Down market


How much time have you spent watching progress bars in your browser's download manager? Too much, I'll wager - especially if you haven't made the move from dial-up to broadband. Whether downloading the latest Apple update, or the hottest Mac game, we all want to crack on and use them - not spend hours watching them arrive. This frustration is global, and has spawned a class of software known as download accelerators. These work by optimizing available bandwidth by increasing servers' efficiency in sending files. They do this by dividing downloads into segments - sometimes dozens of segments - each of which is downloaded simultaneously in separate streams, and then re-conjoined on the target computer. Accelerators also attempt to speed-up downloads by finding faster mirror servers. A typical non-accelerated download gives just one server connection, which is unlikely to be utilizing all available bandwidth. Also, single connections can be restricted by limited bandwidth. But beware: download accelerators are seen as anti-social by an increasing number of system administrators, many of whom now configure their servers to restrict multiple connections, especially during peak-traffic periods. The use of download accelerators is definitely more popular with end users than with ISPs (Internet Service Providers). One of the perceived problems with them is that by using multiple connections, it's possible for a single user to take up all available download connections on a modest FTP server, leaving everyone else frozen out and frustrated. This situation can be many times more serious when multiple users of download accelerators hit the same FTP server at the same time - as when hugely popular games or Apple update downloads are first made available. Such a situation asks serious questions of even heavily-muscled server farms. (By the way, Macworld continues to lobby Apple to allow us to resume carrying its software updates on our cover CDs, after the company stopped us in summer 1999). Many administrators now block the use of accelerators. They do this by either limiting all users to a single connection, or by restricting the number of multiple-connection sessions. Download accelerator developers argue that their products should not cause any undue problems, and are simply bandwidth-optimizing tools. Steven Mullin of Yazsoft, developer of Speed Download, recently told Insanely Great Mac: "Speed Download is designed to download files more efficiently, and offers tons of other features that benefit those who use it. It has absolutely no negative impact on any server. We test it rigorously against our own servers, and everything still runs solid." Further, developers claim that by speeding up download times their products keep connection times to a minimum, thus freeing up servers for others quicker than would otherwise be the case. Ultimately the decision is yours: do you use a download manager, maybe in conjunction with an OS X fine-tuner like BroadbandOptimizer to squeeze the most from your connection, or do you use an accelerator that saves time and money, but possibly at others' expense? But it's not just this that casts a shadow over download accelerators - it's their questionable performance when strutting their connections-hogging stuff. We tested those products promising significant download performance boosts on three types of Internet connection: leased-line, broadband and dial-up, and saw no significant performance gains with any of them. Although in some instances they did marginally reduce download times, there was no way of knowing if this was due to the software or merely the level of server traffic at the time of download. Some ?accelerators' even increased download times. It could be that they didn't work because the servers we hit happen to be accelerator-unfriendly, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for the future of these products. Or, it might be that some server farms - such as Apple's - are so high-powered that downloads can't be speeded up any more. Yet a quick browse through Mac newsgroups, forums and reviews shows there's plenty of users who are wildly enthusiastic about these products - some of which cost up to $25. Maybe they're using them to download porn - we didn't try that. The bigger picture
But let's not lose sight of the woods, here: getting the most from your Internet connection - especially dial-up - has as much to do with working smarter, as faster. Slow downloads are only part of the picture, because connection failures and crashes are as much a headache as anything. How many times have you left your machine chugging through a 40MB download only to return much later to discover that it failed with 1MB to go? And how much cash have you burned through your dial-up connection remaining on, long after it has completed a download? Although publishers of download accelerators make little noise about it, their products also offer useful download-management tools, such as resumable downloads - to get around broken connections - and schedulers - so that you can timetable downloads to take place in times of low traffic. Such functionality is mightily useful.
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