I’ve talked before about what I see as the strange approach made by the browser developers removing much of the useful functionality from the download manager. It still pains me to think that the best download manager built into any browser right now on the Mac platform is the one included with Internet Explorer.

Since I’ve covered the basics of what a download manager can do in my review of Download Wizard I won’t repeat myself here. Speed Download 3 (SD3) offers the same basic functionality – you can queue items up and control the number of simultaneous downloads and pause and organize the order the files that are downloaded.

None of this should be a surprise in a download manager. Where SD3 scores some additional points is in some of the extended functionality and features that make downloads easier and simpler, especially for large volume downloaders like me.

Multiple Connections

Speed Download supports so called ‘Download Acceleration’ – this uses a trick to supposedly increase the download speed. The way it achieves this is by opening multiple connections to the server and requesting a different section of the file. The acceleration works on the basis that for those servers which throttle bandwidth, four connections running at 16Kbps is going to be faster than just one.

The problem with download acceleration is that its abilities are often ineffective, limited and unfriendly. Let’s start with the unfriendly side first. Opening multiple connections to a server is, from an administrators point of view, extremely annoying. Most servers will be configured with a maximum number of connections that they support, and each additional connection you use takes one away from another user who has just as much right to use the server as you have. It’s a bit like taking up all four lanes of the highway instead of just one, and you can imagine how frustrating that would be.

Today, it is also less likely that you will find servers that limit bandwidth in this way. Bandwidth limiting was popular in the mid to late 90s when the Internet for the mass market was relatively young and the costs for connectivity for companies were high. By limiting bandwidth on a connection basis companies could improve the number of clients served at the expense of some speed, thereby making better use of the bandwidth they did have. At the time, most clients had nothing more than a modem and a 56Kbps connection, so it made sense to limit each connection to this maximum speed. That way you could eke out 600 connections instead of 300. The effects of the bandwidth limiting would then only affect those few users with fat pipes.

Today, connectivity costs, even for large pipes, are comparatively cheap and users often use xDSL or cable connections running a few orders of magnitude faster. It’s much more cost effective for most companies to supply the files as quickly as possible and then get rid of the user as quickly as possible to make space for new ones, than to try limiting bandwidth.

The ineffectual side is that download acceleration only works in some very specific environments and situations, and is completely limited by your connection speed. If all you’ve got is a 512Kbps ADSL it doesn’t matter if you open one connection or 200, you are not going to improve on the maximum speed of 512Kbps. You can’t fit more data down a pipe simply by splitting it into smaller chunks.

FlashGot

Got to Archive.org and you can obtain all sorts of wonderful things. I’m into live music shows at the moment, and you can get the recordings of some of my favourite groups, like Tenacious D.

Some of them are conveniently provided in a single Zip archives, but others are supplied on a track by track basis, which means downloading 10-30 files, each with their own link. Fortunately, SD3 supports the ability to accept multiple URLs – separated by a newline – and add each of them to your download queue.

However, better still, if you are using Firefox (or Mozilla) when you can install the FlashGot extension. Now you can select all the downloads you want and then select ‘FlashGot Selection’ from the Tools menu – the extension extracts the URL from each of the links in your selection and then automatically adds each link to SD3 for download.

Auto Filing

If, like me, you download a lot and find yourself having trouble finding it all then the filtering ability built into Speed Download 3 is immensely useful. Basically, you configure filters for specific file types (as identified by their extension) – SD3 will automatically put your downloads into the appropriate folders for you.

This makes it much easier to find the things you are looking for – for example, I work with a lot of PDFs and I’m constantly downloading them. My agent supplies statements in PDF format, I store my bank statements in PDFs, not to mention the numerous press releases, manuals and other files. It could sometimes be difficult to find them when lumped in with a few hundred other files in my downloads folder – now I can find them easily.

Browser Plug-in
The browser plug-in for SD3 is highly configurable. You can select the file types/extensions that you want SD3 to manage and be responsible for and it’s worked flawlessly for me within all the browsers I’ve used.

I have, occasionally, had problems where the configuration panel shows all file types disabled, although the plug-in itself seems to work fine, but an uninstall and re-install fixed the problem.

Multiple Queues and Schedules

You can create multiple download queues in SD3, so you could, for example, create them by priority or file type and then organize queued downloads accordingly.

Another nice feature is the addition of scheduling for a queue – you can, for example, set a queue to only download overnight, or to start only on specific days. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get this work how I expected it to operate, but that could be me misunderstanding how the settings work.

Yet another annoying aspect of the multiple queues is that although you can set a maximum number of simultaneous downloads on a queue, you can’t set a global figure. If you have three queues, each with a setting of one download, then three will occur concurrently. This rather defeats the object of being able to limit the simultaneous downloads.

The queues are also used by the system to help control another feature of SD3; File Sharing.

File Sharing

A possibly odd inclusion in SD3 is the ability to share files with other SD3 users – primarily through Rendezvous but also over the Internet. This turns SD3 into a sort of peer-to-peer (P2P) solution for transferring files directly from one machine to another, but the target audience isn’t well defined.

On a local network it would make much more sense to use standard file sharing, or even the personal web/ftp server functionality to share files. I can’t see why you would use SD3 over standard file sharing; it doesn’t really offer any particular benefits.

Over the Internet it seems an odd thing to support. It’s obviously open to abuse and I for one wouldn’t want to open up my machine, on any port, for this kind of access. That said, in the right environment, I guess it could be useful for transferring final art files from say Quark Xpress or InDesign to your commercial printer or publisher, taking the place of the old file transfer systems like iSDN Manager from 4-Sight when ISDN was the big thing for design agencies to transfer their files.

OK, maybe I can see who it’s aimed at, but I still think it is a major security risk, and I’d much rather they provided the functionality disabled, rather than enabled, by default. Installing a file sharing system that is enabled from installation is just asking for trouble, especially when the vast majority of users won’t use the functionality anyway.

Conclusions

Speed Download 3 is a great application and the combination of the integration with the browsers through the plug-in (itself highly configurable) and the filtering and other features makes it a great download tool.

I like the filtering functionality, the integration with FlashGot and the super-configurable plug-in. I don’t like the indistinct configuration and preferences, like the simultaneous download and scheduling settings.

If there was one thing I’d like to see added, it would be the ability to put specific file types into specific queues. For example, downloading ISOs into a special ISO queue that ran overnight while still allowing me to download archives and other content immediately. This though would require some improvements to the way the multiple queue system works and is configured.

You can download a free copy of Speed Download 3. Licences for the software cost just $20, or$15 if you have already paid for another download manager.