step is to chose an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that offers an ADSL service – there’s a list of ISPs on page 83. You may want to stick with your current ISP, if it offers ADSL. However, such is the change of service from dial-up to ADSL that it’s a good time to look at alternatives. Take your time choosing your ISP. Most services tie you into a 12-month contract – so if you’re not happy with what you’re getting, you’ll have to sit out the year or pay-up the remaining period of your contract. Ask the ISP about their knowledge of Macs. ADSL is platform agnostic, but you’ll want an ISP that offers decent Mac technical support. It’s also worth contacting your fellow Mac users and asking their advice – keep your eyes on Macworld’s online Forum (www.macworld.co.uk/forum) for comments. Also, some ISPs restrict their hardware technical support to certain equipment. Claranet, for instance, supports only the Alcatel Speed Touch USB ADSL modem. The WebShuttle DSL will work with the service, but you’ll have to call Hermstedt’s tech support if you experience any problems – that’s not a worry, though, as Hermstedt has a long history of producing Mac-specific products. Also look at what you get for your money. Some ISPs offer personal Web space, multiple email addresses, and other add-ons. Another important consideration is whether the ISP has a dedicated pipe to the US, where many of the world’s Web sites are based. This will stop your connection speeds slowing due to high volumes of traffic. Most of the big-name ISPs dedicate a certain amount of bandwidth to the US. Prices are pretty similar, so don’t rush to the cheapest on offer to save yourself just a few pounds a year. Do your homework by investigating the ISP on its Web site, and by phoning it about its level of Mac technical support. ISPs offer varied ADSL services for the home and for business. What we’ll be looking at in this feature is a recently added service called ‘Self Install’ or ‘Wires Only’. This means that instead of paying about £200 and waiting for a BT engineer to come round your house, you buy the necessary hardware and install it yourself. With Self-Install, the ISP arranges for your BT telephone line to be ‘activated’ for the ADSL digital data connection. Make sure that your ISP sorts everything out with BT. As everyone knows, getting in touch with a human at BT is not an easy or satisfying experience. ISPs have better contacts at BT than you’ll ever have, and it’s all part of the service. If the ISP tells you to contact BT about the ADSL activation/connection, count this against them when it finally comes down to agreeing the contract. Self-Installing your ADSL is not as technically confusing as it sounds – especially for single-user connections. There’s a little head-scratching, but only as much as you’d get from constructing a flat-pack wardrobe from Ikea – and in this instance Macworld’s on your side. Once your line has been ADSL-activated, you need either a USB ADSL modem for single-computer connections or an Ethernet router if you want to connect one or more Macs. You’ll also need at least one ‘splitter’ that allows you to use your line for both voice calls and Net access at the same time. USB modem If you need to connect only a single Mac to your broadband ADSL connection, for ease of use and value a USB ADSL modem is fine. ADSL modems are different from traditional dial-up modems – such as the internal modem in your Mac – as data transfer is digital not analogue, and will therefore handle higher volumes. Ethernet router If you want to connect a network of Macs and/or PCs to the Internet at the same time, sharing the high-speed connection, you’ll need an Ethernet router. An Ethernet router controls the ‘traffic’ of data between your network and the Internet. If you’re connected to the Internet for most of the day, an Ethernet router is also a good choice for single users as it takes some of the processing strain from your Mac. However, setting up a router is a lot more tricky than plugging in a USB modem. In next month’s Macworld, we’ll be showing you how to install ADSL using a range of Ethernet routers. Splitter If you pay BT £200 to install your ADSL, the engineer turns the front of your phone-line’s wall box face-plate into two sockets – one for voice and the other for ADSL. With Self Install, you plug a small plastic splitter (also known as a microfilter) into your phone wall socket to split the phone line into voice and ADSL parts. If you run several phones off the same line, you may need to purchase extra splitters (£5-£9) to ensure that voice and data are kept apart. Many people also own other equipment that utilizes their phone line. The most common is probably a Sky digital box, which requires the phone link for pay-TV. Make sure you place a splitter between this and the wall socket as well – or hang all your non-ADSL equipment from the original splitter, using socket multipliers. Count how phones are plugged into a phone socket, and order the same number of splitters, then unplug each phone, plug them into a splitter and reconnect it to the phone line. Or simply buy a single micro-filter and plug it into your master socket, and then run all the phone extensions off the phone side of the splitter. If you have lots of phones, then using a single ADSL faceplate can work out cheaper and neater than multiple splitters. A company called Clarity is now offering these face-plates at £9.99 via . www.clarity.it. The Self-Install option also allows you to choose which ADSL modem or router you want. In traditional ADSL installations the hardware is supplied by (and remains the property of) BT. Here, we’ve tested the most often supplied USB modem (Alcatel’s Speed Touch USB) and a newcomer (WebShuttle DSL) from Hermstedt, a company known well to many Mac ISDN users. Others are available, but were unavailable for testing. Don’t purchase any connection hardware – modem, router or splitter – until your line has been confirmed as ADSL enabled by BT. It may be that something stops your line’s activation – and then you’ve wasted your money on the hardware. This activation process should take only a week or so. Your ISP will contact you once the test has taken place. Note that once your line is ADSL activated, you may experience a loss of quality until you install line splitters in any active telephone sockets. Once you’ve decided to switch to an ADSL connection, and checked that your phone-line is ADSL-compatible, you must chose an ISP and the type of hardware to link to your Mac. A USB modem is fine for most single-system users, but anyone linking more than one Mac to the ADSL line will need an Ethernet router. Alcatel’s Speed Touch USB is the most common USB ADSL modem – mainly because BT Openworld and other ISPs offer it as part of their non-Wires-only services. The Speed Touch USB is a funny-looking thing. It is known to many ADSL users as “the frog” because of its green colouring and weird shape. If you thought Apple’s Macs looked strange, just take a look at this thing… Funny, weird or strange, it must be said that the Speed Touch USB is really just an ugly piece of hardware design. In Macworld tests, we couldn’t fault it in operation, but Macworld Forum contributors have reported issues with its power demands from the Mac’s USB port – and especially with waking from Sleep in Mac OS X. Its power consumption can reportedly cause the USB chipset to malfunction. One solution may be to plug the modem into a powered USB hub, rather than directly into one of your Mac’s USB ports. Set-up is relatively easy, but we did have some issues with the PDF Mac manual, which included some Windows jargon that may confuse Macintosh users. The best thing about the Speed Touch USB is its price, which varies according to supplier but is consistently under £100 (including VAT). However, if its OS X problems continue, that saving will be negated by support calls and lost broadband time – you might even have to resort to dial-up again until normal service is resumed. Updated Mac drivers should sort some of these problems out. Unlike Alcatel, Hermstedt is a company that in the UK is closely linked to the Mac – its German parent bought the Newcastle-based MacConnect in 1996. And Hermstedt has modelled the looks of its WebShuttle DSL on Apple’s latest all-white Macs, with a nod to earlier Graphite styling. Like the Speed Touch USB, the WebShuttle DSL worked fine under Macworld’s strenuous connection tests – downloading a 70MB file while streaming a giant QuickTime trailer, and sending/receiving email – under Mac OS 9 and OS X. The set-up instructions shown here for both Mac operating systems aren’t complicated, and Hermstedt’s process even allows you to pick your ISP, wherever you’re based in the world. The WebShuttle’s software OS X-only Communication Manager is another plus-point. Here you can check connection speeds in a number of visual displays Apart from its looks, the pain about the Speed Touch is its whoopee-cushion shape, which means it has to sit on top of your tower or on your desk if you can’t hide it behind your desk. The WebShuttle, on the other hand, is more boxy, and can even be attached to a wall. While the Speed Touch worked fine in our month-long tests, it’s hard to ignore the clamour of complaint from its longer-term Macintosh users. Hermstedt’s WebShuttle DSL modem is very new, and so escapes the chance of long-term complaint. However, it’s fairly safe to assume that Hermstedt will live-up to its award-winning reputation in the ISDN market. The company’s Mac-savvyness also stands it in good stead. The product is more expensive than the Speed Touch USB, but only by the cost of one month’s ADSL connection.
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