Mac Daniel's Advice

Is Cable Internet or Dial-Up the Better Value?

Evan Kleiman - 2003.04.22

Q. Is cable Internet for me? Or should I stick with dialup?

A. This question is a commonly debated question in households of late. With prices falling and new deals popping up daily, people are asking the question more and more - whether cable Internet is the best option for them. So, today's article will be dedicated to trying to answer this pounding question in many Internet-savvy Mac users' heads.

Comparing and Contrasting: The Basics

If the commercials haven't burned these figures into your head, I'll repeat them again. Dialup Internet, through ISPs like Earthlink, CompuServe, or AOL, typically costs from $9.95 to $23.95/month depending on the provider. Cable Internet, such as Comcast, AOL, or any other ISP's "high speed" access can cost anywhere from $39.95/month upwards.

While the end result of both is a connection to the Internet - where you can view web pages, play games, download songs, etc. - the methods of achieving this result are quite different. Dialup access connects to the ISP through your phone lines. It uses a traditional modem, which you probably have connected to your Mac somewhere. It connects at speeds up to 56K by dialing a phone number, which you need to have your modem dial every time you wish to connect.

Cable Internet is connected through your cable TV. It comes off the same outlet as your TV; in fact, most companies even give you the common cable splitter to split the wire going to your TV. For this you need a cable modem, which is usually included with your service (at a cost). It's a separate box, and you probably don't have one inside your computer. Since it connects to your computer, as long as it's plugged in, you're online.

The different ways of connecting yield different advantages and disadvantages, and that's what we'll examine.

Dialup Access: The Advantages and Disadvantages

The number one advantage of dialup access is clear: It's much cheaper than cable Internet. Many times, with discount ISPs, dialup Internet access can be had for around ten dollars a month. This is a quarter what you'll pay for cable.

Providers (such as AOL) routinely offer new software for the Mac platform, even OS X. Many of the ISPs, such as CompuServe, offer programs to connect to their service, so you have a greater feature-set compared to cable's typically browser-only configuration.

But you get what you pay for. Many of these services don't support Macs or are not very Mac-friendly. Tech support isn't exactly the greatest.

Obviously, speed is another disadvantage of dialup access. Dialup ISPs have reached an apex with 56 kb/sec connections, which in today's standards is not fast enough to keep up with Shockwave, Gnutella, and Java. Real world downloads, for me at least, average around 4-5 kb/sec. At these speeds getting a 3.5 MB MP3 isn't exactly an instant download.

Cable Internet: The Advantages and Disadvantages

At first, it looks as if cable Internet isn't the best choice for connecting to the Internet. However, as said before, you get what you pay for. Cable offers many advantages that dialup access doesn't.

For instance, dialup access can only be used by one user at a time.* With a router, which can be had for around US$40-50,** you can share the cable Internet with every computer in your house. Sharing the Internet in such a fashion allows you to also use USB printer sharing and other nifty Mac features.

* If you have OS X on at least one computer with a modem and a network, you can share a dialup connection. See Internet Sharing a Breeze in OS X for more. dk

** That assumes you're already connected to cable TV. If not, you may have to sign up for that as well.

Cable Internet is much faster than its dialup counterpart. I average transfer speeds of 10 kb/sec to upwards of 120 kb/sec, depending on whom I'm downloading from.

The last really major advantage is that it connects through your cable lines. This means that you're always connected, so there's no need to enter a username and password and wait while a modem dials.

Also, since it connects through your cable instead of your phone lines, it doesn't make your phone busy. This will eliminate frustration by people trying to call you or save costs on the extra line you undoubtedly purchased after hearing complaints of a busy signal from your loved ones.

However, cable Internet isn't without its downsides. When you get cable Internet, you get it for your house, apartment, building, office, etc. You can't really travel with it. You can't go on vacation, carry your laptop, find a local number, and sign on like you can with something like AOL or CompuServe. (Or you might end up with both - cable at home and a low-cost dialup ISP for when you're on the road.)

If you travel a lot, this can be a major deciding factor for you.

Also, you're at the mercy of the cable company, which may be not as reliable as the phone companies or ISPs in your area. On the other hand, you're only at the mercy of one company, as opposed to two with dialup (the ISP and the phone company). So this is either an advantage or disadvantage depending on the quality of the services available in your area.

The Bottom Line: Making Your Decision

Deciding which ISP to use isn't easy; nor is it a cut and dry decision. Every family is different. Hopefully this article can help you make the right decision for your needs. LEM

Evan Kleiman has been writing for Low End Mac since January 1999. He also runs his own site, Evansite. Evan uses an iMac, along with some vintage hardware. You can read more about his computing experience in The Many Macs of Evan Kleiman.

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