For online gaming, you need a steady, stable connection with minimum lag. To start bringing down that ping, you can use an expert software tweak.
Windows 7 is already heavily optimised for network use, but with file transfers in mind, not steady streams of game data.
Nagle's algorithm is the culprit. It delays small chunks of data and gathers them into bigger packets. It's fine for files, but not so great for World of Warcraft. Use the free software SGC Optimizer to disable Nagle's algorithm depending on how you use your machine.
Under the Advanced Settings tab, you can apply changes to the Registry without adding keys yourself. For general broadband optimisation, there's a simple 'Optimise' button that applies a range of tweaks. If your ping speeds seem slower at certain times of day - or when you're using different types of application - then your ISP could be throttling traffic to optimise its network.
Most ISPs won't admit it, but it's standard practice to reduce or block the bandwidth available to some applications to free up space for mainstream activities, like web browsing. It could affect you if you're a gamer, using VoIP apps like Skype, or downloading files using BitTorrent or uTorrent.
Most providers are secretive about traffic management, but others use it as a selling point, recommending and targeting specific packages at different user requirements.
PlusNet's Value package limits gaming bandwidth to 2MB. Upgrade to PlusNet Extra though, and you'll be able to enjoy full speed gaming. Be Broadband claims not to throttle any specific type of traffic, and if you opt for its Unlimited product, you get access to a control panel that lets you optimise your connection profile for gaming.
If all other tweaks fail, call up your old, sluggish ISP and demand a MAC (Migration Authorisation Code) so you can move to a provider that's prepared to meet your needs.
If you're serious about gaming, pay a little extra for a static IP. It's the ultimate stability upgrade. Your gaming experience will only ever be as good as the weakest link in your system, so it's essential you match a tweaked broadband connection with a machine that can keep up.
Don't bother with network cards aimed at gamers. We've yet to find one that's worth the small performance increase you'll reap. Spend your money on extra RAM and a better graphics card instead.
We've already suggested that streaming media users might upgrade their firmware to the latest version from the manufacturer. Gamers and downloaders may want to go a step further and try downloading a tweaked and optimised version of the firmware for their router.
There are several hacked and patched options, using open source software to replace or enhance the existing router operating system. Tomato replaces the firmware in certain Buffalo or Linksys routers, and other models that share the same chipset. Netgear users should take a look at DGTeam.
In both cases, additional commands are added to your router's control panel, letting you directly optimise your connection, making it faster or more stable.
Speed up downloads
If you're downloading large files regularly, then you'll want to make sure you're using the full capacity of your broadband package. Your first step should be to find out whether your ISP throttles or otherwise manages download traffic.
Virgin, for example, has been vocal about its management of filesharing traffic, reducing the amount of bandwidth available for this activity at peak usage times. You therefore need to find a provider that's friendly towards P2P traffic.
Some ISPs allow full bandwidth for P2P traffic at specific times of day - usually from midnight until early morning. Antisocial hours, in other words. If you're planning to be in bed then, you can schedule your large downloads to run automatically.
For example, in uTorrent - a widely used BitTorrent client - you can set up a schedule that only permits downloads between specific hours. Set up the scheduler, start your download and leave your computer switched on. It will begin automatically when the scheduler allows it.
Assuming your ISP lets you to use all your bandwidth allowance for downloads, it's important to make sure that external parties aren't hitching a free ride on the service you're paying for.
Your Wi-Fi router should be secure out of the box, but some people try to solve connection issues by switching off password protection. This is a very bad idea. We'd even go so far as to suggest that simple WPA protection isn't enough protection.
Most routers let you narrow down permitted machines by their MAC address - the unique ID code of the network card in your computer. Have a poke around in your router's configuration page and you should find a way to do this.
It's not only unscrupulous neighbours who might be stealing your bandwidth and making downloads slow. We've already suggested switching off legitimate programs that use up bandwidth, but there could be other code on your machine phoning home and using up your valuable megabits.
If you download files online, especially from dubious sources, you could have viruses, trojans, spyware and worms hidden away in archives. Clean up your system with free tools like AVG Free and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.
Botnets are perhaps the worst culprits when it comes to adversely affecting download speeds, not only eating up bandwidth by connecting back to their source network, but using it to send spam emails. It's sometimes difficult to track them down, but TrendMicro's RUBotted is one option if you suspect that your system may have been compromised.
The software runs in your system tray, quietly monitoring traffic to and from your router. It will alert you if it spots a pattern it recognises as potentially suspicious activity.
If you've tried all our suggestions and you're still not satisfied with your download speeds, sometimes there's just no substitute for more bandwidth. Right now, ADSL2+ speeds top out around 20Mbps, with average connections actually capable of 8-10Mbps.
But what if you could have two ADSL lines? Or four? You can. This is known as bonded ADSL, and it uses multiple broadband lines to increase the bandwidth available. The only problem is, it's expensive.
BT offers bonded ADSL as a business service, charging £30 per line after a set-up fee of £275 and a connection fee of £60.
Digital line management
If you're experiencing slow downloads, one common culprit is a line speed that's been set too low. When you're connected to a new broadband account, the line goes into a 10-day training period at the beginning of the contract. If there are errors on your line during this period, your line speed will be lowered at the exchange.
With modern ADSL2+ lines, you can even experience line speed problems later than that, because Digital Line Management on these packages checks your line capability periodically. If your line drops frequently, it may become 'banded', which means that a maximum download speed has been set to stabilise the connection.
If you can diagnose and stop the cause of the instability, you can then contact your ISP and ask it to arrange for the cap to be lifted. However, it's important to note that if problems remain, your speed could drop again. When consistently downloading large files, that's a real possibility.