How To Speed Up Your Internet Connection by 50%

This past Saturday Emily and I settled in for an Apple TV movie night (appropriately, The Social Network). We had everything set for a night of cinema at home. Popcorn: check. HDTV of justice: check. HD streaming movie rental: che….ummmm…why is our movie sputtering every 10 seconds?! In fact, after awhile, our HD rental stopped altogether, leaving us hanging with reruns of America's Funniest Home Videos and some godawful Lifetime programming. A little online research brought up an easy solution worth sharing to possibly inject some adrenaline into your network if your connection is feeling a little sluggish (you may even want to try this before you try Joel's 5 tips to speed up your wireless connection)...

Seems like Apple may currently be a victim of its own popularity, with plenty of complaints the newest Apple TV is exhibiting unacceptable loading and streaming speeds. But then I realized it could also be an issue with the DNS settings, the Domain Name System (aka the Internet's phonebook, as it's commonly referred to). It's not imperative you understand the exact details of how DNS lookups work, but here's a quick visual resource illustrating how it operates, at least enough for you to get a grasp how DNS affect loading times.

Image source: Verisign Domain Name Industry Brief, June 2007 (PDF), last page.

A while back, we switched our settings to use OpenDNS because our Roadrunner settings weren't cutting it; this initially sped up our internet connection noticeably, eliminating the lag that hampered our online experience. But with news Google had entered the DNS service with their Google Public DNS initiative, it seemed worth investigating if we were maybe betting on the wrong horse…or phone book…whatever.

Cue in namebench, a free open-source application from Google which might help you optimize your connection. Basically this Windows, UNIX and OS X friendly app runs benchmarks using your web browser history or a database of the top 2,000 websites according to Alexa if you don't want Google up in your browser history business; after a few minutes time, namebench will spit back a bunch of statistics and graphs, but it's all quite easy to understand on the surface, providing a tiered list of tested DNS servers according to their speed. Once you run this test, you're just a few steps away from a faster, better online you!

Usually, the closer the DNS server is geographically to your connection, the faster the DNS. This was the case for our own setup, so we ended up changing over to a more local Los Angeles-based DNS server, improving lookup times by 50%+.

Here's how to change your DNS in OS X after running namebench (Windows users, follow these steps):

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1. Open System Preferences from the Apple Menu.

2. Double-click the Network, under Internet & Wireless.

3. Depending upon whether you're connecting via Ethernet cable or wireless, choose appropriate connection and then the Advanced… at the bottom right of the window.

4. Click the DNS tab (3rd option after Airport and TCP/IP).

5. Stop to take down the DNS Server numbers currently listed in the DNS Servers window before making any changes (just in case you need to change it back). You can either add or subtract new DNS sever addresses in this window. Use the numbers provided by namebench here, then click OK.

In reality, our internet connection isn't really 50% faster (oh, how we wish FIOS was available in our hood), but a popular online speed test verified we were eking out quicker upload and download speeds with this updated DNS settings. We definitely felt our connection was sprinting where once it was lallygagging, and it only took all of 10-15 minutes to get set up.

Depending on your provider, router, modem, internet subscription tier and locality to quicker servers, your mileage may wildly vary. But we're happy to say not only were we able to finish watching our streaming rental without issue a day after (which doesn't necessarily mean our DNS magic was the cure), but Apple refunded us for the hassle of dealing with the viewing hiccup. In the end, the hiccup inspired an overall improvement with our online connection, so it all worked out in the end.