Why is my PC is too slow for DSL
July 1, 2007 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I just got DSL broadband and, while it is the slowest of AT&T's 3 levels of speed, it still is only a bit faster than the old dialup. A test using a borrowed laptop on the same phone line was much faster, so something is slowing things down in my PC, but what? Processor is old and slow, at 400Mhz, 375mb ram, 4 gigs hd free space, Win ME, running MSIE and Opera browsers. My desktop has about 100+ items on it. Could this be my problem?
posted by fkeese to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
From back in the day of modems I recall that, at the low level, processor power can choke communication speeds.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:20 AM on July 1, 2007

What speeds (upload/download) does AT&T say you should be getting for the plan you're paying for? Compare that to a speed test online.
posted by rancidchickn at 11:20 AM on July 1, 2007

I would definitely consider the processor speed. 400 is pretty slow these days.
posted by DMan at 11:24 AM on July 1, 2007

A friend of mine recently inquired about AT&T DSL, and the customer service agent told her that DSL Basic would be barely faster than dial-up. Your old and slow computer definitely isn't helping things.
posted by puritycontrol at 11:25 AM on July 1, 2007

My recommendations are as follows:

1) Are you virus/adware free? Make sure your AV is up to date and run spybot.

2) Run a scandisk, then defrag your hard drive. You'd be surprised how much that can help on systems with not much free HD space

3) Get rid of anythign unecessary that is starting up. All that little shit in your task bar? You don't need it to be running all the time. Use Run>msconfig to stop it from starting up automatically. A google search on the name of processes will tell you whether they're important or not.

4) If all else fails, back up all your data and reinstall windows. Doing so will give you a nice speed boost by cleaning out all of the cruft.

Also, clean up your desktop for god's sake. File systems have folders for a reason.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:27 AM on July 1, 2007

I just changed to a new (second-hand) PC from my ancient old 1.5GHz computer and now have a processor which is twice the speed. I have a maximum 8meg broadband connection, but could never get that speed due to the distance I live from the exchange.

But I've noticed in the last day or so since the new computer is running that the broadband speed has improved immensely, which I attribute to having a faster processor.
posted by essexjan at 11:31 AM on July 1, 2007

I think it's definitely the specs of your computer that's slowing your web surfing down.
Your web browser needs processing power (and memory) to render the data that comes in over the network connection into the web pages that you see.
So, if you have an older PC with minimal processing power, it doesn't matter how fast your data comes in, it's still be slow to display in your web browser.
posted by elbaso at 11:33 AM on July 1, 2007

It is very possible that the computer is part of the problem.

If you don't want to get a new computer, you could certainly backup your files and reinstall Windows. Windows ME was pretty susceptible to becoming corrupted over time. I used to reinstall about every year or so when I had to use Windows ME. If you have that many things on your desktop, you have probably installed (and possibly uninstalled) many programs, and Windows ME does not tend to handle this gracefully. There is a good possibility a clean Windows install will significantly speed up your internet experience.

Or if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you could try installing Linux on it. I have had good experiences with Ubuntu Linux. Typically, Linux makes the most of a computer with limited resources.

Either way, good luck.
posted by jefeweiss at 11:34 AM on July 1, 2007

Computer "speed" is pretty subjective. If your old machine is a Pentium II/Celeron 400, or AMD K2/400, using 1 to 8 meg PCI video cards of that era, just painting today's complicated Web pages is going to be intensive for the machine. Reviewing your video settings, and dropping down to 16-bit color and lower resolution can make a big improvement in percieved speed, with very little loss of observable color. But 800 x 600 is about the minimum resolution you want to run at these days, as Web designers seem to have forgotten that much of the world is still stuck with 640 x 480 VGA video support. Running 640 x 480 is pretty painful these days in terms of the amount of scrolling you have to do. But 16 bit color (thousands, rather than millions of colors) is definitely the way to go on older video hardware. Your processor and graphics card will do 1/4 or less the work than at 32 bit settings, and I doubt you'll notice any difference in quality.

Moreover, older network cards often offloaded significant processing to the CPU and card driver, keeping only low level Ethernet functions for the network card's limited silicon capability. A quick speedup for many older machines is a better network card, and one that uses the PCI bus, rather than older, slower, more processor intensive ISA bus. If you have a cheap ISA 10 mbit network card, and move up to a second generation Intel EtherExpress 10/100 PCI card, you're processor load can drop 8 to 15%. So, that's a decent $5 investment, maybe.

But Windows ME is a seriously outdated OS, and no one should advise you to keep running it as a Web surfing device. It hasn't any hope of working securely in today's Internet environment, or of being patched to do so. You need to move to Ubuntu or some other graphical Open Source OS, (PC-BSD is a good choice on older hardware), but with such limited disk resources, you'll not be doing much more than reading Web pages, and doing Web mail.

One problem you may have in upgrading your disk is that mobo of that era had major limitations in translating disk geometries. Anything over 8 GB would be unlikely to work with your onboard IDE controllers. So, if you want to move to a modern disk, you're probably going to have to add a PCI disk controller. And if you then add a modern 40 GB SATA disk, you'll have an antique machine, that might be useful for another year or two as a desktop, or for several years, if retired to use as a personal Web server/firewall etc. But jobs like being a firewall/router have pretty much been taken over entirely by energy efficient $50 little flash based bricks from Linksys and Dlink. It's not worth the electricity they use to keep these older machines running in those kinds of applications any more.
posted by paulsc at 11:50 AM on July 1, 2007

All I have is anecdotal evidence:

Girlfriend has a six year old PC that has been religiously maintained and is surprisingly clean. The web is a PITA on that thing. I have semi-permanently loaned her my personal laptop and she's now zipping around. They are on the exact same network.

posted by FlamingBore at 12:04 PM on July 1, 2007

Are you using a USB modem via a slow USB 1 connection?
posted by malevolent at 12:32 PM on July 1, 2007

You computer shouldn't be much slower now than the first days you got it. Use a 50 cent CDR and some download time and find out for sure if it's the hardware or not:

Do you have a CD burner? Download an Ubuntu CD and boot it and surf for a while. See if it feels faster. This would rule out software, if it doesn't.

Bonus: If you really like the way Ubuntu works, you can hit the "heck yes, install this permanently!" button.
posted by cmiller at 1:30 PM on July 1, 2007

You probably don't want to hear this, but i'd recommend you buy a used computer from a craigslist near you. Actually, if you are near a university or large business you can just as easily get REALLY cheap secondhand desktop cases from their departments of junk-collecting. $50-100 can go a lot further at these outlets than anything you could do to optimize such an old system.
posted by mezamashii at 2:43 PM on July 1, 2007

It's a Windows issue. I recommend backing up your data, formatting the hard drive and reinstalling. As an aside I'd say just run Windows 98 (which a lot of people still do), or maybe XP.

I ran my (low-traffic) website and (high personal traffic) email server on a 200MHz machine with 64MB RAM for years and years on my DSL, and currently I'm using a 400MHz machine for the same thing. They have no problem keeping up with network speeds. If your machine can take a network card, it can take DSL (which is much slower than LAN speed).
posted by rhizome at 2:46 PM on July 1, 2007

I've never touched a Windows ME computer that was even passable online, no matter what the other specs or the browser.

The computer I sat my mom up with is almost identical in specs to yours, aside from WiFi, and is running Windows 2000. With Firefox and free anti-virus software, her bandwidth/download speed is fine and even youtube and bittorrent run pretty acceptably. I say you dump the OS and install a copy of Win 2000 or XP lite. Short of that, clean up the desktop and uninstall everything you don't absolutely need.
posted by Benjy at 3:34 PM on July 1, 2007

I'll echo that the slowdowns are most likely the operating system.

I can't recommend moving away from Windows ME enough -- it's not a good OS to run. If I were you, I'd do everything I could to get a hold of Windows 2000 (which should run fine on your machine). Failing that, give Ubuntu Linux a shot (if you've got a free day to spend playing around -- it's a good way to learn something new too).
posted by spiderskull at 3:42 PM on July 1, 2007

Definitely give Ubuntu a shot, you can use a live CD rather than install to give it a try. We used Linux to keep some old computers running a long time.

That will free up more resources than much of anything you could do with Windows could; and with an old computer, it's not like you're worried about running the latest computer games.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:08 PM on July 1, 2007

There's some pretty good technical information here, so I don't have to cover too much of that, but to answer your question:

"Win ME... Could this be my problem?"

Yes. This is your problem. Specifically that you're running Windows ME, which is an incredibly flawed piece of software in a great many ways. One of those ways is the miserable performance of the TCP/IP stack, and another of those ways is the very bad driver model (and quality of drivers such as for your NIC).

If you plan to stick with Windows -- which on this elderly hardware is a somewhat questionable decision -- you're going to be much happier with an operating system at least as recent as Windows 98 Second Edition and likely most happy with Windows 2000. I have used Windows 2000 on computers of nearly identical specification and network performance is quite acceptable.

To drive the point home: Your hardware is old but adequate. Your operating system is a piece of shit.
posted by majick at 5:13 PM on July 1, 2007

There is absolutely no chance that your hardware is slowing the raw speed of your connection. Sometimes, software configuration can slow the raw speed, but that is pretty unlikely on a relatively low speed connection.

The perceived responsiveness is an entirely different issue. Your hardware may not be up to the needs of the software you are trying to run, and Windows ME isn't helping that.

You can probably squeeze some more memory in that system, and it will help a lot.

Suggestions to try other software options are great, but if you do look to a more thorough upgrade, stay clear of early P4 systems. ~1GHz PIIIs and celerons are a good value, as are AMD processors, but don't even think about P4s below 2.4GHz. Even then, you have to be careful to avoid systems with rambus, aka RDRAM, memory.
posted by Chuckles at 7:02 PM on July 1, 2007

Actually.. Windows ME on a 400MHz system sounds a little strange. Run Aida32 and tell us more about your system configuration, in particular what chipset you are running.
posted by Chuckles at 7:07 PM on July 1, 2007

400MHz is plenty for basic networking; I ran 10Mbit ethernet and 1Mbit cable on a little 66MHz Dell 486 DX2 and a pair of NE2000 ISA network cards for ages and never had any performance issues; granted it was running Slackware Linux, not Windows Mistake Edition.

Browsing is somewhat more intensive than just throwing data around, though, and plugins and certain sites like to make even beefy systems cry; in Opera, F12 -> u to disable things like Flash, and consider Ctrl F12 -> Advanced -> Browsing -> Loading = Redraw after 2 seconds or so to help reduce overhead induced from it reflowing pages as they download.
posted by Freaky at 9:08 PM on July 1, 2007

Geezus, I'm skipping the whole thread to just say: YES, it's your computer. Max out your RAM and then that's about has fast as it's going to get. I'm sure some of the tips above will help a bit more but the RAM is the killer. Find out how much your computer can handle then buy that much and install it. If necessary take it to your local whitebox PC joint (independent, not the Best Buy ripoff chains) and say "maximize this, my good man". Cheap too.
posted by intermod at 10:04 PM on July 1, 2007

intermod, my parents run XP on a 600mHz/256 MB machine and get plenty of speed from their DSL. If RAM is the problem. it's because the poster has far too much non-essential stuff using the memory.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:21 AM on July 2, 2007

Dunno if this is usb or ethernet, but older ethernet cards are poor at negotiating speeds. Make sure the network speed of the pc's card is the same as the device it's connected to. Generally, your choices are 100Full, 100half, 10Full and 10half. Doesn't matter so much what you use, as long as it matches the other device. That being said, it's Windows ME, and no one uses that anymore because it sucked so bad. I often help friends with pc and network issues, but I will refuse to touch any machine that has ME or AOL on it. Because I KNOW that machine will break again soon, and I don't want that phone call.
posted by Area Control at 8:38 AM on July 2, 2007

Definitely run CCleaner to get rid of temp files and clean up your startup. Also clean up that desktop! And invest in some RAM - really cheap these days, and helps speed a ton.
posted by radioamy at 9:02 AM on July 2, 2007

Ah, yes, ethernet duplex mismatches are a sure fire way of making network performance suck badly; if one side thinks the connection is full-duplex (can send and receive at the same time) and the other thinks it's half-duplex (can only send or receive), you can easily get dialup-level speeds out of even a 100Mbit connection.

Try forcing 100Mbit full-duplex and see if that helps (done from Device Manager normally).
posted by Freaky at 12:29 PM on July 2, 2007

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