When the pandemic first hit, many people realised that fast, reliable home broadband was an essential utility rather than a nice-to-have. With potentially more people in the house sharing the connection all day, streaming video and doing online meetings, contention in the domestic environment became something of an issue, where one user can hog the available bandwidth to the detriment of others.
The same issue occurs en masse at the broadband provider’s network, where their resources are shared between users on the assumption that they won’t see all of them demanding full speed at the same time: a contention ratio of 50:1 is pretty common, meaning if your neighbours are hammering their connection then it may affect you (assuming you’re on the same provider).
By now, we should all be used to the challenge of making your home network better – plugging into a wired network port to avoid poor WiFi signal, making sure other devices don’t do massive downloads during the working day. Check the speed of your network using one of the many tools available – like this one from Microsoft Research; if you search on Bing.com for just speed test then you’ll get a simple speedometer view.
If you’re using Teams or other realtime conferencing tools, it’s arguably more important to look at the latency (or “ping”) and the upload speed, than focussing on the headline download speed; if you have a device uploading lots of data, it might rob your bandwidth and ramp up the latency, which will be the enemy of any kind of synchronous comms. Check your latency over time with an online tool (like TestMy Latency) or download WinMTR to look for spikes in latency.
It’s worth making sure your PC isn’t causing issues itself, by running out of memory or pegging out the CPU and therefore giving a poor experience: the topic of looking for poor home network perf has been covered previously in ToW #533 amongst others.
Microsoft Teams has added some built-in monitoring and data collection capabilities, reported back to a central admin dashboard (Set up Call Quality Dashboard (CQD), and now semi-realtime data is visible in the Teams client itself.
When in a call, go to the … menu and look for Call health. Click on the various “view more… data >” buttons to see further detail, like the size and rate of the video you’re sending to the call you’re currently on. If your colleagues tell you that the quality of your video is poor, take a look in there to see what you’re actually sending.
As an end user, see here to understand how to interpret the various data. Hover over the little info icons to the side of each headline to see a bubble explaining in one-line what this is measuring. It’s quite interesting.
For admin guidance on what bandwidth and latency requirements you should have to perform acceptably, see here.
If you’ve ever had problems with your PC’s performance, you may have turned to Task Manager. It’s been in Windows since the NT4.0 days, when developer Dave Plummer came up with a bit of software he was planning to sell, but decided to donate it to his employer instead:
I’m the Microsoft developer that wrote TaskMgr at home in my den in about 1994 and then the NT silverback devs [ie Dave Cutler] let me check it into the main tree even though I was a greenhorn at the time. So that meant I got to bring it into work and polish it up and make it an official part of Windows, where it remains to this day.
He was inspired to apply to Microsoft in 1993 – having read the Hard Drive book (an excellent historical tome, having inspired at least a few great Microsofties to join up), then went on to write various money-saving optimisations for MS-DOS, and ended up in the NT team, leaving the company 10 years later.
Dave also recommends another great history book – Showstopper!
Back to the current era, Task Manager is still a really useful tool when it comes to figuring out issues with your Windows PC. If you think something is wrong (app starts bogging down, feels like the PC is in a bad way), you can quickly start Task Manager with the shortcut CTRL+SHIFT+ESC (easy to hit with one hand…)
In an emergency (if it feels like your laptop it about to blow up, with fan blaring, screen blinking, UI non-responsive etc – maybe joining a Teams call or opening an Excel spreadsheet), it’s usually possible to throw TASKMGR its own special three-fingered-salute, since it isn’t tied to the Windows Shell – you can use even Task Manager to kill or restart the EXPLORER.EXE that sits under the Start menu, task bar etc.
If you can get to Task Manager, you can run a CMD or Powershell prompt, start explorer or msedge etc.
A colleague pleaded recently that he was having a poor experience with Teams, and queried, did he need to upgrade his 150Mbps internet connection?
To check what kind of network performance you’re actually receiving, there are many speed test apps and sites.
If you’re using the new Edge (if not, why not? Don’t use IE – it’s too old; stop using old Edge – it’s obsolete; the new Edge is fast and it’s better than Chrome), and you have Bing as your default search engine, all you need do is enter ? speed test into the address bar and you’ll get a speed test gadget to give you an idea of performance.
If the base speed looks OK, use Task Manager to inspect what’s happening – fire it up in your favoured way (clicky-clicky-menu, right-click the taskbar, CTRL-ALT-DEL > Task Manager, if not CTRL-SHIFT-ESC) and by default you’ll see the near-useless list of what’s running with no other context. Time to show more details…
On the Processes tab, click on the CPU column to sort by what’s using the processor most – its also worth casting an eye on some other resources to make sure they’re not running out of steam; if you see an app consuming a huge amount of memory, it might be leaking, and shutting it down completely could make all the difference.
Task Manager lets you kill processes (“End Task”) too, if the app has hung and won’t close cleanly. In fact, Dave said there should be nothing that Task Manager can’t kill (apart from some critical system processes – TM might have been able to kill them, but will also bluescreen the machine … so some protection has been added to prevent the user from doing something that would be instantly fatal to Windows – though TM is able to kill itself).
Back to the Teams troubleshooting scenario – If you don’t see the PC getting nailed by some process (that isn’t Teams itself), then it’s worth looking at the Performance tab, and leave it running for a short while, paying particular attention to WiFi/Ethernet.
If you see sustained high throughput, then switch back to the Processes tab, sort by Network and you can see what service/app it is that’s hammering the connection. You could fire up Resource Monitor if you want to dig in even further, started from the bottom of the Performance tab. ResMon lets you drill down to see what a single process is doing, what it’s connecting to, how much network traffic is going to and from it, and so on. Useful, if you like that sort of thing.
Finally, your network might perform brilliantly most of the time, but every so often you get a blip that feels like it’s dragging, then it picks up again. This could be spikes in latency, the enemy of anything real-time, like video calls.
Try running the Microsoft Research Speed Test app – the nice thing is that it keeps a history log, so if you ever think your connection is bogging down, try running a realtime test.
The Network delay is actually key here – if you had more than 1Mbps upload and 5Mbps download speed, that should be plenty – but if your network delay is commonly more than ~150ms, it’s going to start causing problems.
If you have a network connection whose latency fluctuates a lot, there are a bunch of things you could do to seek and troubleshoot: