Just about everybody who uses the Internet these days has broadband access. Whether it's DSL, cable, or a direct high-speed LAN connection, most people choose a faster connection to make files download faster, videos stream smoother, and online gaming much more enjoyable. But what if something is eating up bandwidth that you don't know about? Particularly when you have a superfast connection or Wi-Fi, how do you know there isn't something or someone leeching off your bandwidth when everything seems to be working smoothly?
Though I have my Big Three security apps running on every Windows machine I use, I know I can never be too careful about malware. Though it is not a fullproof system for detection, knowing how much bandwidth your computer is using can be a clue into possible issues. One of the best ways to detect an issue is to watch for changes in your computer's behavior, and a bandwidth meter can detect changing trends as an early indicator. Even if it's not malware, a good bandwidth meter can tell you if a new program is sucking up too much bandwidth or if another user is leeching your Wi-Fi connection.
I've rounded up a few freeware and shareware bandwidth meters you can download and check out right away. At the very least, you'll have a window into how fast your Internet connection runs over time to find out the best time to download large files. But if you notice a trend of sustained decreases of bandwidth, it might be an indicator for malware or possible Wi-Fi hackers.
Line Speed Meter is a free program that's great for getting bandwidth stats and following trends in your connection speed. After a quick setup process, you can run a test to get basic info about upload and download speeds. But to get more information, you can click the My Results button to get in-depth information online with graphs and diagrams showing your connection speed and trends over time. I like the way the information is set up at the online site, but an included animated window showing real-time connection speeds would have made this free app even better.
Net Meter is a shareware alternative ($19.95) that includes all the information you need within the interface. A small window shows real-time connection speeds for multiple network connections and a right click to the interface lets you bring up stats for daily, weekly, and monthly trends. You can use the options to change display graphics and choose which stats you want shown in the window. This one also lets you set alarms for when your bandwidth exceeds your specified limit.
BitMeter could be my favorite of the bunch, but it might be more about aesthetics than functionality. This free app offers everything you need right in the interface like Net Meter, but the smaller window and the way it displays stats seems more appealing. Just like Net Meter, you can access a contextual menu with a right click to bring up connection statistics, but with BitMeter, stats are displayed graphically. You can then drill down further to get a summary of network activity by the hour, day, or month. BitMeter lets you set alarms for both speed and volume alerts, including ISP restrictions if you have a time-based volume limit.
Keeping track of your bandwidth usage can be an indicator of malicious software and can notify you of possible Wi-Fi leechers. If you have a better app for the job please let us all know in the comments! For a more general connection speed indicator to compare your connection with other services, try the CNET Bandwidth Meter (Yahoo Widget).