WWW FAQs: Why do web pages load so slowly?

2004-04-01: all web pages? Or just some of them?

If the answer is "just some of them," the pages you are trying to load may simply be popular pages on overloaded servers. There is not much you can do to speed up a slow website you don't run, although customers of certain ISPs such as America Online and Earthlink benefit from automatic caching of popular pages that makes popular content available to customers more quickly. See how fast is my website? for more information about the speed limitations of of websites.

Of course, some pages are slow because of their content. A page made up of text will be faster to load than a site made up of large photographs. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it takes much longer to transmit! Full motion video really requires a broadband connection for adequate performance.

If the answer is "all web pages," you probably have a slow connection to the Internet. 56k dialup modems are slow. Most "broadband" connections, such as DSL and cable modem, are roughly 26 times as fast as a 56k modem at its theoretical best. 56k is shorthand for roughly 56,000 bits per second, or roughly 7,000 characters per second. And in practice, "56k" modems almost never run at this maximum speed. The FCC limits the top speed to 53,000 bits per second in the United States, and the actual connection speed depends on your distance from your telephone company's central office, your type of phone wiring and the presence or absence of equipment belonging to your ISP in the same telephone company central office. In many cases, when you dial out to your ISP, there is a "details" or "more" button you can click to see at what speed the connection was actually made. If the connection speed is much slower than 36,000 bits per second, it may be worth asking the phone company to test your phone line for noise. Most phone companies do not promise modem connection speeds above just 9,600 bits per second, but that is something of a worst-case scenario and most connections are not that bad.

The good news is that most professionally designed websites, such as CNN or Slashdot, are designed to load fast even on 56k modems. Good webmasters accomplish this by limiting the use of large images, choosing the right image formats for the right jobs and avoiding the use of video and audio unless the user explicitly asks for it. Popular sites such as these are even more likely to load quickly if you use an ISP that offers caching, such as Earthlink or AOL.

While various "web accelerator," "internet accelerator," and "browser accelerator" programs exist, some do not work, most provide only very small benefits, and some carry spyware and adware programs that can potentially harm your computer's performance in serious ways. The best of these tools use "precaching" strategies, fetching web pages you frequently visit as well as pages that are linked to by the page you are currently reading, so that when you actually follow a link the page is already on your computer. "Registry tweaks" and other tricks may offer very minor perceived improvements, at some risk of causing problems for your computer. And "download managers" can automatically retry downloads of large files and, in some cases, even intentionally download them using only half of your modem's capacity so that you can still use your browser effectively. But nothing alters the fact that your dialup modem is a slow device.

The NetSonic browser accelerator software is currently available in a useful free edition and has received good reviews. The GetRight download manager has also received excellent reviews, and a free evaluation version is available.

I also suggest reviewing the Broadband Reports website for useful comparative information about DSL and cable modem providers in your area as well as other possible broadband high-speed options.

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