Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Computing Myth #2: Broadband only works with a new computer

Posted by Trixter on February 2, 2006


While this isn’t technically true, I can definitely see how this myth was formed. My father ran on a 486/66 with a modem from 1995-2001. In 2001 he got cable modem broadband, but his 486/66 was so slow that it couldn’t process complex web pages much quicker than it already was, so he saw no actual speed benefit. So he went back to the modem, at which point I almost lost it (“How can you want to go slower?!”)

Later he upgraded to a Pentium 3 @ 450MHz, and could finally perceive the modem as a bottleneck.

Ironically, two years later, I did the same type of thing (downgrade powerful hardware): Through a telephone conversation mix-up, I agreed to reserve and purchase a Yamaha snowblower — and when I got there, I had reserved the wrong one. What I thought was going to be a $600 18- or 24-inch blower was actually a $1300 36-inch semi-industrial model. I was coerced into buying it because renigging on the reservation meant I would be charged $50 because these things were in demand in the middle of winter. So I bought it to avoid the fee, took it home, opened the box, took one look at it and knew I could never use it for my tiny driveway without being embarrased (it wouldn’t even fit in my garage with both cars), and proceeded to box it up and return it. On that day, a snowstorm began. As I’m returning this monster snowblower, I get a goofy look from the kid helping me; when I inquire, he says, “I’ve just never seen anyone return a snowblower in the middle of a snow storm!”.

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5 Responses to “Computing Myth #2: Broadband only works with a new computer”

  1. phoenix said

    Well, this isn’t really myth-busting so much as saying “it’s true, broadband isn’t very useful on old hardware”.

    If you had the energy, you could’ve charged neighbors to snowblow their driveways. :)

  2. Rimbo said

    You’ve given anecodtal evidence of one situation where it’s true, but this is not entirely a myth, as anyone who tried to run a 14.4kbps modem on an 8550 UART can attest.

    You won’t be prevented from reaching “broadband” speeds necessarily, but “broadband” is defined to be 128kbps and up; if your CPU and bus speed aren’t capable of handling the Mbps, you definitely can be held back.

    We’re currently working with several embedded processors at Kiyon, and with all of them, the actual performance is CPU-limited; the 133MHz MIPS is limited to about 8Mbps on 100Mbps ethernet and 15Mbps on 54Mbps wireless (including TCP overhead — yes, we are a networking company, we know about TCP overhead), for example. In all of these embedded chips — PowerPC, ARM, MIPS — the CPU is used for the ethernet controller, rather than having an external chip controlling the bus. As a result, the performance is CPU-limited, and worse, having a busy CPU murders your networking performance (even less than the numbers I gave).

    In any case, your Dad was right to return the broadband until he had a processor where he could see the performance benefit.

  3. Yuhong Bao said

    I think that shows how the modem was not always the bottleneck in Internet speed.

  4. tahrey said

    I dunno, man… our 486 was plenty capable of maxing the 33.6 (and eventually, after enough firmware updates, 56k) modem. Actually had a 16650 in it, for a start. Broadband doesn’t work over serial, either. Even if you were using an old ISA ethernet card, you could probably pull a decent megabit or two of transfer out of it’s 10mbps total… the memory, video, AND disk in those machines were all working at a higher level than that after all, and though the render performance isn’t stellar, they can still chunk thru html and jpgs at more than a 7kbyte/s input speed.

    Could be that his broadband wasn’t very good. I remember the dark days where you would sometimes be lucky to see treble figures if you were on cheap ADSL, which is the point at which a well-serviced dial-up with server-side compression can be pretty much transparent. Our own first brush with broadband (on some kind of awful Cyrix 266 that was soon ditched for a K6/2-450 in order to actually be able to PLAY divx videos instead of only hearing them) was luckily a HALF-meg dedicated cable line, which seemed pretty fast vs the modem and the cheaper suppliers.

    That’s since been serially upgraded and I’m not even sure what we have – somewhere in the zone between 4 and 10mbit. It’s easily “enough” that I’m rarely waiting around enough for transfers to be bothered testing the rate.

    Somewhere along the line I got an old pentium laptop dirt-cheap to use as a basic portable typing tool (stony broke and needed something better than my old 8mb palmpilot and folding keyboard). De-rated it from 120 to 60mhz to save the battery (Office ran exactly the same). Eventually lobbed in a cheap 802.11b PCMCIA card in order to have basic web and email access at home. Worked surprisingly well – the limiting factor was not so much transfer and rendering speed, even in the best that Win95 had to offer (IE5, i think?)… but the screen rez (VGA! again, word doesn’t need more than that). Getting anything serious done involved plugging in a monitor, by which point I may as well have started surfing on my desktop, only piping the data back to the laptop over the wifi at the end of the sesh.

    Could also be the era in which he was testing it. The actual interweb wasn’t THAT data heavy at the turn of the millenium. You could still get by alright with dial up (my dad had to for some years after, living in the sticks), it was just slow. Broadband was something of a waste if you were just getting email and looking at the occasional shopping or information site. BB was for MEDIA. P2P or…. hehe… legal (what, really? well, there were some news sites sticking out 200k+ realmedias I guess). What had been a rather painful and sometimes heart rending Napster / Direct Connect / mIRC experience, trying and failing once again to get that episode of a near-forgotten and in no way yet released on VHS/DVD (had to wait til 2008 for my personal grail to do that!) kids tv show, or some rare album of unreleased awesomeness from a small time band, before the line dropped, or the peer/server turned off for the night, or just plain had enough of you leeching at an uncertain 6-7k and kicked you off so the big broadband guys could have a turn… turned into a rich and FMV filled wonderland where it was all for the taking. And CPU speed almost certainly didn’t matter even at that point, at least for the machine you downloaded on. 512kbit is only 64kbyte/sec, or about 1/3rd CDROM transfer rate. And a 486-33 will happily record CD quality audio if you give it a bit of breathing space.

    So…. yeah.

    • Trixter said

      Believe it or not, a 286 will do all of the above as well. It all comes down to the 16-bit ISA interface, a handy set of opcodes (REP INS/OUTS), and being lucky to have any serial port/modem with a 16550 UART.

      Was amazing to think what we could do back then, eh? My favorite tricks involve displaying GIFs and JPEGs as they downloaded, or using BIMODEM to send and receive at the same time.

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