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Life in the slow lane

Life in the slow lane
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First Published: Tue, May 17 2011. 09 56 PM IST

Plug in: Outsource network tweaks to?Fasterfox.
Plug in: Outsource network tweaks to?Fasterfox.
Many tomes have been written about employee productivity, and furious debates continue to rage on that alchemical combination of workplace environment and motivation that’s supposed to drive an office worker.
But very little has been said about the biggest impediment to getting stuff done, the most frequent cause of work-related rage: a slow Internet connection.
As most of our work moves online, into the clouds, and the Web becomes richer and more demanding (under the misguided assumption that all of us possess blazing fast broadband), our archaic Internet speeds have become painful barriers to efficient work.
Happily, the Web can still be optimized for our crawling speeds. Here are a few tips that can be implemented easily. If you’re on an office computer with draconian IT policies, some of these tips may require the one-time help of the IT administrator.
Exploit simplicity
Thanks to the recent explosion of tablet and mobile devices, almost every major site in the world (except Indian government services) has a mobile version. Usually, the URL is just a simple modification away: The mobile version of the Livemint website (www.livemint.com), for instance, is m.livemint.com. Mobile sites require only one-tenth of the data a full-blown site would need, and are great for retrieving information in a pinch. M.wikipedia.org, the mobile version of the online encyclopaedia, is a particularly good example of a mobile site done right. A very useful site to bookmark is Google Mobilizer (http://www.google.com/gwt/n), which converts any URL you type into it to a stripped-down, mobile-friendly variant.
This extends to online services as well. Email services such as Gmail have a simpler HTML mode that consumes less bandwidth, and shuts down heavy activities like chat. Most heavy Adobe Flash-based sites (a favourite of many Indian companies) have “no Flash” or “HTML” modes—go for it.
Get optimization plugins
All the major browsers allow you to add “plugins” or “user scripts”, little bits of code that can enhance or helpfully inhibit your online experience. For a slow connection, nothing works better than disabling needless advertisements, heavy images and flash animations from a Web page. Opera even has a Turbo mode (www.opera.com/turbo) that compresses Web pages using a nifty server-side technology, thereby reducing the amount of data needed to display it.
The venerable AdBlock Plus plugin for Firefox and Chrome (www.adblockplus.org) has been simplifying the Web for many years now. It maintains a constantly updated list of advertisement banners and sites, and whisks them away from any Web page you’re viewing. In place of an ad, all you’ll see is clean, blank space.
If you want to get really serious about speed, you can go one step further and disable images and Flash animations as well. The prosaic Flashblock for Firefox and Chrome (flashblock.mozdev.org) does exactly what it says, and Chrome’s extension gallery (chrome.google.com/extensions) contains many apps for similar purposes. Another powerful way to achieve this is installing Greasemonkey for Firefox (www.greasespot.net), which is a sort of DIY toolkit for browsers. People can write or download little scripts for Greasemonkey, which can do useful things such as disable images from particular sites, or those heavier than a particular size.
A useful way to achieve these aims is to use a secondary browser with these stripped- down settings. If you use Firefox, set up Chrome as a backup when things get slow or vice versa. For more tips, check Lifehacker’s how-to guide, which covers many of these points, at www.lifehacker.com/webbrowsing
Fiddle with settings
A few helpful changes to your Internet browser and operating system’s (OS) settings can help make the most of a choked connection. First and foremost, ruthlessly come down on background services. Find and stop anything that may be quietly sucking up bandwidth in the background. Disable all forms of “automatic updates”, be it for the OS itself, or antivirus programs. If you use a Twitter client, prevent it from checking for updates every 5 minutes if your connection is slow.
Call for backup
If all else fails, you can engage in an arcane ritual called “tethering”.
Tethering is the technical term for sharing the Internet connection on your smartphone or tablet (either through 3G or EDGE) so that your ailing computer can use it. You can do this via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or a USB cable, and many smartphones provide software to do just that.
It’s possible on BlackBerry devices, Android devices running version 2.2 “Froyo” or above (though it is possible on lower versions, it’s not as easy), iPhones, old Windows Mobile 6.5 PDAs (personal digital assistants) and the new Windows Phone 7. The feature is sometimes advertised as the ability to create “mobile hotspots”, so check with your phone manufacturer to see if your device is up to the task. Be aware that hefty data fees will apply, so use this only in situations of extreme importance.
Don’t put too much faith in stand-alone programs that promise to speed up your Internet. Applications such as SpeedConnect Internet Accelerator or Internet SpeedUp use many of the tricks explained here, but it’s always better to be in direct control of the changes you’re making.
Plug in: Outsource network tweaks to?Fasterfox.
Many of these stand-alone apps are either ad-supported freeware, which means they can be a resource hog, or fully commercial apps that will start demanding money after a “trial” period to continue working.
If you must outsource these changes, try Fasterfox, a Mozilla Firefox plugin that will take care of cache modifications and network tweaks for you, but is also easily customizable and, more importanly, removable. Fasterfox can be found at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/fasterfox-9148/
The only situations where stand-alone programs, apart from your browser, can be helpful is in getting specific kinds of data. A download manager such as DownThemAll for Firefox, for instance, can dramatically improve download speeds. If work requires you to muck around FTP (file transfer protocol) servers a lot, then a stand-alone app such as FileZilla is much better and faster than just the browser. If you browse a lot of news sites and blogs, it’s faster and more efficient to use a stand-alone RSS Reader such as FeedDemon (Feeddemon.com). The same tactic applies to tablets and smartphones as well. RSS-based news readers such as Pulse (cross-platform) or Flipboard (iPad only) can pull data faster than visiting each individual website.
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First Published: Tue, May 17 2011. 09 56 PM IST
More Topics: Internet | Slow | Plugins | Backup | Firefox |