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Going back to dial-up

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 28, 2003
(Issue 2109, The Little Guy)

My residential DSL service went down for a weekend recently, leaving me high and dry with no Internet access. The first day was rather a relief – there was nothing I could do about it, so I enjoyed my time away from my electronic umbilical cord.

But by the second day, my inability to get work done – I write several regular columns for various outlets, plus teach a class at a local university – was beginning to leave me a bit frazzled. I mean, the work was going to have be done at some point.

Finally, I was left with no option but to load up AOL off one of those CDs the Post Office has on their counters (AOL being the official online sponsor of the U.S. Postal Service). As the Windows box no longer has a modem ("Who needs a modem with DSL," is my recollected bit of wisdom), I installed AOL on the iMac.

Culture shock?

Frankly, after two years of high-speed residential Internet connectivity, I expected to be writing a "How does anyone live on dial-up?" Going from a download connection speed of roughly 1 Mbps to about 50 Kbps – or a factor of 20 – didn't seem like an easy prospect.

But I was surprised at how quickly the kids and I acclimated.

Okay, there were moments of "Do people really browse the Web like this?"

But they were fewer than I thought there would be.

I was also surprised at how much better the AOL experience was than the last time I used it extensively.

Since this wasn't a planned review of AOL, but rather a last-minute survival tactic, didn't get a chance to play with AOL in a planned, systematic fashion. Didn't check out all the online commerce stuff they've added the past few years, nor their proprietary content areas – chat rooms, movie previews, etc.

But what I did take note of was how much faster AOL's pipeline to the outside Internet now is. Once connected to AOL, I was able to launch both Netscape and Internet Explorer and browser the Web very quickly. AOL's own embedded Web browser also worked pretty well – although there were some sites with complicated security features (my credit union's, for instance) where I had to use Netscape or IE in place of the AOL browser.

I was also able to use the Mac OSX terminal window to telnet into my regular e-mail account; sure, I could have used the Web interface my ISP provides as well, but the telnet session goes a lot faster – allowing me to quickly identify and delete spam without having to wait for the page to reload each time.

Bandwidth issues

To be sure, there were some things I couldn't accomplish. One of my regular columns requires me to gather high-resolution photographs to accompany entertainment listings. But a 300 dpi photo tends to run to a meg or more – downloading that on a 56Kbps connection would take forever.

That data pipeline was also what kept me from downloading and reviewing the latest build of the Opera Web browser. A 7-10 meg download just isn't fun on a dial-up connection.

And since I maintain my own Web sites off the Windows box as a general rule, I wasn't able to update them over the weekend. Okay, I could have, but I would have had to set up a new system and was simply too lazy to do so.

Finally, AOL's native Mac OSX interface is clean and easy to use. And if AOL for OSX doesn't take full advantage of the new operating system's features, it does run native – you don't have to run it under the OS9 emulation shell.

AOL wasn't anything exciting, mind you – but nor did my weekend of using it to get to the 'Net do anything to stop me from recommending AOL to folks looking to get online for the first time.

AOL remains the easiest way to get online, and for folks new to this whole Internet thing, there's nothing better.