NEW YORK (Reuters) - Overblown promises of speedier Web connections have yielded mixed results on the Internet. But a new class of products offers accelerated Internet browsing for consumers looking for higher speed without paying a high price.
Such Web performance enhancements are being offered to individual consumers by services such as Propel Accelerator for personal computers, BlueKite in mobile computers and Bitstream's ThunderHawk for handheld computers and eventually mobile phones.
Accelerator products or services share some methods, while differing in others. Propel Accelerator claims to use at least 100 technical tricks to achieve speeds of two-and-one-half to five times faster than standard dial-up.
Other tools work to compress software code, graphics, advertisements, even typefaces, many times over. Companies often install so-called proxy servers at strategic points around the Internet to accelerate their customers' traffic.
But these products and services are not for everyone.
The best way to boost personal computer speeds is still to pay for broadband modem links over cable television lines or digital subscriber line (DSL) high-speed phone lines. DSL is typically 10 to 25 times faster than dial-up access over standard phone lines. Cable modems run 20 to 100 times faster.
For mobile computers, the best way to assure a speedy connection is to pay for the latest generation of wireless network access.
"DSL (high-speed phone service) is superior. No question. We don't accelerate MP3s, streaming (digital music, audio and video), etc. But most of America just wants to surf," a spokeswoman for Propel Software Corp. said.
But for those users unwilling to pay the hefty prices for broadband Internet service starting in the range of $40 or $50 or price-tags for next-generation mobile phone service that go as high as $100 per month, browser accelerators may be an answer.
Furthermore, accelerator software in some cases can be used to speed up broadband connections, in answer to the unquenchable thirst for faster Internet access.
OLD TRICKS FOR FRUSTRATED WEB USERS
Such compression works by updating only new information, not entire Web pages. In Propel's case, Web pages and Web-based e-mail delivery is accelerated but the system does little to improve the pace of other types of e-mail or downloaded data.
To be sure, major Internet companies such as America Online have built such technologies -- specifically, datastream compression tricks -- into their networks for seven years or more, an AOL spokesman says.
Akamai has built a network of accelerator computers at strategic points around the Internet and offers such services indirectly to consumers by helping major Web sites speed Web page delivery to their users.
Web accelerators such as Propel must also battle claims made by some unscrupulous product promoters who promise huge increases in speed when, in effect, all they do is modify simple computer settings, the computer equivalent of sleight of hand.
Such fraudulent offers, which fill many consumer e-mail in-boxes these days, go back to the PC memory-doubling claims that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been tracking since it cracked down on Synchronous Softcorp in 1996.
"All the snake oil salesman on the Internet make life difficult for us," Propel Software founder Steve Kirsch said. "We want to tell people that Propel increases speeds by two-and-a-half to five times," he said.
"But if we say that our products work too well, no one believes us because of all the overblown claims," Kirsch said. He sums up his company's dilemma: "If we downplay the speed advantages, no one wants to buy the product."
Propel, of San Jose, California, has been downloaded by about 25,000 customers since it launched its service this spring, said Kirsch, who is best known as co-founder and former CEO of Internet search pioneer Infoseek.
Propel's advertising boasts speeds of four to nine times faster on popular Web sites such as auction site eBay, online newspaper USAToday and broadcaster CNN. Monthly charges run $4.95, with an introductory price of $49.95 a year.
Artera Group Inc. of Middlebury, Connecticut, describes what it calls its "Download Doubler" technology that takes a single download request and divides it to run two simultaneous requests for half of each file or graphic.
Artera boasts it can speed a dial-up Web connection by up to 50 percent and improve data download speeds by 20 percent at a price of $10 per month. It makes similar claims for DSL and cable modem connections. Artera claims it can speed dial-up Web links by 150 percent when the user hooks up two dial-up lines.
But there's a catch: "For optimal performance, the residential dial-up versions require 2 phone lines, 2 ISP accounts and 2 modems," Artera's Web site reads.
Broadband connections may prove more economical at that point.
WIRELESS COMPUTING GETS BROWSER BOOSTS
The emerging market for handheld computers with wireless connections is fertile ground for such speed enhancements.
BlueKite Inc. of San Francisco says it optimizes wireless Internet connections to speeds equivalent to, or better than, a 56 kilobit per second connection, the speed of typical U.S. residential Internet access. That's an increase in browsing speeds of three to five times most other wireless connections.
Bitstream Inc.'s ThunderHawk offers faster speeds for handheld computer users now, and for the new generation of Internet-friendly mobile phones that will be arriving on the market over the next year. ThunderHawk runs on Compaq iPaqs, Toshiba and other handheld computers and smartphones.
Instead of focusing on speed, Bitstream emphasizes how it improves the amount of data it can fit on small computer screens. This builds on Bitstream's 20-year expertise in font-rendering, or drawing fonts on computer screens.
"Our expertise in font technology has a lot to do with our ability to bring this product to market," said Bitstream President and Chief Operating Officer Anna Chagnon. "It gives users four times more 'screen real estate' than a standard mobile browser," she said of the company's new product push.
For the technically intrepid, the Internet offers reams of free advice on tweaking your computer to speed Web-page performance, from turning off data-intensive graphics to more complicated fiddling with network settings. But such tricks can backfire and make computers unstable, if not unusable.
Intel promotes perhaps the best performance enhancement of all. Buy a new PC, with a faster processor, and hook yourself up to a high-speed Internet connection, as tens of millions of Internet users have already done.
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