No matter how fast your home network may be, we all get stuck using slow, unreliable Wi-Fi or tethered connections once in a while. Instead of tweaking your browser every time, set up a secondary browser just for slow connections with these simple tweaks.We've shared quite a few tips over the years for dealing with slow connections, and with the prevalence of smartphone tethering and coffee shop workspaces increasing all the time. We've discovered, however, that instead of tweaking your browser every time you find yourself on slow Wi-Fi, putting together a whole secondary browser optimised for slow browsing makes life a ton easier. That way, whenever you find yourself on a slow connection, you can just close your usual browser and fire up your tethering or Wi-Fi-optimised browser and get on with your work. Here's how to make it happen.
Pick Your Browser (Hint: Opera)
Obviously, the first thing you need to do is pick which browser you're going to use as your secondary. I highly recommend Opera, as it is one of the fastest options out there and has the very nice Opera Turbo feature that is absolutely perfect for browsing on slow connections. Plus, most of you aren't using it, so you don't need to mess around with setting up multiple Firefox profiles or anything like that (those of you currently using Opera, though, can easily create a second profile for regular browsing and another for slow-speed browsing).
Many of these tweaks also apply to Firefox and Chrome if you don't want to use Opera, and when applicable, I've included instructions for each browser below. If you're using Firefox as your main browser and also want to use it as your secondary, you can set up multiple profiles fairly easily. And while Chrome is capable of performing many of these tweaks, I don't recommend using Chrome as your low-bandwidth secondary browser because, as you'll see, many of these tweaks are just impossible or more difficult to perform in Chrome (its lack of customisability strikes again). I've noted those cases in which it does and doesn't work, just know that it probably isn't your best bet for this particular situation.
Use Opera Turbo
This is the main reason I suggest Opera. If you haven't heard about Opera Turbo, it's a seriously cool feature that optimises the web for slow connections. What it does is take webpages you request, compress them down using Operas servers, then serve the pared-down version to you. It isn't as extreme as some choices (like using mobile pages or disabling images, which I'll talk about soon), but it's a really great compromise. You get full web pages with slightly pixelated images or other imperfections, but you won't have to wait forever for all your favourite sites to load. It also has FlashBlock built in.
You can enable Opera Turbo manually from the bottom of the window, or you can let it automatically detect slow connections — though you can't tell it what a "slow connection" is to you. I recommend doing it manually — you know when pages are taking too long and when you want to accept the compromise Turbo entails. Check out the video explanation above for more info.
Block Ads and Flash
You may already do this on your primary browser, but others may not — I know I usually try to support sites I like (after all, it is how I make a living), but when I'm on a sluggish connection, all bets are off. There's no surer way to use up bandwidth and slow down page loading times on slow connections than by trying to load ads and flash animations all over a page.
Firefox users should block ads with AdBlock Plus and block Flash with Flashblock; Chrome users can use AdBlock and Chrome's built-in Click to Play functionality, and Opera users can check out Opera AdBlock. Flashblock is already built into Opera Turbo, so there's no need to do anything extra to get that functionality.
Use Fewer Extensions
Using too many add-ons can seriously slow down your browser, both on the local end and by using up bandwidth. I've kept my secondary browser almost completely free of add-ons, including Xmarks and Lastpass. I don't need them bogging down my browser startup, nor phoning home to sync all the time. This one's a bit more up to personal preference — If you want your bookmarks and passwords to be set up exactly like they are on your normal browser, you'll need these extensions. If your primary concern is saving bandwidth, try keeping them uninstalled on your secondary browser.
As far as other extensions go, unless they're there to seriously speed up my browsing by blocking ads, Flash, or changing my user agent to load mobile sites, I generally just ditch them. You'll just have to decide which of your add-ons actually make your browsing faster or whether they're a small bottleneck that you usually just find worthy of compromise when you're at home.
Use Lightweight Home and New Tab Pages
Many people prefer using pages like previously mentioned Myfav.es as your new tab page, or something like iGoogle as your home page. That's fine for browsing on a good connection, but you don't need to sit around and let your browser work on those pages when you're on slow internet. It will take a while to load, and take up precious tethering bandwidth (if you're tethering). I've just set my home page to about:blank, which is just the URL for a blank white page. I've set my new tab page to Opera's default, which is all locally stored. Chrome also stores its new tab page locally, so it's fine to use, though Firefox users don't have anything built-in—I recommend setting it to about:blank or using something like the Speed Dial extension if you really want shortcuts on your new tab page.
Use Mobile Sites
Mobile sites aren't always pretty, but they'll get you checking your email and reading those articles much, much faster, so if you're on an unbearably slow connection, it might be worth using them. It isn't necessarily something you want to do all the time, because it gives you a seriously minimal page. Of course, this is all personal preference. Some mobile webapps, like Gmail's iPad-optimised page, are quite nice, and will run much better on a slow connection. You'll just have to decide how awful the connection needs to be before you turn this on.
The quickest way to do this is to change your secondary browser's user agent to a mobile device. You can also change it to an iPhone or iPad, for a mobile-optimised site that's a little prettier than the barebones version that, say, Blackberry users get stuck with. To change Firefox's user agent, you can use this simple extension. Chrome users will have to use this more complicated method. Sadly, Opera does not support changing your user agent to a mobile device. It isn't hard to just create bookmarks for your favourite sites' mobile versions, though (iOS Gmail,touch Facebook, etc.)—in fact, it's another good reason to keep Xmarks uninstalled on your secondary browser.
If a site doesn't have a mobile version, Google's Mobilizer can be a good way to make it more bandwidth-friendly. By pasting in the URL of a web page, the Mobilizer will attempt to create a mobile-friendly version of the page, sans extra formatting, ads, and if you so choose, even images. It doesn't work with every site out there, but it's a good fallback if a site is just too heavy for you to load on slow internet.
Enlarge the Cache
When you visit sites on your computer, your browser downloads the contents of those pages to your hard drive. When you go back to that site, it grabs a lot of those contents (like pictures) from your "cache" instead of re-downloading them, so the page loads faster. If you're on a slow network, increasing the cache size—so it stores more things offline and quickens more of your page loads—can be helpful.
In Opera, head to Tools > Preferences (or on a Mac, Opera > Preferences), hit the Advanced tab, go to History in the sidebar, and make the Disk Cache size bigger. You'll have to play around with this to find the sweet spot, since making the cache too big can actually slow the browser down. You can read more about the browser cache here. In Firefox, go to Preferences > Advanced > Network and check "Override automatic cache management" to set your own cache size.
If you're really struggling (and the Google Mobilizer isn't doing its job correctly), a good way to significantly speed up page loading is to disable image loading completely. It won't be pretty, but it'll be fast, and you'll still be able to read whatever you want.
In Opera, head to Preferences > Webpages and change the "Images" dropdown to "cached images" or "no images". Cached images will load only stuff you've already stored locally, so it won't use up any of your internet connection. Firefox users can just go to Preferences > Content and uncheck the "Load Images Automatically" box. Chrome users can go to Settings > Under the Hood > Content Settings and disable images from there. Both Firefox and Chrome can let you whitelist sites from which you still want to load images, which is nice.
Keep Background Tabs from Loading Prematurely
If you save your browser sessions, you'll be greeted with some pretty nasty loading times every time you restart, as it tries to load all your tabs at once. In Firefox, you can avoid this with an about:config tweak, and in Opera you can use the Tab Vault extension to keep some tabs from loading before you need them. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a way to do this in Google Chrome.
Alternatively, you could just not save your browsing sessions. If you're doing this on a netbook or laptop that you mostly use on-the-go, or as an alternative to your main computer, you probably won't need your tabs from the last time you were out anyways. Again, it all depends on how you use your machines.
Disable Automatic Updates
These days, it is become common practice for most browsers to automatically update themselves in the background, and to do it often. It's convenient as heck most of the time, but if you're on a slow connection, you don't want it to be sucking up bandwidth in secret while you're trying to browse.
To disable these silent updates in Opera, head to its Preferences and go to the Advanced tab. Hit the Security section in the sidebar, and change the "Auto-Update" dropdown to "Notify me". In Firefox, head to Preferences > Advanced and under "When updates to Firefox are found", pick "Ask me what to do". That way, it will still let you know when updates are available, but won't install them without you knowing—so you can wait until you're on a faster connection before you update. Chrome users will have to go through a slightly more complicated process to disable automatic updates.
These are just a few of the more popular methods out there for getting by on slow networks, but we're sure there are a ton of others out there. Got a particular preference we didn't note, or an about:config tweak that really helps you out? Share it with us in the comments.