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When Your Slow Internet Connection Makes Your Computer Look Slow

This surprises people.

If things seem slow, it’s important to realize that it might not be your computer at all. It might be your slow internet connection.

You might have the fastest computer in the world, but it’s still limited by the speed of your internet connection. And if you have multiple devices sharing that connection, things get even worse.

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With so much happening online, internet connections are being used like never before. What appears as a slow computer can be the result of a slow internet connection instead. Multiple computers, multiple internet-connected devices, and a plethora of internet-connected software can all conspire to make even a fast internet connection seem slow. Inventory everything connected and all applications running to see if they’re really needed. If all else fails, contact your ISP for an upgrade.

Online more and more

Is your network as slow as a snail? We’re doing more and more online than ever before. In many ways, our computers are transforming from devices on which we do local computing (running our programs, creating documents and so on) to devices providing an interface to the larger world of the internet.

The problem, of course, is that the internet comes to us through a single point: the connection as provided by our ISP.

As a result, the speed of our online experience depends almost completely on the speed of that connection.

Things quickly get confusing, however.

Is it you or me?

When a YouTube video won’t play smoothly, is it the connection or the computer? It could be either.

When a website fails to come up quickly, is it the website itself, the connection, or the computer? It could be any of those things.

If your social media pages fail to update quickly, is it the service, the connection, or the computer? Once again, any of the above.

Diagnosing connection speed problems

Many people think their computer is slow, when in fact, it’s the resources used getting to the internet and the resources out on the internet that are to blame.

If just a single website is slow, then it’s probably the not the connection, but either the website itself or your computer.

On the other hand, if most websites feel slow, then the speed of your internet connection may be to blame.

If things feel faster on a different computer that shares your internet connection, then perhaps your computer is to blame. If things are as pokey on one machine or another, that points to the connection.

So. Much. Internet.

Of late, another problem has arisen: competition.

As I type this, I count no fewer than 32 devices sharing my single internet connection. While you may not have nearly as many as I do, it’s likely more than you think.

Be it two or 32, all those devices are competing for the available bandwidth of your connection. While most might be idle a majority of the time, if one or more of them begin downloading a large update, or if they start streaming a video, it will negatively impact the apparent speed of your connection for all other devices.

The Fastest Wi-Fi doesn’t help

There are a lot of tips out there for speeding up your Wi-Fi, and I often see advertisements from one ISP or another touting their “fastest Wi-Fi” as a feature.

Wi-Fi is not what I pay my ISP for. I pay them for the wire that delivers the internet to my home. If that’s slow or overloaded, it doesn’t matter how fast my Wi-Fi is.

Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing you can do to your computer (or your Wi-Fi) to speed up your internet connection appreciably. Yes, I know, there are utilities that claim to be able to tweak settings to do so, but they rarely have an impact, and when they do, it’s usually something you’d never notice.

You can’t make it faster, but…

You can’t make the internet connection faster, but given that your internet connection is a resource that is shared among all the applications on your computer, and all computers on your network, there are a few things you can do to help make it appear faster.

What to do:

  • Take stock of how many computers you have accessing the internet simultaneously. Do they all really need to be doing so? Turn off the computers, or the internet-connected applications on those computers, if it makes sense. For example, I have several television sets that include internet capability. I have that feature turned off — there’s simply no need.
  • Take stock of all the applications running on your computers that access the internet, and make the same decision: do they really need to be running? Cloud-storage services like Dropbox, OneDrive, and others are common culprits. While they’re incredibly useful, perhaps you can run them only as needed.
  • Watch the number of browser tabs or windows you keep open. Many modern websites — in particular social media sites — make periodic internet contact checking for updates even if you do nothing, and even if the tab or page isn’t visible. Advertising-heavy sides (sadly, like many news media outlets) are notorious for streaming video after video regardless of whether you’re watching.

The use of your internet connection is, in a sense, a competition between all the computers and programs trying to use it. What’s happening on a computer in the next room could easily impact the perceived speed of the internet, and as a result, the perceived speed of your computer.

OK, you can make it faster, but…

Actually, there is one way to make your internet connection faster. If you’ve done everything I’ve suggested above and you still feel the need for more speed, there’s one alternative.

Contact your ISP for a speed upgrade.

If, of course, it’s available. If not, and if you have alternatives, see if other ISPs serving your area would be able to give you something better.

Yes, it does mean throwing more money at the problem, but all things considered, the way we’ve come to rely on the internet and connectivity, it may be a small price to pay.

But the most important thing to realize is that a slow internet connection can look like a slow computer, when in fact the computer isn’t at fault at all.

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9 comments on “When Your Slow Internet Connection Makes Your Computer Look Slow”

  1. Also, check your fridge. But seriously, there’s also the Internet of Things. My refrigerator is Internet capable as are many other devices such as microwaves, radiators etc. If you don’t need those Internet features, turning them off might help. I’m sure my refrigerator would use only a little bandwidth, but a lot of minimal impact devices might add up. By the way, if anyone can explain to me why I would want to change the temperature of my fridge when I’m away from home, I’d really appreciate it 😉 .

    Reply
  2. A few more points about slow internet:
    – Upping your ISP’s service to a higher rate may be a waste of money if your slowest device creates a bottle neck. Some ISPs go from 60 Mbps to 400 Mbps. But to use a 400 Mbps capability all your devices need to be 1Gbps capable. Besides, that 400 is a theoretical, best case number. You’ll never actually get that.

    – On your browser disable any setting that refers to any of the following: “prediction”, “search as I type”, “prefetch”, “turbo”, “use a web service to …”, “automatically report”. These background features consume processing without adding much value.

    – On the browser turn on Hardware Acceleration to off load processing from the browser to your machine.

    – Browsers (all browsers) have a nasty habit of hogging memory and grabbing more the longer they are running. Every so often you need to shut down your browser and restart it.

    – Some browsers (Chrome, I’m talking to you) run background processes even after your close the browser. There are settings to stop them from doing that.

    – Website scripts are notorious for slowing everything down. I don’t know about every browser, but browsers that are based on Firefox have a capability to set the run time for scripts. Using this to stop scripts isn’t fool-proof but can help minimize sapping CPU.

    Reply
    • “Website scripts” — there are web sites (looking at you, Facebook) where if left on my wife’s computer will eventually use enough CPU all by themselves to cause the fan to kick in. Restarting the browser is the only recourse in that case.

      Similarly lots of ads will cause the same behavior, but a restart solves nothing — only leaving the ad-laden page does.

      Reply
    • I don’t know what you mean by the slowest device creating a bottleneck. The only devices that matter, in relation to network speed, are the router and the device you are using. Otherwise, many IOT devices with slow WiFi speeds would allow down the whole network.

      Reply
      • Yes, your computer or device. If you have an older computer the network adapter is probably capped at 100 Mbps. Also, if you’ve had your ISP modem for years (i.e. it’s old) or still have a DSL connection, you’re limited. Same with boxes such as Roku, which are typically capped at 100 Mbps.
        I also have doubts about any WiFi router actually reaching anywhere close to 400 Mbps in a real-world application (walls, distance, interference). Recent routers advertise numbers such as 1800 Mbps. When you read the fine print you realize that this number is the combined capacity of all the channels, whereas you use only one channel at a time. This is a case of if it’s too good to be true ….
        Here is some perspective: 1 Gbps networks were introduced in the late 1990’s. It’s safe to say that no average joe has anything close to that in 2020. Not even a full 10% of that.

        Reply
      • The router, the device you are using, and any networking devices in between them. Not uncommon to see a gigabit router and gigabit-capable PC that’s throttled because they’re both connected to a 100Mbs switch.

        Reply
  3. A good first step when you’re having problems is to run a speed test: https://www.speedtest.net. This will go a long way in letting you know if the problem’s your device or the internet connection. Of course if the speed test shows problems this doesn’t necessarily mean your connection is slow; just that your share of the bandwidth your ISP is providing is insufficient to your immediate needs. Could be your kid in the next room is downloading the latest and greatest game while another kid is watching Netflix. If you use a VPN, try disconnecting and run another speedtest. VPN servers can get congested. And yes, your router could be the problem, especially if it’s a few years old. If your router doesn’t handle 802.11AC at least then it’s probably time to replace it.

    Reply

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