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What's the UK's best broadband deal?

PC Advisor Home Broadband Survey 2011

The results of PC Advisor's annual Home Broadband Survey and the winners of this year's Best Broadband awards – as judged by you.

Best buy broadband: The need for speed

With a form of service-level agreement now in place between broadband provider and customer, there’s more reason than ever to take a peek at how well your ISP is delivering on its promises. When we asked about this factor in our Home Broadband Survey, we were surprised to find 24 percent of you don’t know or never check your connection speed.

Given that 42 percent of all survey respondents said they spend at least 20 hours of their leisure time online each week, and 46 percent of you are ardent BBC iPlayer fans, it’s a critical figure.

To check your web-connection speed, you should consult an online speed-test utility. There’s one on the PC Advisor website (speedtest.pcadvisor.co.uk). You’ll need Java installed, so head first to java.com and ensure your version is up to date.

More than two-thirds of survey respondents made use of this test and let us know how well their ISP is performing. A pleasing 65 percent said their result was fairly close to the claimed speeds.

Other broadband speed tests exist. Ours is based on Think Broadband’s Speed Test, but the other well-known one is SamKnows. In tandem with Ofcom, SamKnows began conducting exhaustive speed trials with home broadband users throughout 2010 that will run until late 2011. Participants are offered personalised average-speed reports on a monthly basis. In time, we hope to see a similar service rolled out on demand to all broadband customers.

For an accurate reading, you need to have your PC otherwise idle – if you’re downloading a large program or engaged in instant messaging, you’ll either get a skewed result or prevent the speed checker working. Check, too, that other devices are not also trying to use the connection while you perform the test. For a fair comparison, make subsequent speed checks at a similar time of day.

Ofcom regularly publishes average connection speeds that show a slow but sure increase across all ISPs. The UK average was 5.2Mbps as of July 2010. If your service seems to have plummeted, your speed-check results can help prove your point. While you may not get actual monetary compensation from the ISP for not matching your speed expectations, you do get an all-important get-out clause to help you look to other ISPs.

A MAC and a quick exit from your contract can be yours should your broadband service fail to deliver. Along with good value and good speed, not being tied into a lengthy contract is something 28 percent of you cited as critical to choosing your next ISP.

See also: How to get 100Mb broadband

Best buy broadband: Faster broadband for free

There’s a fair bit you can do to optimise your own web connection. Keeping the router firmware up to date and upgrading from the ADSL modem that came with your broadband subscription are a good start.

A router also gives you more control over your connection than a modem. You can choose what types of traffic are prioritised, perhaps pushing all the available bandwidth towards the web-call you want to make to your cousin overseas using a feature confusingly known as quality of service (QoS). Similarly, gaming fans can prioritise ping rates for the gaming server, giving a critical advantage over rivals as you get to see the enemy tanks appear over the horizon fractionally before your competitors.
Other improvements include attenuating the modem settings – something hardcore tweakers swear by, but whose benefit depends on additional factors – and switching your web browser to one that is less graphics-heavy, such as Google Chrome. When Mozilla entered the web-browser market with Firefox, it was largely its lack of bloat compared to Internet Explorer that won it immediate fans.

Checking for malware and keeping your web-security defences on guard is also important. One of the first signs of a malware infection, keylogger or other rogue web element, is a noticeable slowdown in the web connection and the rate at which pages load. Of course, disabling pop-up adverts, turning off ActiveX and browser-enhancement apps, and not spending all your time on video- and graphics-heavy sites will also help avoid web crawl.

Other people can greatly influence your web experience, too. If lots of you are sharing a web connection, it’s a fair bet your internet access will crawl along or even cut out. In shared accommodation, a second line such as an ADSL2+ one could be a good bet, while a pay-as-you-go 3G connection could be worth having as a standby. Tethering your smartphone and using its 3G function to get online can also work in a pinch. A 3G hub such as a MiFi hotspot can even get several of you online via the same subscription.

Routers bring their own issues. Site them above basement-height in the middle of the premises, with the antennae pointing upwards. Splay out the antennae to broaden its reach. For dead spots, supplement the connection from your laptop to the PC directly connected to the broadband modem router with another wireless router or an ethernet or HomePlug connection.

If you try to upload lots of YouTube or camcorder video clips, you may also find your £10-a-month web connection will stall. Some budget broadband deals provide healthy download speeds, while uploads are limited to 512Kbps or less. As we found in our recent webcams group test, you ideally need synchronous broadband (rather than the asymmetric fast downloads; slower uploads of ADSL) to successfully make crisp broadband phone calls and conduct video chat.

NEXT: how to change your ISP >>

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