"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can
find information on it." People have been quoting that particular gem from the truculent 18th century man of letters Samuel Johnson for centuries. In the world of cars, there are knowledgeable drivers who follow their vehicle's service manual to the letter and can recommend a great mechanic they use all the time. These are smart people. But there's a class of übergeeks who rotate and align their own tires, change their own timing belts, and hook into their vehicle's onboard computer to tweak the fuel-to-air mixture for optimum power and gas mileage when they drive into the mountains. These are smart people too, but their definition of knowledge is different: they don't want to know who can do the job for them, they want to know the subject themselves.
When I recommended (gasp!) commercial products for adjusting Windows network settings, thus speeding up Internet access, I received a lot of criticism. The people who wanted to have the knowledge themselves would rather spend hours messing with settings than pay 30 bucks to have a product do the job for them. As a dyed-in-the-wool tinkering Registry editor of old, I can see their point. There are some free ways to adjust network settings and optimize your Internet connection. You'll need to learn a few terms and risk messing things up a bit, but if you're prepared to get oil under your fingernails, allow me to show you a few do-it-yourself tricks.
Do you need to do anything?
The first law of messing around with machinery is culled straight from the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. If you start mucking around with network settings, the danger is that you'll either break something or make it worse than it was. So before considering "optimization," you should figure out whether you can realistically make things better.
Fortunately, there's a tool designed for just such a task: a Java applet called Tweak Tester from DSL Reports. Scoot over to DSL Reports and run the Java applet. This will run a noninvasive diagnosis of your connection and ask you a few questions about your setup. You'll need to know your operating system, your class of Internet connection (cable, DSL, and so on), and how you connect. If you use a PPPoE "dialer" to hook up to your DSL connection, for example, your settings will differ from the best tweaks for a router-based cable connection.
The three settings that are most likely to improve if they are tweaked are the receive window size, or RWIN; Window Scaling; and the Maximum Transmission Unit, or MTU.
Tweak Tester gives you a series of recommendations at the bottom of the screen. If all you see is smiley faces at the bottom, you're in good shape and can go about your business. (See you in a couple of weeks…enjoy your summer!)
If Tweak Tester gives you other recommendations, dig yourself in and prepare for some networking lessons, or forfeit any gains you may have now by walking away while you have the chance. This could get ugly.
I want my MTU
The three settings that are most likely to improve if they are tweaked are the receive window size, or RWIN; Window Scaling; and the Maximum Transmission Unit, or MTU. There are many other settings in Windows' TCP/IP stack, but in most cases messing with them will yield very little improvement, if any at all.
In fact, in some cases, you're better off not trying to change even these three settings. MTU is particularly tricky under Windows XP, as a cursory reading of Microsoft's Knowledge Base article 314053 will prove. You need to open the Registry Editor and edit the key Tcpip\Parameters\Interfaces\ with the identity of your network adapter. You can set the optimum MTU size above 1,500 unless you happen to have PPPoE connections, in which case you shouldn't go above 1,492.
In general, it's best not to mess with your network settings in the Registry Editor unless you follow Microsoft's methods to the letter, so I'm not going to adapt them for your perusal here. (I'd rather Microsoft get the support calls when you enter the wrong setting and lose your connection altogether.)
In general, it's best not to mess with your network settings in the Registry Editor unless you follow Microsoft's methods to the letter.
I've had some luck working with free downloadable tools for editing network settings. DSL Reports' own DrTCP is a handy way to tweak settings once you've grokked the meaning of such settings with your Tweak Tester results. Download.com has a couple of other popular alternatives, both of which are a little old but still beloved. Internet Turbo is the clunkier of the two, and TrackZapper's TZ Connection Booster 1.1 is a little slicker.
However, be warned that even if you don't break your network completely by applying settings from these tools, they may not actually improve your speeds at all. Some DSL and cable users who have run proper scientific tests on before-and-after settings report 40 percent boosts in download speeds; others report no changes, or worse, overall deceleration. Luckily, I guess, you can always reedit the settings to see what gives you the best results. But if you're going to do it properly, this will take time, and isn't that what you're trying to save by this process?
Geekiness is of two kinds...
So it is possible to tweak your network settings, but should you? Frankly, it all depends on what kind of geek you want to be--and how much you value your time. If digging in and adjusting packet sizes sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday night (or a tedious stretch of seat-time at work), knock yourself out. For my own part, well, I was going to drive up to the mountains. I have a Toyota fuel injector to hack into and tweak. I think I'll just leave my connection as it is...
Do you have winning RWIN settings and super Window Scaling? How's your MTU hanging? Let Matt Lake know your Web acceleration tips in the TalkBack section below.