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The most daunting part of upgrading to Windows Vista may be trying to figure out where in the layers of menus the networking and file-sharing options are hidden.

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This free tool delivers many of the same capabilities that you'd find in pricey network monitoring tools. As long as you don't mind tinkering, The Dude is a decent network utility that should be worth the download.



Networking Notes: Optimize Your Browser's Internet Connection

It seems we're all looking for a way to squeeze a bit more out of our Internet connections. If you're using Firefox, the two add-ons I've got for this week help you speed Firefox up a little without having to deal with its about:config page.

Networking Notes

There was a somewhat hilarious blog entry last week, posted by one of the developers who works on Apple's Safari Web browser. He noted that Digg readers had rediscovered an old hidden preference that eliminated a small delay Safari's developers had built into the browser:

"In the comments are many testimonials like 'Oh my gosh! Safari is so much faster now!"

I remember this particular trick from a few years back, when Safari was still new. It was widely discussed, with users expressing outrage that Apple would deliberately impede their browsing. There was a perfectly good explanation for the behavior, but a spate of utilities designed to ease removing the delay appeared anyhow. People wanted their one second back.

There was a bit of a punchline to the latest resurgence of this particular "optimization," though. As the developer went on to note:

"This just goes to prove how inaccurate people's powers of perception are when it comes to measuring the performance of browsers. I say this because the preference in question is dead and does absolutely nothing in Safari 1.3 and Safari 2.0."

Doh!

A lot of "optimization" solutions for software often turn out to be snake oil of one kind or another. Snake oil or not, though, it seems like we're all looking for a way to squeeze a bit more out of our Internet connections. If you're using Firefox, the capability to add "add-ons" to your browser makes the process simple (and you won't pay for snake oil shareware to fix "problems" that aren't).

These Tips Are Real

The two add-ons I've got for this week help you speed Firefox up a little without having to deal with its about:config page and get a handle on whether there's something wrong with a site you're trying to connect with, or if it's just you. These two additions are actually kind of complementary, too.

Fasterfox

Fasterfox sets up some optimizations designed to make your browsing experience a little peppier. It does this by addressing several key areas:

  • Prefetching, which allows Firefox to quietly download and cache links on a page while you're reading, making the next page appear much faster, since it's already cached when you click on its link.

  • Pipelining, which takes advantage of modern Web servers' capability to reply to multiple requests over the same HTTP connection.

  • DNS caching, which allows Firefox to remember the DNS addresses for sites you're visiting for longer. We talked about this back in November, when we looked at OpenDNS.

  • Simultaneous connections, which control how many requests for page data Firefox will make at once.

It also includes an improvement to Firefox's popup blocker that catches pesky Flash popups.

Fasterfox presents all this in one of two ways: There's a simplified five-option menu that offers graduated approaches to optimizing your browser. At the lowest level, all the optimizations are turned off. At the highest level, Fasterfox will push your browser (and the Web servers it interacts with) at a pace that exceeds both the specifications engineers have set and, frankly, common courtesy. Fasterfox also offers a customizable setting, which provides a much closer look at all the things it's doing under the hood.

If you just want a faster browser, pick the "Optimized" setting and move on. If you visit a lot of smaller sites with not a lot of bandwidth or server horsepower, it might be more polite to set it to "Courteous," which only applies optimizations that have nothing to do with the server.

If you choose to customize Fasterfox, two settings have to be addressed because they can have a real impact on performance and privacy.

What's That Term?
Not sure what a particular term means? Check out the searchable PracticallyNetworked Glossary.

First is the "prefetching" setting. As we mentioned, prefetching allows a browser to visit each link on the page you're reading and download it in the background so the page is ready for you right away. A common trick on Web pages that presented sequential photo galleries or the like involved a variation on this, with Webmasters putting the next page's image in a single-pixel <img> tag so it would be loaded into the browser's cache for presentation as a full-sized image when a visitor followed the link. Lately, prefetching refers to the use of a <link> tag with a "rel='prefetch'" argument. That way, a site designer can specify which pages are prefetched.

Fasterfox takes this to the next level by not only looking for those <link> tags, but prefetching likely candidates all on its own whether they have the <link> tag or not.

If you browse at home or generally stick to sites that are both harmless in and of themselves and can be trusted to link to other harmless sites, prefetching is fine. If you browse a lot at work, or visit sites that are a little more sketchy or willing to link to other sites with questionable content, you should proceed with caution: Prefetching will count, for the purposes of any monitoring software your company might be using, as a download or page access. Think about sites like Fark or elsewhere, and things they link to that you wouldn't ever visit at work, then think about yourself being on record as following every single one of those links in a visit to the front page.

Fasterfox allows you to disable prefetching (wise) or at least set a list of pages it is not to prefetch from (at least cautious, but probably not practical, especially if you're supposed to be working and not spending all your time devising prefetch blacklists so you can safely visit Fark on the clock).

A second set of optimizations, pipelining, deals with Firefox's capability to send multiple requests for Web data over an HTTP connection without getting an answer back first. Newer Web servers will have no problem with this as it's a full part of the HTTP 1.1 specification. Older Web servers and proxies might not deal with it as well, in which case you'll get some strange behavior. If a page you used to visit just fine before you installed Fasterfox starts to misbehave, take a look at your pipelining settings. If you turn pipelining off and you're still having problems, consider downloading our next extension:

ServStats

Ever wonder if the whole Internet was broken or if it was just you? Most people who dabble with networking enough to at least know that there are such things as "packets" and "routes" will reply to an apparent site outage with a quick ping or traceroute. Some home routers are hard on traceroute requests, like my last Linksys, which had a built-in traceroute tool hidden down in some submenu to offset the fact that the router ate traceroute packets alive. Plus, even if you can see that you've got a fine connection, you don't always know that the issue is network-related.

In these cases, ServStats might come in handy. It provides a simple button you can click when a site's giving you problems to find out what the average performance of that site is, as cataloged by other ServStats users when they've visited the same site. The window tells you how successful others have been at connecting to the site, and what the average latency of the connections were. Good for figuring out what might or might not be wrong with your own connection, or for looking in on sites you run to see if your visitors are having a hard time connecting, requiring a consult with your provider (be it hosting or Internet).

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