Speed Shills


Q: DSL isn’t in my financial cards right now — $49.95 per month buys a lot of three-for-$2 canned sardines, you know. But my glacier-paced 56-kbps modem is killing me, so I’m thinking about buying one of those “Internet accelerators” that’re advertised all over the Web. Good idea?

In general, only if you relish playing the patsy. All those official-looking “Your connection is not optimized!” pop-ups beckon you toward shoddy software that does little besides tweak your browser options — something you can easily do for free. There are a few legitimate products out there, but even the snazziest tend to fall short of the wild claims made in their marketing fluff. At best, you’ll notice a so-so improvement with graphics-heavy Web sites. But if you’re looking to hop into the peer-to-peer game, best to switch to four-for-$1 generic ramen and start saving up for broadband.

You’ve probably seen those pop-ups that look similar to Windows alerts, warning that something’s amiss with your modem. The well-disguised ads are the handiwork of spyware vendor Bonzi, recently drubbed in this column for foisting the privacy-crushing BonziBUDDY software on innocent Web surfers. Among Bonzi’s other crimes against cyberspace is InternetBOOST (yes, that annoying spellingTIC again), the most infamous of accelerator rip-offs. The $30 program does zilch save for tweaking your browser preferences to “optimize” your modem’s speed. Unless your settings were seriously F.U.B.A.R., that’s three Hamiltons down the tubes. (Bonzi’s been lying low since November, when it was hit with a $500-per-user class action suit for those deceptive pop-ups.)

Plenty of me-too competitors infest the darker corners of cyberspace, promising the fantastic — “Up to 220% modem speed increase,” pledges Turbo-Surfer, employing a semantic trick (“up to” could mean 0 percent, after all). One galling spammer of late has been, whose site includes glowing testimonials from “Gary Allen” and “Dave,” whose existences strike Mr. Roboto as highly improbable. According to the latest issue of PC World, the site’s $40 acceleration software, called Insider PC Secrets, is a complete dud — it may even slow down your connection. As for the money-back guarantee, it’s seemingly about as dependable as a fistful of magic beans.

There are, however, a few okay accelerators to be had, a pack led by Propel’s flagship product. The brainchild of the dotcom tycoon behind Infoseek, Propel Accelerator is a $8-per-month service that compresses graphics and stores data on central servers, so it can be quickly recalled. In Mr. Roboto’s tests, pages did, indeed, load faster when Propel’s service was active — a hair over twice as fast, judging by a stopwatch. (Other reviewers have cited tripled speeds; the company claims upward of a 500 percent increase.) Alas, the compression rendered some images blurry — not a bother if you merely want to read the Voice online, but a bummer if your surfing is geared toward, er, salacious visual fare.

The other accelerator to pass muster in Mr. Roboto’s tests was Modem Booster, though it didn’t exactly make the honor roll. A program rather than a service, the $25 Modem Booster uses a series of time-consuming, automated diagnostics to tweak your hardware’s settings. The speed difference was noticeable, but just barely — let’s call it a 20-25 percent kick, a far cry short of the “up to 300 percent” come-on.

Propel’s product, then, gets Mr. Roboto’s gold star, but only if you’re looking for something to expedite your surfing. Accelerators don’t help a whit when it comes to file-sharing or streaming video, so forget about building up your MP3 arsenal on the cheap. You’re best off downgrading to that all-noodle diet, and scraping together enough for some serious bandwidth. Mix in some multivitamins, though — Mr. Roboto takes a strong anti-scurvy stance.

Should Mr. Roboto ever wind up an abject failure, part of the blame must lie with Titoonic’s Space Cab, history’s most infuriating Shockwave game. At least 20 hours were wasted last week trying to register a high score, but no dice — rescuing the ninth stranded miner is a Sisyphean task. Readers who’ve figured out the appropriate tactics, please write. Please.