Back to the dial-up grind

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail, Technology
February 5th, 2009 • 6:09 pm

I am afraid I am being forced to curtail my on-line activities somewhat. Since Monday, February 2, my pseudo-high speed Internet hook-up via satellite has been on the fritz. It might not have been a coincidence that, on that day, after several weeks of very cold weather, we had milder temperatures, which caused all kinds of packed ice and snow to melt. I wouldn’t be surprised if that ended up triggering some kind of hardware malfunction on the roof, where the 2-way satellite system is located.

In any case, I have to wait for the repair guy to show up and hope that he can fix things without it costing me an arm and a leg. In the meantime, I cannot exactly function without any sort of Internet connection, so I have had to purchase a month of dial-up service, which means that I am back to the joyful days of 28.8 kbps throughput. Yey.

About the only thing positive about dial-up is that it is not weather-sensitive (which the satellite system definitely is). But apart from that, 28.8 kbps is really atrocious. (Theoretically, things should be closer to 56 kbps, but I suspect that the quality of our land line is simply not going enough. It’s OK for voice and fax communications, but with a dial-up modem, whether it is the external Apple USB modem or the one inside my “Snow” AirPort base station, I cannot get anything better than 28.8 kbps. Sometimes I don’t even get that and I am stuck at 26.4 kbps. Sigh.)

In addition, since I got the satellite hook-up a couple of years ago, I have gotten rid of our second land line, of course. I could no longer justify the extra expense. So now I am stuck with dial-up and only a single land line, which I also use for phone and fax. (I have a Pay-as-You-Go cell phone, but only for emergencies. Besides, the cell phone reception in our neck of the woods is pretty bad too.)

It is quite nightmarish, really. Of course, in the couple of years since I last was forced to use dial-up, the average bandwidth requirements of most on-line activities have only increased even further, which makes it even more painful to try and do over dial-up what I usually do over my satellite-based connection.

But what has really been the most frustrating is how atrociously bad Apple’s Mail application is with a dial-up connection. I have a number of different e-mail accounts for the domain names that I manage, and these accounts use various POP servers and SMTP servers. (I only use a couple of IMAP accounts, and only for minor activities, because even with a somewhat faster Internet hook-up, they are still too painful to use.)

Mail is simply extraordinarily bad at dealing with the limited amount of bandwidth. It takes almost nothing to cause its connection attempts to time out or stall (and then it takes forever to notice that the process is stalled and actually stop it). Don’t even think about trying to load a web page (however lightweight) while Mail is trying to check mail or send something.

And what can I say about Mail’s handling of SMTP servers? Good grief. For some reason, Mail has this uncontrollable background activity which causes it to regularly “check account connections” with all the SMTP servers that you have defined in your list of SMTP servers and that you might be wanting to use. Needless to say, since this background activity is uncontrollable, it is more likely to occur when you don’t want it to, and add its own bandwidth requirements to the mix. What kind of idiotic behaviour is this? What exactly is it checking for? Isn’t it something that it could do once in a blue moon instead of once every few minutes?

In addition, I have been completely unable to actually use any of these various SMTP servers, which I normally use with my satellite hook-up without any significant difficulty. Whether it’s due to time out issues or something else, I do not know. But they don’t work at all. So basically Mail is wasting time and bandwidth checking its connections to SMTP servers that it is unable to use properly anyway.

To make things worse, even if I click on the “Stop” icon in the Activity Viewer window to try and stop these spurious connection-checking processes, sometimes Mail fails to terminate them properly and gets stuck at the “Stopping” stage indefinitely (which itself cannot be stopped). Nothing can be done to get out of it! Even quitting Mail no longer works—because the “Stopping” stage is interpreted by Mail as an on-going process and it refuses to quit until all processes are complete. The only way out is to force-quit Mail, even though it is not unresponsive! Otherwise, Mail would probably continue to be in the process of “stopping” the processes for hours

The only way that I have found to avoid all this nonsense is to effectively give up on trying to use any SMTP server other that my dial-up provider’s server. Since I don’t want to lose all my existing settings (hoping that I will be able to use them again once my satellite system is back up and running), I don’t exactly want to delete all the SMTP servers from the list in Mail’s preferences. So what I have actually done is changed the preferred SMTP server for each account to the dial-up provider’s server, and checked the box that says “Use only this server“.

This hasn’t totally eliminated the “Checking account connections” nonsense, but right now it only occurs whenever I bring up Mail’s preferences. If I refrain from bringing up the preferences, Mail non longer goes through the stupid checking on its own.

Not that this has solved all SMTP-related issues, mind you. Even with my dial-up provider’s SMTP server, which is the only one that works for me now, I still am unable to send any attachment bigger than 1 MB. The sending process simply stops working after sending about 1 MB of data (which takes about 15 minutes, of course). I monitor the data throughput with MenuMeters, and I see that there is no longer any data going out, even though the sending process still is in progress according to the Activity Viewer, with the progress animation looping endlessly.

I suppose it would stay like this for hours, without ever completing the sending, if I didn’t cancel it. I am quite sure that the problem is with Mail itself, which is simply incapable of dealing with this low-bandwidth connection and somehow times out before the process is over, but without exiting the process involved. (I have tried about half a dozen times with messages bigger than 1 MB. It simply does not work.) Maybe my provider’s SMTP server is also not particularly well-designed to handle such a situation, especially when dealing with an e-mail program such as Mail, which only a tiny fraction of its customer base uses. How do you think I am going to be able to get my provider to do anything about it? Do you really thing the average tech support person at a dial-up provider’s call centre knows anything about such issues and can do anything about them? They barely even know that the current version of the Mac OS is Mac OS X 10.5. Their database of information probably still lists instructions for dealing with Mac OS 9—if anything. (I have tried talking to a couple of them. It’s useless.)

When I need to send something larger than 1 MB, since I cannot do it in Mail, I end up using Gmail on the web. Thankfully, Google has a low-bandwidth interface for slow connections, and thank goodness, it is actually able to send attachments larger than 1 MB submitted through the Gmail web interface in Safari. It takes a while (although the throughput is actually better than in Mail with the SMTP server, according to MenuMeters, which is another indication of how well Mail works with SMTP servers), but at least it works. Of course this means that I have to use my Gmail account for this, which is not my default account, so I have to explain to my correspondents that they’ll be getting e-mail from me from another account, etc. etc.

And what to say of Mail’s progress indicators in Activity Viewer? Even for smaller attachments that actually do get through, the indicator is completely, utterly useless. It jumps from 0% to 100% immediately, and then stays stuck at 100% for 10 minutes while it is actually sending the data. Ridiculous!

And it is just as bad for receiving mail. If I get any e-mail with large attachments in a batch of incoming mail, the progress indicator for receiving mail in Activity Viewer is just as useless. It stays stuck in a given position, listing the subject line of a totally unrelated message that has actually already arrived in my Inbox, while it is receiving the other e-mail with the big attachment, and then, after 10 or 15 minutes of absolutely no movement, poof! It’s done and the message is there. In such circumstances, what is the point of having a progress indicator at all? It does not provide any kind of reflection of the actual progression of the transaction.

I could probably go on and on… Simply put, it seems to me that it is quite clear that Apple stopped caring about dial-up users a long time ago. I am quite sure that they don’t even bother to test Mail with a dial-up connection. They don’t give a flying hoot about dial-up users. It’s elitist, and it’s pathetic.

Unfortunately, it looks like I will be stuck with this situation at least until next Tuesday, which is the earliest time that the local repair guy can come. (Of course, with my luck, the work order that was sent on Monday never arrived, so it’s only when I called to complain that I hadn’t heard from anyone yet that they double-checked and had to issue a new work order, which delayed everything by another 48 hours.)

And that is assuming that he actually will be able to fix the problem, and that there isn’t another snow storm that makes work impossible on that day.

I know I survived with dial-up for many years, but really, in this day and age, it’s a bit much. I have too many commitments, and I simply don’t have time to wait for web pages to load and e-mails to arrive at a snail’s pace like this. And I must say that Apple really does not make it any easier with its atrocious handling of low bandwidth situations, especially in Mac OS X’s Mail application.

We are still counting, in Nova Scotia, on our provincial government to deliver on its promise of “high speed Internet for everyone” by the end of 2009 (which in our case will be fixed local wireless with a tower, in all likelihood), but so far there has been no sign of anything happening locally yet.

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