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  • The Apple Broadband Tuner Report

    December 3rd, 2005

    At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that today’s commentary is based in large part on my personal experience with the Apple Broadband Tuner. The fact is that others have very different results to report, but I’ll be fair about it and mention those too.

    In any case, it doesn’t really matter how fast your Internet connection might be. You still want it to be faster. Sure enough, some of you have discovered the nasty secret that cable Internet speed is deliberately throttled for marketing reasons. If the competition, be it DSL or one of the new fiber optic schemes, such as the Verizon’s FiOS, which is being rolled out in some of its service areas, offers greater performance, you can bet the cable providers will open up the spigots to allow more bits to get through. Prices may even remain the same or drop, depending on what other providers are doing in your city.

    Out here in the southwest, I use Cox’s Premier service, which originally offered from four to five megabits download speeds, and 500K uploads. Not too shabby, but the price was, at the time, out of sight. Today, it’s only $15 above the standard or Preferred service, but speed has improved to up to nine megabits down, and one megabit up. Except for times when the network is a little too busy, I get pretty close to that performance level, so I’ve little to complain about, except when I hear folks in other parts of the country are getting 15 to 30 megabits. Oh well, I suppose that, too, will come here eventually.

    In any case, when Apple released its Broadband Tuner, I decided to give it a whirl, even in advance of reading the online scuttlebutt. I suppose I like to take risks, but since there is an Uninstall option, I figured there’d be nothing to lose. Basically this system update tweaks the default values for the size of Mac OS X’s TCP send and receive buffers. The theory goes that if they are larger, you get a performance boost. But there is one note in the fine print that early adopters of the Tuner have apparently ignored and that is that it’s supposed to be for “very high speed FiOS based Internet connections that have a high latency.”

    Understand that advertised speeds with FiOS can be as much as 15 megabits or even 30, depending on the plan you choose. But before you ring up Verizon to order the service, don’t forget that it’s only available in a few of the company’s service areas, such as parts of Virginia. In any case, most of you do not have FiOS, and therefore the potential for Broadband Tuner enhancing your system is debatable.

    In my case, I’ve tried tweaking the settings on my Power Mac G5 a time or two, with no provable results, and promptly returned to the system default. Sure enough, as some folks have reported, Broadband Tuner had a negative impact on my desktop Mac, a moderate reduction in upload speeds, and virtually no change in download performance. Alas, after removing the Tuner, which doesn’t require a restart, I ran a single benchmark, and, within moments, had a kernel panic. That’s something that hasn’t happened to me for months.

    After the restart, everything worked all right and my Internet benchmarks were back to normal. The key element in Apple’s description of the utility is “high latency,” which is not generally a factor with DSL or cable Internet. There, fattening the send and receive data buffers can, as in my experience, have a reverse impact. I don’t know a lot about FiOS, since it is in the formative stages, but another situation where you might encounter high latency is with satellite broadband.

    While I’m happy to try system tweaks from time to time, it’s unfortunate that this key element of Apple’s description has apparently been overlooked by some users, and some Mac Web sites. To be sure, Apple has added to the confusion, because the original product description didn’t mention FiOS, and it still doesn’t correctly define other situations where high latency is common.

    In any case, other than that kernel panic, which some others have also reported, there’s nothing wrong with trying to tweak your Mac’s Internet settings, so long as you have a way to remove it. With Broadband Tuner, you’ll find the Uninstall option when you click the Custom button when running the Installer. As I said, it doesn’t require a restart, but, in light of my experience, I suggest you do so anyway, even after installing.

    As you’ve read from time to time, some folks have suggested that Internet connection speeds seem faster on the Windows platform. On the occasion where I’ve measured such things, I haven’t observed a difference, although, until Safari and Firefox came along, Windows users supposedly had speedier browser performance because of Internet Explorer’s pathetic rendering speeds on the Mac.

    And, despite the performance drop at my end, I expect Broadband Tuner will improve connection speeds in some instances. Just proceed with caution, particularly if you’ve already done other system tweaks.

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