5.2.1. Get Your PC Online
THE ANNOYANCE: I just signed up for a broadband Internet connection in my home. Everything seems to be plugged in correctly, but I can't get to any web sites.
THE FIX: Modern broadband connections are pretty simple, until they stop working. Most of the time, the solution involves nothing more than unplugging your cable or DSL modem (and router, if you have one), leaving the devices unplugged for at least two full minutes, and then plugging them back in. If that doesn't work, you'll have to do a little digging.
Note: If you don't yet have a router, consider getting one as part of the solution to this problem. As described in "Set Up a Wireless Network," routers offer better firewall protection than Windows can; they also take care of a lot of the problems that commonly plague broadband connections, such as finicky dialers.
Examine your DSL or cable modem's port lights, which will tell you whether or not a particular service is working. One should be lit (green, usually) when your PC is connected, and another should be lit when your broadband is connected. These lights typically flash to indicate that data is being transferred. If they're off, or perhaps red or orange, something is wrong with your modem or your connection, and no amount of wrangling in Windows will fix it. To see if your modem is to blame, reset it (see your modem's documentation for details) and try again; replace your modem if it won't respond even after a reset. If your modem checks out, your connection might be down; give your ISP an hour or two to bring your service back up, and contact them if it takes any longer.
Does your broadband connection require special dialer software? See the "Troubleshoot Your Dialer" sidebar for dialer-specific help. Otherwise, you likely have an always-on connection, one that uses either a dynamic (randomly assigned) IP address or a static (always the same) IP address. In this case, refer to the paperwork that came with your broadband connection, and change Windows's TCP/IP settings accordingly, as described in "Network Two Computers." Specifically, choose the "Obtain an IP address automatically" option if you're using a dynamic address, or the "Use the following IP address" option for a static address.
5.2.2. Get Rid of Third-Party Dialers
THE ANNOYANCE: My ISP gave me this CD when I signed up for Internet service. Not knowing any better, I installed it, and now my PC is littered with ads and junk software. Do I need any of this stuff?
THE FIX: In most cases, the software that comes with broadband service is unnecessary, providing little more than branded web software and links to your ISP's various marketing partners. The exception is the "dialer" program required by certain types of broadband connections, which is used to send your username and password to your ISP in order to connect to the Internet. Such software is typically flaky and the cause of all sorts of Internet connection problems. Fortunately, you can usually dump your ISP's proprietary software in favor of either Windows XP's built-in dialer or the auto-connect capabilities of a router.
Note: There are a few exceptions. If you're using a USB modem, such as the SpeedTouch 330, it may require special drivers in order to work. If you have one of these, you may be better off replacing it with a combination modem and wireless router, such as the SpeedTouch 580, than trying to get it to work with anything other than the software that comes with it. Another exception is a wholly proprietary Internet connection provider such as AOL, which isn't compatible with anything other than the provided connection software.
First, remove the superfluous software provided by your ISP: in the Add or Remove Programs control panel, highlight your ISP's software, and click the Remove button. If your ISP installed more than one software package, you may have to uninstall several entries from this list.
The best alternative to a software-based dialer is a wireless router, which will dial your connection automatically, keep you online all the time, protect your PC with its built-in firewall, and even provide wireless access to boot (see "Set Up a Wireless Network" for details).
Although routers are hard to beat, you can use Windows's built-in PPPoE dialer to connect to the Internet without any added hardware. Open the Network Connections control panel and click the "Set up a home or small office network" link on the left (or double-click the Network Connection Wizard icon). Answer the questions as follows:
Figure 5-9. Use the Network Connection Wizard to set up a PPPoE dialer and replace the dialer that came with your broadband modem.
To initiate the connection, double-click the icon you just created in the Network Connections folder. If you elected to create a desktop shortcut in the wizard, you can also double-click the new desktop icon. By default, a Connect dialog will appear, at which point you can click the Connect button to dial and connect your PC to the Internet.
Normally, you'll have to dial this connection before you can go online. To have Windows connect automatically, first right-click the connection icon and select "Set as Default Connection." Next, open the Internet Options control panel, choose the Connections tab, and select the "Always dial my default connection" option.
To skip the Connect dialog, right-click the new connection and select Properties (or click the Properties button in the Connect dialog box). Choose the Options tab, and remove the checkmark next to the "Prompt for name and password, certificate, etc." option. This is particularly useful if you want Windows to connect automatically when you first start your computer; just drag the PPPoE connection icon from the Network Connections folder into your Startup folder in your Start menu.
5.2.3. Share an Internet Connection
THE ANNOYANCE: I have three PCs in my house, but only one Internet connection. How can I access the Web from all three PCs at the same time?
THE FIX: There are several approaches, but the best solution is to use a router (preferably one with wireless support). Essentially, you take the cable that goes from your modem to your PC, unplug it from your PC, and plug it into the back of the router. Then you connect all your PCs to your router, either wirelessly or with cables, and then configure your router, as described in "Set Up a Wireless Network." The router also protects the PCs on your network with its built-in firewall, a must-have in an era of viruses, spyware, and bored teenage hackers.
The alternative to a router, useful only if you need a quick-and-dirty solution or can't use a router for some reason, is to use Windows XP's built-in Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) feature. The trick, basically, is to connect one PC (called the "host") simultaneously to the Net and to your local network. Then you set up your other PCs to piggyback, so to speak, on the host PC's Internet connection. Since the host PC needs two network cards, (one for the local network and one for connecting to the Internet), this approach likely won't save you any moneyor time, for that matterover using an inexpensive router.
To set up ICS on the host PC, open the Network Connections control panel and select View Details. You should have at least two connections listed: one for your Internet connection and one for your workgroup. If not, your network is not ready.
Find your connection for the Internet. In most cases, this connection will be the network adapter connected to your DSL or cable modem. (For connections that require a username and password, use the PPPoE broadband connection you set up in "Get Rid of Third-Party Dialers.") Right-click the connection icon, select Properties, and choose the Advanced tab. Check the "Allow other network users to connect through this computer's Internet connection" box, and click OK. Back in the Network Connections folder, it should now say "Enabled, Shared" in the Type column.
The next step is to configure each of the other computers on your network to use the shared connection. On each of the other "client" PCs, open the Network Connections control panel, right-click the connection icon corresponding to the network adapter plugged into your workgroup, and select Properties. Choose the General tab, highlight the "Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)" entry in the list, and click the Properties button. In most cases, you'll want to select the "Obtain an IP address automatically" option. If, however, you need static IP addresses, choose the "Use the following IP address" option, and fill out the fields as instructed in "Network Two Computers". For the "Default gateway," type the IP address of the PC hosting the shared Internet connection.
That's it! Test your connection on each PC by loading a web page. Of course, for this to work, the host computer must be turned on and connected to the Interneta requirement that makes the router a much better choice for the long haul.
5.2.4. Measure Your Internet Connection Speed
THE ANNOYANCE: I'm not sure I'm getting the best speed from my Internet connection, but the Connection Status window in Windows XP doesn't give me any useful information. And while I'm at it, are the ads I've seen for "faster" Internet connections mostly hype, or is there something I can do to improve my connection speed without spending any extra cash?
THE FIX: Throughput is the practical measurement of bandwidth: the quantity of data you can transmit over a connection in a given period of time. The simplest way to measure your throughput is to visit one of the many bandwidth-measuring web sites, such as Broadbandreports.com (http://www.dslreports.com/stest/) or Bandwidth Place (http://bandwidthplace.com/speedtest/).
For the most accurate results, make sure you close all superfluous programs before running the test. In addition to calculating your bandwidth and reporting the results, these services typically ask for your Zip Code and connection type to compile statistics on typical connection speeds in your area. The results should look something like Figure 5-10.
Figure 5-10. Use Broadband Reports's speed test page to measure the speed of your Internet connection.
Now, according to the results in Figure 5-10, the download speed is a respectable 1267 kbps (kilobits per second), which means, in practical terms, that it should take about 6.5 seconds to download a 1-MB file under ideal conditions.
However, ideal conditions are rare; real-life transfers are often much slower, due to overburdened servers and busy networks. Since your connection speed (or lack thereof) is most noticeable during file downloads (compared with web surfing or emailing), you can overcome some of these conditions by using a download manager, as described in "Faster Downloads Without the Hassle" in Chapter 4.
So what do you do if your connection seems too slow? First, close all open windows, and turn off all background programs (such as the ones that show up in the System Tray in the lower-right corner of the screen, near the clock). Do the same for any other PCs using your Internet connection. Next, examine the lights on your router or broadband modem; if they're flashing, it means that some program is still running on your PC, possibly consuming bandwidth. This is a possible sign that a virus, worm, Trojan horse, or some sort of spyware has made its way onto your PC (see "Put an End to Pop-ups" in Chapter 4), but see the "Overcome a Bandwidth Limit in SP2" sidebar for another possibility.
Note: For real-time monitoring of your connection's throughput, try a desktop bandwidth monitor. The slickest tools are widgets, fancy plug-ins for the free Kapsules script engine (http://www.kwidgets.com) For instance, Bandwidth Watcher, Simple Bandwidth Monitor, Mr. Network, and KapMule, all available at http://www.kwidgets.com/forge.aspx, provide pretty graphical displays and up-to-the-second measurements of the amount of data being transferred via your Internet connection.
Of course, it's also possible that you're hitting the upper limit of your broadband connection. But whether or not an upgrade from your ISP is worth the money depends on the bandwidth you're getting now and the amount of cash your ISP is demanding for the faster service. If your connection measures more than one megabit per second (1024 kbps), it's unlikely you'll notice a huge difference in real-world speed with a faster connection. On the other hand, more expensive connections sometimes offer substantially higher upload speeds, which may be worth the added cost if you spend a lot of time sending files to web servers, or even if you want to host a web site on your PC.
Note: If you're using a router, visit the manufacturer's web site for a possible firm-ware update that might fix some performance problems and may even add new features to your router.
5.2.5. Make Peer-to-Peer File Sharing Work
THE ANNOYANCE: My peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing program stopped working when I installed Service Pack 2. Is Microsoft trying to put an end to P2P, or can I fix this?
THE FIX: Most large companies would like to see P2P disappear, mostly because nobody has found a respectable way to make money off it. But the problem you're experiencing is almost certainly caused by the new Windows Firewall software built into SP2, which is blocking your file-sharing program from establishing a connection to its server.
Note: Microsoft frequently releases updates and bug fixes for its firewall. If you decide to use the Windows Firewall, make sure you download all available updates using the Windows Update feature.
A firewall is a layer of protection that permits or denies network communication based on a predefined set of rules. These rules restrict communication so that only certain applications are permitted to use your network connection. This effectively closes back doors to your computer that viruses, hackers, and other malicious parties or applications might otherwise exploit. The Windows Firewall (see Figure 5-11) replaces the nearly worthless Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) found in earlier versions of Windows XP. While it's better than its predecessor, it also acts more aggressively and closes more back doors by default. (See "Set Up a Wireless Network" for more information about firewalls.)
Figure 5-11. The Windows Firewall, which is turned on by default in Windows XP Service Pack 2, is known to cause problems.
Note: If you're using a router with a built-in firewall and you don't need to protect your PC from the other computers in your local network, you can safely turn off the Windows Firewall for good.
To see if the Windows Firewall is to blame, disable it temporarily. Open the Security Center control panel, click Windows Firewall, select the "Off (not recommended)" option, and click OK.
If your P2P software now works, the firewall software is clearly the culprit. (If it still doesn't work, the problem lies elsewhere; consult your P2P software documentation for details.) Go ahead and return to the Windows Firewall window, and select the "On (recommended)" option to re-enable it. Next, choose the Exceptions tab, click the Add Program button, and find your P2P application in the list (if you don't see it, click Browse to locate the .exe file on your hard disk). Highlight the program and click OK in both boxes. The Windows firewall should now let your P2P program do its thing without interferencethe change will take effect immediately. (If you're using a third-party firewall program, check the software's documentation for help creating exceptions.)
If creating this exception doesn't work, return to the Exceptions tab of the Windows Firewall window and create another exception. This time, instead of basing the exception on the program filename, configure the firewall to allow all communication over the port used by your software. Click the Add Port button, type a name for the exception (for example, P2P), and type the port number (e.g., 6699). If you don't know the port number used by your P2P software, consult the software documentation. Click OK in both boxes, and give it a whirl.
5.2.6. Use MSN Messenger Behind a Firewall
THE ANNOYANCE: I want to use MSN Messenger at work, but my company's firewall blocks instant-messenger software. How can I get around this?
THE FIX: The last thing you should be forced to do when you're at work is your job. To that end, several web-based versions of popular IM programs have been designed that can sneak through firewalls quite easily. (Such programs operate over TCP port 80, and are thus indistinguishable from web sites in the eyes of the firewall.) In the case of MSN Messenger, just go to http://webmessenger.msn.com and click "Start MSN Web Messenger" to log in.