Getting things done on a terrible Internet connection – the canonical guide

I lived for three months in India on a wi-fi network that would go on for two minutes, then off for three, and would randomly stop working for days at a time. So I got really, really good at getting work done on a terrible Internet connection. Here are some best practices.

  1. Avoid HTTP wherever possible. Your goal is to get the information you need and nothing more. Loading a full website, with ten Javascript files each requiring their own connection, ten CSS files, and fifteen images, will take forever. Meanwhile, the page render is blocked until the CSS finished downloading, so you can't even see the damn thing.

    Instead of loading websites in your browser, use different protocols. So instead of checking your mail at gmail.com (over HTTP), check it in Mail.app (over SMTP) and save yourself a ton of bandwidth. Instead of loading a chat client in the browser, load a chat client (over XMPP) and save bandwidth. Instead of loading your favorite website in the browser, save the RSS feed and read that instead (one HTTP request instead of thirty).

    I also set up tons of stuff to work directly via email - I could post to Twitter from email, update my Facebook from email. If I could help it I tried to push every interaction I had toward email or RSS.

  2. Cut down on HTTP requests, if you can't help it. Currently Firefox is the best bad-connection browser. Open up the settings and disable Javascript and images. Download the FlashBlock and AdBlock plugins. These will save you 40-50% of the number of HTTP connections you have to make, and lots of the throughput - images often use the most bandwidth and most of them add little. Furthermore any ad that streams video will kill your speed and crush your download time.

    Boost the size of your cache as high as it can go - I would say half of available RAM - so that images and other assets will be loaded from your machine, instead of downloaded from the Web. Make sure to kill tabs when you are done with them, as well - many modern AJAXy applications will continue making requests to the server even when they are not being used.

  3. Use a mobile user agent. Most websites will send less data to mobile phones than to regular browsers. On Firefox you can download the User Agent Switcher add-on and pretend like you are an iPhone. You should also use the mobile versions of popular sites like Facebook (m.facebook.com) and Twitter (mobile.twitter.com)

  4. Do most of your work offline. If you are developing websites, make sure you can replicate your production environment on your local machine, so you can experiment without making HTTP connections. Use a fast, compressible protocol like Git or rsync (instead of FTP) to compress the amount of data you send over the wire to your server.

    Use a good desktop mail client that can queue up outbound messages for you, then do all of your email offline. When you get back online, sending and retrieving messages over SMTP should only take a minute or two.

  5. Kill background data hogs. Lots of desktop programs will automatically connect to their home bases like you have a great connection. Some you should kill: Dropbox, the Adobe AIR Updater, Microsoft Office Updater, Software Update, any programs that load on startup, the Google Chrome auto-updater, as well as any program that has an "Automatically check for updates on startup" box.

    You should also kill any programs that are set up to load on startup in the "Login Items" preference pane. You can get a list of open HTTP connections by running netstat -a in the Terminal, although note that a lot of connections to popular sites may not be to the web domain you know (eg Google serves some content from 1e100.net and other domains). Also check your /Library/LaunchAgents and /Library/LaunchDaemons, as well as your ~/Library/LaunchAgents/ folder for apps that start running themselves in the background on system startup.

Conclusion

So that's about it; I can also go on about the terrible performance of websites on degraded browsers, or how most mobile apps break unnecessarily when they don't have a data connection (looking at you, Words with Friends). A bad internet connection is really frustrating and some of these tips will hopefully help you consume the Internet like you're used to.

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