When the transmission finally fell out of the rust bucket
I've been driving all these years, I found myself in the market for a car for the first time since the days before the World Wide Web. Before I headed to the used car lot, I dusted off my list of specs, ready to update them to reflect the feature set of the new century. Some requirements never change: I wasn't going to budge on my price cap circa 1993, and I wanted less than 25,000 miles on the meter. But in this petro-economic climate, less than 30 miles per gallon was out. And luxury features not on my list from the previous decade--CD player and automatic windows and locks--are now considered merely standard.
The most quantifiable detail in broadband is the speed of access, and it's also the one most fraught with confusion.
When it came to test-driving, however, I discovered that my specifications hadn't narrowed the field by much. My decision to buy was swayed by features that hadn't even occurred to me when I began the process, which reminded me of my search for a broadband provider. What are the online equivalents of leather seating, cruise control, and a dash-mounted six-CD changer with graphic equalizer? And which features are nothing more than a keychain with the dealer's logo on it?
How many horses under the hood?
The most quantifiable detail in broadband is the speed of access, and it's also the one most fraught with confusion. The speed differences between broadband providers often don't amount to much in the real world. Cable and DSL providers both say they're faster than the other, and both are telling half the truth.
Cable providers tout a bigger data pipe and claim that cable's maximum-rated upstream speeds of 4 megabits per second mean faster access. But it's a shared data pipe, so if your neighbors are all streaming video at the same time as you, things slow down.
DSL service often comes in two different speeds and price brackets, a consumer-branded 1.5Mbps (which effectively tops out around 1,224Kbps), and a business-branded 3Mbps. Large e-mail attachments and Web site uploads are slower, with upstream rates of 300-some and 700-some Kbps, respectively.
Sure, bigger numbers sound better, but how often do you find yourself speeding down the highway at 175mph? Same goes for Internet access: most home users won't max out their bandwidth.
E-mail and air bags
Like air bags, the more e-mail accounts and spam filtering, the better. For sheer volume of e-mail addresses, DSL provider Verizon knocks the competition into a cocked hat. Cable provider Comcast lets you set up seven e-mail addresses; Verizon provides up to nine @verizon.net accounts and throws in an entirely different service, MSN Premium, with its own software and e-mail addresses. There's a degree of spam protection from Comcast, Verizon, and MSN, and while MSN's is the best all-round, it works on only the MSN e-mail addresses, not those of its companion Verizon.net service.
Like air bags, the more e-mail accounts and spam filtering, the better.
Broadband features don't begin and end, however, with an immoderate number of e-mail addresses and spam filtering. For the past couple of months, Comcast subscribers have been able to send video mail messages to their correspondents. The service works like this: You download a 19MB program that takes control of your Webcam. To send a message, you fire up the software, click a Record button, and do your stuff. You can type an introductory message, then hit the Send button. The resulting video is stored on Comcast's servers, and a message with a link to the server lands in your recipient's mailbox.
Unless you don't see your e-mail buddies often and miss the sound of their voice and their quirky little facial gestures, though, I'm tempted to chalk up Comcast's video mail feature as nothing more than a free keychain.
File storage and leather seating
Personal Web pages are one thing, but something else entirely is a convenient method of sharing or storing important files. Comcast and MSN Premium (free with Verizon's service, remember) both provide a photo-sharing facility, which is very handy. Both services automate the upload and display of your personal photos, help you make scrapbooks and slide shows and the like, and provide you with a URL to share with interested parties. Such a feature would qualify as a leather-interior feature if it wasn't so readily available. Shutterfly, EZPrint, and even Wal-Mart's Web site provide this type of service for free to anybody with a broadband connection.
Comcast does offer one nice little online-storage feature, however, that is worth the price of admission: a 175MB online shoe box for storing important files. It's not exactly a backup facility, but it's a good way of keeping files accessible when you're at another computer.
Keychains and other extras
Verizon DSL's login page, where you go to pick up Web mail when you're away from your desk, provides a handy calendar and to-do list. If you're jumping from computer to computer and really need to keep yourself grounded, this is a nice way to do it. It's not something that's unique to Verizon, of course, but it's all in one place with your Web mail, so it can help center a fragmented life.
If you're already organized and want to be entertained instead, Comcast provides a free subscription to Rhapsody Radio, a service with more than 80 commercial-free streaming-music channels that other people have to pay five bucks a month to subscribe to.
What's it going to take to put you in this modem?
Of course, the final decision always seems to have a dollar sign in front of it. If you can make an annual commitment, Verizon will charge $29.95 per month for its DSL, which actually means somewhere in the low $30 range when you factor taxes into the equation. Comcast cable customers pay $42.95 per month for their broadband service. The narrow price gap adds up to about $100 per year, which might sway some users. The real question is this: which combination of features will make your ride most comfortable?
And to those who care, I now drive a preowned Toyota Echo. I'm cheap, it's true, but at least I get 40 miles per gallon on the highway. With those gas savings, I'll be able to afford the broadband features I really want.
Should Matt Lake hit the road and take his fluffy dice with him? Give your feedback to his four-wheeled ramblings in the TalkBack below.