Safari: Increasingly hostile to dial-up connections

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 3rd, 2005 • 4:47 pm

Using Mac OS X with a dial-up connection has always been a bit of a challenge.

I remember the early days of Mac OS X when the mere process of downloading a large file in the background would cause the entire Mac OS X environment to become significantly more sluggish than it already was. That problem seemed to be inversely proportional to the speed of your Internet connection: The slower your connection was, the slower your Mac OS X environment would become. It was a behaviour that defied logic: A slower connection should normally require less processing power, not more. (The amount of data to process per second is smaller.)

Since then, things have become somewhat more tolerable, although it’s hard to tell whether it’s due to overall hardware speed improvements or to actual optimizations in the way that Mac OS X handles slow Internet connections.

But the fact remains that there are several areas of Mac OS X that are quite painful to use when you are on dial-up. The Help Viewer application is a typical example: The simplest search request causes Help Viewer to connect to Apple’s server and it sometimes takes 30 seconds or more before Help Viewer actually starts displaying search results. (I am told that Help Viewer is still painful to use even with a high-bandwidth connection. I cannot verify this.)

The iDisk is another example. Accessing your iDisk with a dial-up connection is excruciatingly slow and, since the iDisk features are integrated in the Finder, this means that the entire Finder environment becomes effectively unusable. This is why I highly recommend to use a stand-alone application such as Goliath to access your iDisk. It’s far from perfect, but it’s free, and it doesn’t interfere with the Finder, which means that you can continue to access your hard drive even while you are connected to your iDisk (!).

Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) doesn’t provide any improvements over Mac OS X 10.3 when it comes to life with a dial-up connection. On the contrary, it seems that Apple has been introducing changes lately that actually make Mac OS X increasingly hostile to dial-up connections.

The most striking example is Safari. I always have multiple tabs open in my windows when I browse the web with Safari. In Safari 2.0, I frequently experience the following: I have a web page loaded in the first tab in a Safari window. I command-click on a link on that page to open the corresponding page in another tab in the same window. Safari starts loading the other page in a second tab in the same window. If I then switch to that second tab right away, while Safari is still loading the second page (and, on a dial-up connection, it can take some time), then quite frequently Safari switches to the second tab, but continues to display the contents of the first tab!

In other words, I have a Safari window with two tabs, and the second tab is in the foreground, so that the title of the second page is in the Safari window’s title bar, but the contents of the page are still the contents of the other tab!

It’s only when the web page is almost fully loaded that finally Safari refreshes the contents of the window and actually starts displaying the page that the title bar refers to!

It’s extremely confusing. If Safari is unable to render the second page because it doesn’t have enough information yet, then when I switch to the second tab, Safari should display a blank page, not the contents of the first tab!

This never used to happen with Safari 1.x. It’s a new behaviour in Safari 2.0. I’ve reported it to Apple, with several supporting screen shots, but they don’t seem to be interested in fixing this problem. Of course, it is far easier to notice with a slow dial-up connection. I suppose that, with a fast broadband connection, you don’t have time to notice the problem—although I suspect that really fast users will notice it even with a better connection.

The other problem that I have noticed when using Safari 2.0 with a dial-up connection is that, quite frequently, Safari starts rendering the page before it has finished loading the associated CSS style sheet. This means that you first see a page with no layout and with plain text formatted using your default Safari font settings, and then after a while Safari changes the layout completely and renders it using the actual associated CSS style sheet. Again, it’s a rather confusing behaviour—especially when the plain text alternative of a web page actually contains a warning about your browser not being compatible with style sheets!

Again, it’s a problem that’s particularly noticeable with a slow dial-up connection. And because of this, I suspect that Apple is in no particular hurry to fix the problem—if they even consider it a problem in the first place.

These new problems in Tiger signal a rather disturbing trend in which the needs of Mac OS X users with a dial-up connection are increasingly being ignored, even when the slow connection causes highly confusing behaviours and seriously hampers usability.

It’s only because I have MenuMeters permanently installed in my menu bar and that I am able to monitor my bandwidth usage constantly that I am able to understand why Mac OS X behaves the way it does. I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone with a dial-up connection who has no visual indication of how saturated his connection is. (The Internet Connect application does have a visual display for incoming and outgoing activity levels with an internal modem connection, but it’s a huge waste of screen real estate and it doesn’t apply to my situation, since I use the modem inside my AirPort Base Station and not my computer’s internal modem.)

While I suppose that eventually everyone will have a broadband connection it will still take many years and even then, there will always be occasional network slow-downs. If the recent evolution of Safari is any indication, it is going to become more and more painful to use Mac OS X over a dial-up connection, regardless of the actual contents of the sites we are actually trying to browse and view. It’s bad enough that more and more sites are more or less requiring a high bandwidth connection. Apple doesn’t have to add its own unjustified requirements to the mix.

5 Responses to “Safari: Increasingly hostile to dial-up connections”

  1. swgs says:

    Pierre, I’ve been reading your blog for I believe close to 2 years now, and I have always wondered, where do you live that you still have dial-up for your main (only?) internet connection?

    It’s always been surprising to me to read that you are still using dial-up.

  2. Michael Tsai - Blog - Safari and Dial-up Connections says:

    […] Pierre Igot: […]

  3. ssp says:

    Have you tried unchecking the search in product support option in HelpViewer’s application menu? I’m not really using that app because I still hate it… but it looked like it might be a good thing to turn off for people with slow network access.

    Also, respect for using the iDisk on a modem connection! It’s been years since I use one but back in the days it was even catastrophic on ethernet and when I saw it at a friend’s via DSL it wasn’t particularly impressive either. So I wouldn’t have thought that using it on a modem connection was even possible.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    ssp: Had never noticed this option before. It does seem to make a difference! Thanks for the tip. Help Viewer is still a crappy application, but if my experience confirms the initial tests, turning this (poorly phrased) option off will indeed make a significant difference when on a dial-up connection.

    swgs: I live in southwest Nova Scotia (Canada), in a rural community. Broadband is available from the phone company (DSL), but only within the usual radius from their central offices. We are outside that range. Broadband is also available from the regional cable company, but we live on a road that has never had cable (and now most people have satellite dishes for TV). I actually organized a petition to try and get the cable company to extend their network to include us, but there aren’t enough people living on that road and I understand that it would simply not be cost-efficient for the cable company at this point.

    Finally, a local computer repair guy who lives on our road has actually set up a local wireless connection for himself and shares it with his neighbours, but again, we are too far from him and there is too much of a difference in altitude (we are on a cliff, he’s at sea level), which means that we can’t get a clear line of sight. The only solution would be to set up two big (60 ft) towers at each end, and that would represent a pretty hefty investment and an engineering challenge.

    As for satellite-based Internet, even two-way, I don’t think it’s realistic. I do a number of things over a secure connection, and I understand that, because of the latency, secure connections are atrocious over satellite (even slower than dial-up). Plus the weather can be brutal around here and I understand that Internet via satellite is more sensitive than satellite TV. Finally, last time I checked, there were only a couple of theoretically available satellite-based options (I don’t know anyone in the region who uses them), but they were both very expensive and untested.

    So as you can see, it’s not for lack of trying… and we would be the very first adopters if anything became available! We are simply unfortunate at this point in time. Either I can find people to share the cost of the local wireless setup with (we are still looking into it) or the cable company gets a government grant and brings cable to our road or the phone company extends its DSL network to reach us. I am waiting for any one of these three things to happen. There are no signs of any changes in the near future.

  5. Hes Nikke says:

    while my internet connection is technically broadband, it really isn’t that much better than dial-up. i so feel your pain!

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