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Fly Smarter With Sky-High Wi-Fi

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- With JetBlue (JBLU) and Boeing (BA) recently committing to offering Wi-Fi service on more aircraft next year, it's time to make those long flights work for you.

But as anyone who has used Wi-Fi up in the sky knows, the experience can be slow, choppy and frustrating. Airplane Wi-Fi is not the same broadband people are used to at home.

When Gizmodo tested out in-flight Wi-Fi two years ago, the winner was Delta Air Lines (DAL), topping out at a mere 0.93 megabits per second, or mbps, the speed of data transfer.

Today, speeds are all over the map. Reviewers at The Verge report a swift 9.8 mbps, while others are still slugging away at well below 1 mbps.

Gogo, which built an air-to-ground system to beam Internet to planes flying overhead, says its member airlines can offer up to 3.1 mbps, with its next-generation ATG-4 technology at 9.8 Mbps. Row 44 Inc., which provides Wi-Fi to Southwest Airlines (LUV) and Norwegian Air Shuttle, claims 11 mbps.

In reality, the experience is usually much slower because those fast-sounding speeds are typically shared by everyone onboard. Streaming movies and music will be mediocre at best. When TheVerge leaked a JetBlue memo last week about the airline's upcoming Wi-Fi service using ViaSat (VSAT), the memo trashed the competition calling them "s-l-o-w" and taking nearly one minute to load one page.

But in-flight Wi-Fi is not useless. It's handy for checking email and other productivity tasks. People want it and it's getting better. According to a recent survey of 500 U.S. travelers, 80% wanted the option to go online during the flight.

But until in-flight Wi-Fi is as reliable as home broadband, here are tips on how to be smarter about in-flight Wi-Fi:

Go mobile on your laptop: Opt for the mobile version of a Web site, which minimizes data-intense graphics. Often you can just add an "m." in front of the web address. If you're just browsing, use the Google Mobilizer, which automatically sends you to the mobile page with the option of nixing graphics. You can opt for the fastest browser, like Opera Mini, which compresses Web pages by up to 90%.

Turn off updates/synching: No need to waste precious bandwidth with cloud backups, Twitter notifications and Facebook (FB) status updates. File-synching apps such as Google Drive and Dropbox also run in the background. Turn off all of that, including RSS feeds and automatic email checks, and download important documents ahead of time so the bandwidth you do use is dedicated to getting tasks done. Gogo, which powers Wi-Fi for several airlines, suggests right-clicking on the task bar to view active applications and easily disable them. "Since bandwidth is a shared commodity, basic etiquette goes a long way," says a Gogo representative. Also, don't keep too many browser tabs up. Some may be automatically refreshing themselves.
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