Answer Man: How fast is your computer?

News-DemocratMay 21, 2013 

I have a question about DSL. When I called to negotiate a price, the AT&T representative says I could go down on the speed to keep the price down, and I would never notice the difference. What, then, is the sense of the faster speeds if you never notice a difference? -- S.L., of Belleville

On the so-called information superhighway, do you need to ride a bicycle, drive a Buick or race around in a Maserati?

That's basically the question you'll have to answer to decide on a speed (and cost) that's acceptable to you. And that answer generally boils down to what you use the Internet for. Let me explain:

I use the Internet mostly to do research, so all I'm doing is downloading your average Web pages.

This sort of compares to my "riding-a-bike" analogy because you really don't need blinding speed to do this. Oh, sure, years ago when the 56-kilobyte modem was the best we had, it would take 15 seconds for the average 100-kilobyte page to load.

But now with even a minimum 512K broadband connection, it takes 1.6 seconds -- and just four-tenths of a second with a 2-megabyte connection. So, if this is all you use the Internet for, just about any DSL speed will do, especially if you're trying to cut expenses. Seems to me you'd be gilding the lily to pay for anything faster.

But if you've been around kids for any length of time, you'll know surfing the net is just the start of what they do. They download music, play games, trade huge photo albums and watch TV shows and movies on their phones, tablets and computers.

All of these activities involve sending and receiving massive amounts of data, which, in turn, require faster and faster speeds to accomplish efficiently. For example, a typical 5-minute song would take two minutes to download on a 512K connection but just seven seconds on a 6-megabyte line. I'm sure you've seen the AT&T commercials in which the older children complain about how long it took to download a song when they were "young." For this, you may want to consider a mid-range Buick.

Video is even more demanding. With a 512K hookup, you typically can download only low-quality video. You usually need 2- or 4-megabytes for medium and 6 for TV quality. But if you're constantly downloading high-definition movies from Netflix -- the modern standard -- you're probably going to have to bump it up to 12 or 20 so the data can be downloaded fast enough. Now we're talking Indy 500.

So, your AT&T rep wasn't trying to confuse you. It really does depend on what you use the Internet for -- basic surfing or watching a high-def version of "Star Wars." The more you do, the more speed you'll need.

So far, a Chevy is usually good enough for me. But any household with technonerds -- young or old -- may find they need a Lamborghini.

I recently caught a bit of a story about a new genetic test for prostate cancer. Can you explain this a bit more? -- M.L., of O'Fallon

It's one of those questions doctors have been desperate to answer for years.

Prostate cancer usually grows so slowly, it will never threaten a man's life. In other cases it can be fatal. Telling which is which, however, has proven elusive. As a result, the vast majority of men choose treatments that can produce incontinence and impotence rather than watching and waiting.

Now there is a second test that can help men decide whether they need to treat their tumor right away -- or simply monitor it. By measuring 17 genes in tissue taken during a biopsy, Genomic Health's Oncotype DX Genomic Prostate Score judges the grade and state of the cancer.

Research suggests the new test could triple the number of men who could opt for less-aggressive treatment. On the other hand, the test also found tumors that seemed more aggressive than doctors had thought.

The test, developed by the same company that has sold a similar test for breast cancer since 2004, will cost about $3,800 but may save money by avoiding unnecessary treatment. A similar test -- Polaris by Myriad Genetics -- went on the market last summer.

Just how many more men will be persuaded to forgo treatment once they hear "cancer" remains to be seen.

Today's trivia

Whose design work unintentionally led to the modern office layout and its system of cubicles?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Now 103, German-born Luise Rainer became the first actor/actress to win two Academy Awards -- and to do so in consecutive years. Despite a relatively small part, she enchanted audiences so much that she walked off with the best actress Oscar for her role in the 1936 "The Great Ziegfeld," only her second American film. The very next year, she did it again as the peasant Chinese wife in Pearl Buck's classic "The Good Earth." As it turned out, it was the worst thing that could have happened, she later said. After a string of mediocre parts, she left the glitz of Hollywood and returned to Europe. Since then, she has appeared in one episode of "Combat!" and "The Love Boat" and in the 1997 movie "The Gambler." She now lives in London.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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