According to some sources, over 60 percent of Americans surfing the Web are doing so over a broadband connection. At home, most are using cable services, while professionals tool around on corporate versions of those or higher-bandwidth T1 and T3 lines. Broadband's popularity explosion is due in part to its blazing speed: The Web is filled with graphics and ads and other content that, through a broadband connection, loads with amazing efficiency. In the days before broadband came to neighborhoods near you, the Web was saddled with the nickname the World Wide Wait: You could click a heavily graphical page, go have lunch, and find that it wasn't yet loaded when you returned. For the lucky 60 percent using broadband, that's no longer the case. Where does that leave the other 40 percent? They still use those crazy old devices called modems, which are hooked up to telephone lines and use POTS (plain old telephone service) to access an ISP and through it, the Net. Dial-up is fine for people who don't use the Internet very often, those who can't afford broadband, or others to whom performance simply doesn't matter. To anyone who uses the Internet for more than an hour or two each day, however, a super-speedy connection would be a marvelous thing to have, wouldn't it? A batch of dial-up access providers say that you can have it, through the telephone line, and many offer such services at remarkably low monthly rates. NetZero, PeoplePC and a host of other ISPs offer a kind of high-speed Internet connection accessible with a modest PC and no special equipment. It downloads most pages and graphics five times faster than "standard" dial-up, they say. How does it work, and does it compare to broadband? Should you tell your cable company to get lost and drop back down to dial-up? High-Speed Dial-Up In the olden days, there were rickety old modems that only the staunchest geeks had need for, and they mainly used them to dial into local bulletin board systems and download games. Those modems were amazingly slow, taking the better part of an hour to download a 500K file. Of course, once downloaded, the 500K file took up most of the hard drive, inducing the immediate need to upgrade the computer. A few years later the World Wide Web happened, and suddenly everyone was interested in this place called the Internet. Modems were faster then, speeding along at 14.4K bps (kilobits per second). That speed was fine for the old Internet, which few consumers used and which featured lots of text-based sites to which to Telnet or Gopher, and, of course, it was fine for the Usenet, but the Web was a graphical beast. Graphic files are larger than text, and with limited bandwidth they could take a while to get from some distant Web server to Joe Consumer's computer. Modems got faster. 28.8K modems won bragging rights for a while, and later 56K modems (which, incidentally, cannot achieve true 56K downstream rates over copper phone lines) emerged--and it seemed that the end of the line had been reached. The next step was broadband, a once business-only option that found an affordable price range for consumers and began to become available in the latter half of the 1990s; now it has proliferated throughout the United States save for the most rural areas. Broadband itself is evolving, with many companies toying with wireless broadband to compete with DSL and cable providers. But let's not forget about the dial-up users. While it didn't seem that the 54K-or-so barrier could be breached by modem technology, AOL, EarthLink and other providers suddenly announced that, with their super-speed dial-up plans, you could hit speeds five times faster than ordinary dial-up service. AOL calls its high-speed dial-up service TopSpeed Technology; other providers have other names for it (for instance, NetZero calls its similar technology High-Speed 3D, and PeoplePC Online has dubbed its version Accelerated). How does this technology work? First, it doesn't actually transmit data any faster than the modem that's using it is capable of. Its key trick is compression: It compresses data before it is sent from the ISP's server to the client's machine. By compressing the data, the server makes it smaller, and smaller amounts of data don't take as long to zip through the telephone system. The client's PC decompresses the content and displays it in a browser. Secondly, most services use smart caching to greatly increase the speed at which Web pages load into their clients' browsers. All browsers employ some sort of cache, but the ISP's Web servers themselves do some of the caching for high-speed services. The ISP's server can't cache the entire Web, so it takes note of the most popular pages and caches those, querying them for changes regularly. When a client's PC requests a page that happens to be cached in the ISP's server, the server doesn't have to reach across the whole Internet to get that page--it just sends its version straight back down the telephone line. That, added to local caching by your browser, results in a serious performance increase. Besides those tricks, most high-speed services also offer a pop-up blocker, and although it's advertised as a value-added bullet point, it's actually an important piece of the high-speed puzzle. By filtering out pop-up ads, it prevents the ads, and their images and text, from being served up to the clients' computers. This saves bandwidth for content users actually want. The Downsides Compression, caching and other high-speed dial-up hocus-pocus can only do so much. Some things can't be compressed or cached, and therefore the powers of the high-speed technologies do not work on them. While hypertext, most images, ads, Web-based e-mail and other common types of content are easily handled, other stuff isn't. Certain Web pages, for instance, aren't affected, including secure Web pages used by online retailers to make sure thieves don't intercept your passwords and credit card data. Files that you download using FTP won't get accelerated--besides, they're already compressed anyway. Streaming media formats like music, movies, Web radio stations, and so on, aren't affected--so you still need to choose the "slow" connection option and deal with the tinny, pixilated results. Most of the things that don't get accelerated are actually items that require a kind of link between the dial-up client's computer and a Web server somewhere on the Internet. FTP, for instance, is a direct point-to-point protocol. When you download a file via an FTP site, you actually log into the site (usually anonymously and automatically) and establish a connection before the file is transferred. Most downloaded files are already compressed, and it would be impossible for an ISP's server to cache gigabytes of entire files and try to trap each client's FTP requests to serve them directly. Another downside of high-speed dial-up services is browser limitation. Right now, most of the services offering high-speed dial-up service don't work with browsers other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. If you prefer Firefox, Netscape or Opera, you're out of luck. Comparing Costs: Who Should Use Dial-Up? Just because there exist some limitations of high-speed dial-up technology doesn't mean dial-up is dead. In fact, it's alive and kicking. The primary reason for that is the fact that it's being offered at amazing rates that are a fraction of those of broadband services. Cable broadband service typically costs at least $45 per month, and a report released in September shows that it's rising. DSL rates vary by bandwidth, but cost anywhere from less than $30 to more than $45. Meanwhile, dial-up services, especially from the smaller players, are far more reasonable. While AOL still charges over $20, NetZero normally runs near $15 and PeoplePC weighs in at under $11 for high-speed services. Those are major savings compared to broadband services. Dial-Up vs. Broadband Drag Race To find out about the potential difference between the new high-speed dial-up services and broadband, I signed up with two of the popular dial-up providers and compared their performance with that of my 768K cable Internet service. I used a freshly formatted computer running Windows XP with Service Pack 2, running a fully patched Internet Explorer 6.0. To time the dial-up performance I used a 56K V.90 software modem and local dial-up numbers, and averaged the performance of the two dial-up providers; for broadband, I used a direct connection between the PC and the cable modem, bypassing my network. I picked five popular Web sites, and then visited each in turn once again. I recoeded in seconds the time it took the page to load. When I first loaded Amazon.com using high-speed dial-up, the page took about 29 seconds to load. Landing on Microsoft's home page clocked in a bit faster at about 25 seconds. PCMag.com took about 41 seconds to load. To test the effect caching might leverage, I returned to each page. Amazon.com loaded in 12 seconds, Microsoft.com popped up in 11 seconds, and PCMag.com took about 14 seconds. Even with the speedy-sounding names for dial-up services, and although local caching obviously made a vast difference, broadband easily trumped them. The three pages above loaded in 5 seconds(Amazon and Microsoft) and 9 seconds(PCMag). Broadband is clearly the winner here, and that doesn't even take into account high-speed dial-up's limitations. If, for instance, you tend to download large files, a broadband connection is even more of an advantage. A typical A-list game title's demo might weigh in at 200 to 600 megabytes or more; broadband can polish that off in under an hour, while dial-up would take all night. Broadband, in this nonscientific test, has a considerable advantage over even high-speed dial-up, but the second pass for the dial-up services, which represents the use of local cache, is in every case an acceptable load time. So, dial-up isn't dead yet. Who should use the dial-ups? Anyone with the need to access the Internet but who lacks the means to pay for broadband; casual users without home networks who spend little time surfing and only check e-mail a few times per day (or week, for that matter); and anyone who doesn't place a high priority on getting, or being, online. Enthusiasts, power-users, and anyone who wants to share a connection among a number of computers on a network should stick to broadband.