Know latency from bandwidth, thus know your enemy...


Jan 29, 2001


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The Bottom Line Know the difference between latency and bandwidth. Some are under your control, others are not, and you'll know what to "fix". Have fun!

Every internet gamer dreads the word "lag", which basically means your network performance is slow. It doesn't matter how much you can transmit per second, but rather how fast can your signal get to where it counts. The proper term for the measurement is "latency".

Often you'll run into "ping time". PING actually stands for Packet INternet Groper, which is a utility used to "bounce" a network signal off of a machine to see if it's responding or not. The ping time, the usual measure of latency, is how fast did the ping packet return from the target machine. The smaller the time, the lower latency your connection is. Note that this has nothing to do with bandwidth (i.e. how MUCH can you uplink/downlink per second).

A high-bandwidth connection usually has lower latency. HOWEVER, you can have LOW ping times and be on a modem, or have high ping times and on a Cable/DSL. Ping time and connection speed are NOT related! They USUALLY go together (i.e. good bandwidth usually means better ping times), but they don't have to be.

Some networks are inherently more latent (laggy) than others. AOL, for example, uses several proxy servers to make sure their network are not hacked, but it also makes their network very slow and unsuitable for action gaming.

Most tests you see, like http://homepage.eircom.net/~leslie/testpage.htm,
measures bandwidth (bytes per second). While more bandwidth is always nice to have (make everything download faster), it probably will NOT affect your ping performance.

A better test of your connection would be this "ping" test right here, http://www.pcpitstop.com/pinger.asp, which requires IE and an ActiveX download. Keep in mind that if you have a firewall running the ping packets may not get through.

If you want to run your own tests, open a DOS prompt and PING a website, like

ping http://www.epinions.com

You'll see some numbers like

Pinging http://www.epinions.com [216.52.17.42] with 32 bytes of data:

Reply from 216.52.17.42: bytes=32 time=20ms TTL=235
Reply from 216.52.17.42: bytes=32 time=20ms TTL=235
Reply from 216.52.17.42: bytes=32 time=10ms TTL=235
Reply from 216.52.17.42: bytes=32 time=10ms TTL=235

The numbers will vary, of course, depending on your connection.

If you want to see how your packets got from your computer to the destination, you need to use a different command, called "trace route", or "tracert" in computerspeak. At the DOS prompt, do this

tracert http://www.epinions.com

You'll see a list of all the servers that routed your packet, their names if available, and their packet processing times (i.e. latency) if available (min, max, avg). You may be able to find a problem area with tracert. In general, you want to have the least amount of "hops" (i.e. less servers in that list). The more servers handle your packet, the slower the packet.

Most programs that claims to improve your network performance will optimize your BANDWIDTH, not your latency. Programs like Download Accelerator or iSpeed will NOT improve your latency measurement. Latency is a measure of
your NETWORK, so there is almost nothing you can do in your PC (which is just ONE part of the network) to decrease latency.

Lag is bad for gaming. Most games can PROBABLY tolerate lag of up to 150 ms lag. Some can handle more, others less. Check your game documentation for details.

Bandwidth is becoming more important as multiplayer games get bigger and bigger, from just 4-8 people to 32 or even 64 people at the same time. So improving bandwidth certainly wouldn't hurt. Just keep in mind that tweaking
a modem connection will only net you a few percent of gain. For major improvements in bandwidth, you'll need to pay for DSL or Cable.

So here's some avenues to explore to improve your net gaming.

1) Pick a low-ping host/server. Most net games allow you to choose among a lot of games, usually sorted by ping times. Pick a host/server with the low ping times for best performance.

2) Try different ISPs, different connections if possible. Different ISPs will have different performances, so you may want to try a couple different ones, esp. if they offer free trial periods. Try different dial-in numbers and such and see if there's a difference. For best performance, you want an ISP that is connected DIRECTLY to a national Internet backbone, or very close to it, not someone who's connected through somebody else, who's connected through yet somebody else.

3) Consider going DSL or Cable if it's available in your area. While those connections CAN suffer from high ping times, IN GENERAL the faster the connection, the lower the ping time, and most DSL/Cable costs about $40-50 per month, a little more than twice the dial-in cost per month.

4) Check for ISDN availability if DSL/Cable is not available. ISDN is only 128K, but you get two numbers and a pure digital connection. And they are generally quite cheap now that DSL is available.

5) If ISDN is not available, check your ISP to see if they offer Multilink, also known as Modem Bonding. Basically, that means you dial in via TWO modems (on the same computer), and double the bandwidth. This should NOT affect your ping-time, though it may cost you more per month.

6) If you only have POTS (i.e. phone lines), then avoid WinModems. WinModems, i.e. Host-based modems, do NOT have an internal controller. It relies on loading some device drivers in Windows that "borrows" a part of your CPU power to do its job, and in general they are slower than the true
modems. When you're already slow, every bit counts.

7) Try these two programs
TweakDUN (http://www.pattersondesigns.com/tweakdun/)
Shareware: optimizes your dialup adaptor, and other speed improvements such as HOSTS file generator and others.

NetMedic (http://www.ins.com/software/medic/index.asp)
Freeware: checks, identifies, and isolates connection problems, suggestions and implements solutions.

I hope this has been a quick and useful guide for configuring your computers to play games on the Internet. See you online.

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