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Tech Q and A: Is Your Fiber-Optic Connection for Real?

Every other week or so, FOXNews.com tries to solve your most vexing technology-related problems. Send your questions to TechQuestions@foxnews.com and we'll reply to selected ones in our next installment.

This Is Fiber Optic. This Is Big.

Q: I recently switched my Internet service from cable to fiber-optic. I signed up for the bundle with phone, Internet and TV. I'm generally pleased with it, but it doesn't seem like my Internet is any faster. Was it a mistake to switch?

A: Probably not. In my opinion, the difference between competing products in the 21st century — in most industries, not just phone/Internet/television — lies more in the quality of service and support provided after the sale than it does in the product itself.

For example, I was generally satisfied with the quality of the TV service I received from the cable provider where I used to live. Good picture, plenty of available channels, competitive pricing, etc.

But the bill ran as many as 12 pages and was nearly indecipherable. And dealing with the billing department was an exercise in futility and exasperation.

For that reason alone, I could never recommend that provider to my friends and colleagues, and I switched providers when I moved to my new apartment last month.

Here are some things to look out for when switching to fiber-optic service:

First, find out exactly what the company means when it says "fiber-optic" service. Last year, one of the cable providers in Southern California was pooh-poohing the idea of a competing fiber-optic service, claiming that it had had fiber "in its own network" for several years.

Erm ... yes. Nearly every cable company does. The question should be: How far does the fiber extend? If it only links different cities in its network, but is delivered on regular TV cable from central office to the customer's home, it isn't really fiber-optic service.

There is a term — "Fiber to the X," where "X" can be node, neighborhood, cabinet, curb, pole, building, premises or home. Only providers claiming FTTP, "Fiber to the Premises" (or something similar) are offering true fiber-optic service, in my opinion.

If the cable company's Internet service has to be converted back to copper wires to make the "last mile" to your home, it's not fiber-optic.

Second, speak with existing customers who have called for tech support. Find out if their support experience was satisfactory. Do the same with customers who have called about billing issues.

With all due respect to the countries involved, I would choose the provider with English-as-first-language tech support over the provider with English-as-second-language tech support in a Bangalore minute.

Third, check the channel line-up. If the company's claiming 500 channels, but 300 of them are music, you're only receiving 200 TV channels, no matter what the claim is.

Make sure the channels you like to watch are included. If you're a fan of the Golf Channel, for example, don't just check for a sports package — it may not include golf.

Finally, compare introductory rates and look at the rate you'll pay after the introductory rate expires. If the final rate is higher than you're currently paying, you're not saving any money in the long run.

With respect to the speed issue, keep reading.

I Feel the Need — the Need for Speed

Q: Ever since I installed Internet Explorer 8, my computer randomly freezes when I go from one URL to another. When it freezes, the task manager will not come up — I must manually turn off the computer. Any suggestions?

A: Back in the bad, old days of mainframe computers and such, there were two terms with which we used to describe computer speed issues. It was said that you were either "compute-bound" or "I/O-bound."

Compute-bound meant you had all the data readily available, but the computer was too slow to process it all in a timely fashion. Input/output (I/O)-bound meant you had the computing horsepower, but couldn't get data to it very fast.

By way of analogy, imagine the Pomona Freeway east of Los Angeles at 3:00 a.m. on a regular weekday. Long and straight, smooth and fast, no traffic.

But you're driving an old clunker which can barely keep the engine running and is coughing out clouds of black smoke. You're not going to go very fast. You're the equivalent of "compute-bound."

On the other hand, imagine driving a Ferrari Testarossa, eastbound, on that same freeway at 5:00 p.m. on the Friday leading into a long holiday weekend.

It's going to be stop-and-go no matter how much horsepower you have. You're not going to move any faster than the old clunker. You are "I/O-bound."

Your problem doesn't sound like either condition, but I needed the elements of the analogy.

Imagine the Ferrari at the bottom of the on-ramp of the empty freeway, stuck at a red light. It's not moving at all, despite having all the necessary horsepower and an empty road.

You have the horses, you have the road, you're neither compute-bound nor I/O-bound. Something else is holding you up.

One of the things I find really irritating about Windows is its tendency to lock up, refusing to do anything when waiting on something from the network. The computer is fine, the connection is fine, but something is bringing everything to a halt.

To isolate that problem, start by eliminating the other two possibilities. They are easier to troubleshoot.

First, test the Internet connection — the "road conditions," to use my analogy.

Open up a command prompt. (In XP, Start —> Run, enter "cmd," click OK. In Vista, Start —> All Programs —> Accessories —> Command Prompt.) Type "ping -n 100 yahoo.com".

You should see 100 lines of replies from the Yahoo servers. After it completes, look for the third-to-last line. You're looking for 0 percent packet loss, which means that no information is being lost as it zips around the Internet. If it's much more than 0 percent, call your Internet service provider.

Open up Internet Explorer and go to www.mycooltools.com. Click on "MyVoIPSpeed." Find the red dot that corresponds to Dulles, Va., and click on it. Then click on "Click to start test".

After the test finishes, click on the "Graph" tab and then click on the link for detailed analysis. It will show you all kinds of network metrics.

Call tech support and see if there is a program or procedure to optimize your network setting for the speed that the fiber optic system delivers. The generic network settings in Windows are great for the general case, but woefully inadequate for a blazingly fast fiber-optic setup.

If there are no problems with "road conditions," then it's time to check the "car." Start with Internet Explorer itself. Please refer to Tech Q & A, April 2, 2009 for suggestion on how to optimize Internet Explorer, including problems with IE8 Add-ons. You can find it here. Scroll down to "Speaking of Internet Explorer."

If Internet Explorer is OK, then you need to check the rest of the "car."

If the problem is most pronounced during the first 15 minutes you have your computer on, it may be that your anti-virus solution is stealing all of the computer's processing power while it performs its startup scan for viruses.

Disk space can be an issue. Windows systems like to have plenty of free space — as much as 20-25 percent of the disk. To use the Disk Cleanup Tool, go to Start —> All Programs —> Accessories —> System Tools —> Disk Cleanup.

Memory can be an issue. If you normally keep a lot of windows open, consider adding more memory. In my opinion, 1 gigabyte is an absolute minimum for Vista, and should be higher.

Memory can also be an issue of there is something wrong with existing memory. Download a copy of MemTest86 (you can find it at www.memtest.org). Follow the instructions for running the diagnostic.

It could be that your computer is infected with malware, trying to contact some remote malware or ad server which isn't responding.

As I said, Windows tends to halt all other processes waiting for unfulfilled network requests, and is specifically what I was referring to with the "red light" part of my analogy.

One of my clients in Riverside, Calif., had that problem a couple of years ago. His computer had been turned into a spambot — that is, it was infected with malware that was causing it to send hundred of e-mail messages whenever it was on.

His Norton security software had been configured to display a small notification window for each outgoing e-mail, and it was tiling the entire screen with the notifications, 20 or 30 at a time, dutifully scanning each outbound e-mail for viruses, and oblivious to the fact that it was infected.

In fairness to Symantec, which owns Norton, I should disclose that my customer had not renewed his Norton subscription, so he was not 100 percent protected.

Anyway, make sure your computer is free from malware infestations. Tip: If you use the Disk Cleanup Tool, or optimize Internet Explorer by clearing out all of the temporary files before you scan for viruses, the scan runs much more quickly. It doesn't have to scan nearly as many files.

I Trust You Can Handle This Contraption, Q?

Q: I am using Windows Vista Ultimate on my desktop computer , and have not been able to synchronize my Motorola Q smartphone with Outlook because the Windows Mobile Device Center will not run.

When I start the program, the graphic pops up, then goes away. When I connect the phone via a USB port, Vista wants to sync multimedia files with Windows Media Player. I have read numerous FAQs and forums about this problem and none of the solutions will work. If you can help I would be most grateful.

A: The Moto Q has gotten hot and cold reviews. Great features, but some problems with Windows Mobile.

I think you've identified the problem: "the graphic pops up and then goes away." It knows that Windows Mobile Device Center needs to run, but fails to get it started.

I would suspect the driver first. A symptom of this would be a red "X" on the WMDC icon.

According to Microsoft, this can be remedied by connecting your device, then going to Computer —> Properties. Find the Portable Devices node, locate the entry for the Windows Mobile device, and choose "Uninstall the device."

Reconnecting your device will reload a new (and, hopefully, uncorrupted) version of the driver.

It could be a firewall issue. Try running "firewall.cpl." Choose "Allow a program through the firewall." Then check any entry which has "Windows Mobile" in its name.

Microsoft also suggests that if you're running the 64-bit version of Vista, you might need to reinstall Windows Mobile Device Center a second time to successfully update it. While not a strict requirement, they advise that the Moto Q be connected during the reinstall.

Finally, if you have Windows Live OneCare installed, it may be preventing your device from connecting. Check the Microsoft Knowledge Base article here for details.

Feedback

In out last Tech Q & A installment, we wrote:

"The advantage [of installing] Vista [now, as opposed to Windows XP] is that you'll be able to upgrade to Windows 7 after it is released."

Reader Kevin takes exception. He writes:

When you read the fine print you find out that you have to reinstall all your applications! An upgrade would be something that allowed you to NOT reinstall every third-party application. What MS has created is strictly a marketing ploy to the weak-minded (people that don't read the fine print). Microsoft is setting itself up for another failure with this type of marketing.

I'm not going to say you're wrong, Kevin, but I'm wondering exactly which fine print you're reading.

The Windows 7 End User License Agreement (EULA) has yet to be published. There is a page on the Microsoft site, where it will eventually be found, but at present it's more of a holding page than anything else.

See http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-7/eula.aspx.

If you've volunteered to be an unpaid software tester for Microsoft, and have downloaded either Windows 7 Beta or Windows 7 Release Candidate, you do have to agree to EULAs, but each says nothing of installing applications. There's a purported copy of the RC EULA at the Gizmodo site.

See: http://gizmodo.com/5131284/microsofts-pre+release-software-license-terms-for-windows-7-beta.

Perhaps you're referring to the Installation Instructions for the Release Candidate. There we read:

If you've installed Windows 7 Beta on your PC, you'll need to back up your data, and do a clean installation of the RC. Then you'll need to reinstall your programs and restore the files, settings, and other information you want to use for testing.

That's kinda the idea behind making a release candidate available. It's meant for testing purposes only, and will need to be uninstalled — along with any applications you've added —before you can (a) install a fresh copy of official Windows 7, or (b) upgrade from Vista.

Windows 7 is slated to hit store shelves at the end of the year. After that, the release candidate will begin shutting down every two hours, beginning March 1, 2010, and will stop working altogether on June 10, 2010.

Perhaps this is the fine print to which you're referring?

In a response sure to generate some controversy, Ted writes:

I was reading your recent article on the Mac viruses, and it popped into my head that at last year's CanSecWest, the MacBook was hacked in 2 mins. ... [I'm] sure it was Safari that was the weak point, but that is still an Apple product, leaving their illogical customer base susceptible to be hacked. The best wisdom is this: If a man made it, then a man can break it.

I seem to recall something about that my ownself. Zero Day Initiative's PWN2OWN contest, where the winners walked away with the MacBook Air and a $10,000 prize, left the PC and the Linux systems standing unscathed.

But, as Mac enthusiasts are quick to point out, the first to hack each system got to keep it. And the Mac was, by far, the most enticing target.

At least according to Mac people.

State of the DTV Conversion Report, Penultimate Version

Yes, dear readers, after today there will be only one more installment of Tech Q & A before the June 12 conversion! Last chance for questions!

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has released the results of a poll showing that "75 percent of digital-ready households say they received better quality reception across all broadcast channels after upgrading to digital with a converter box."

All well and good, but to my way of thinking, this indicates that one in four of us were finding poorer quality after upgrading. It's a glass-half-full kinda thing, I suppose.

You're all familiar with the difference in the views of the optimist and pessimist with regards to the glass. Then there's the engineer, who opines that the glass has been designed for twice the necessary capacity.

Got questions about computers and technology? Send them to TechQuestions@foxnews.com and we'll answer selected ones in our next installment.

We regret that we can't answer questions individually. Neither FoxNews.com nor its writers and editors assume any liability for the effectiveness of the solutions presented here.