It’s almost inconceivable now, but just a few decades ago most people connected to the internet with a modem that, at its fastest, delivered around 50 kilobits per second. That’s roughly a thousand times slower than the average broadband internet in use today, and ten thousand times slower than the fastest consumer internet connections. Clearly, today’s internet is unfathomably faster than it once was, but that raises an important question: Just how much internet speed do you actually need?
The flippant answer is “as much as you can get,” and, the only real harm that comes from signing up for a faster internet service plan than you need is that you might pay more than you have to. So much much is enough?
How much internet data do you use?
The more data you download from the internet, and the more people sharing your internet connection, the more download speed you’ll need. If you stream a movie from Netflix, for example, that will require a lot more speed (or bandwidth) than if you’re just checking email. And if two people are streaming video at the same time on their own laptops, that essentially doubles your requirements.
The speed of your internet connection is usually measured in megabits per second (Mbps). Here is how much some common online activities tend to use:
- Text, like email and chat. These kinds of online activities require an almost inconsequential amount of speed.
- Web browsing. Browsing the web doesn’t generally use a lot of bandwidth, but web sites can contain a lot of images, video and sound, which might require a faster connection to work properly—generally at least 3Mbps.
- Audio. To stream audio like music and podcasts, devices tend to download at least 2Mbps.
- Video. High definition (HD) video requires about 5Mbps. 4K UHD video, on the other hand, can require at least 25Mbps.
- Gaming. Bandwidth requirements vary dramatically depending upon what kind of gaming you’re doing and what the resolution is. But a cloud-based gaming console like Google Stadia will need at least 10Mbps for games in HD and 35Mbps for games in 4K. If you’re talking about multiplayer gaming on traditional consoles or PCs, you can get by with a few megabits—the stability of your connection is more important here.
You can get a ballpark idea of what internet speed you need by comparing that list to things you usually do with your internet connection, and that’ll help you figure out which plan you need from your local internet provider. For example:
- You’re mostly just a web surfer. If you mainly use your internet connection to check email and browser the web, you can be satisfied with a plan that delivers as little as 5Mbps.
- You live in a one-device home. If you live alone or everyone shares the same device to watch movies or listen to music, a 30Mbps plan is adequate for your needs.
- You have a personal cineplex. If you live in a home that has an active internet lifestyle, with several people routinely streaming video on their own devices, a plan that offers 100Mbps should serve you well.
- You are in a home full of power users. If you download large files, watch 4K video, play online games and you compete for bandwidth with several other people, then 100Mbps might not be enough. Fiber optic gigabit (1Gbps) was made for you.
How to test your internet speed
Once you’ve determined your need for speed, it’s time to figure out where you currently sit. You’d do yourself a favor by running some internet speed tests and comparing the results to the guidelines above to figure out whether a change is in order.
Thankfully, this process is quick, easy, and most importantly, free. If you just want to keep it simple, a quick trip to Fast.com should do you well. This tests your internet against the same servers used by Netflix, so it’s a reliable indicator of your internet connection’s capabilities.
If you want the ability to test against more local servers, give Ookla’s Speedtest a shot. You’ll be able to choose not just from dozens in your surrounding area, but from thousands around the world. You’ll also get advanced data like your ping, which gives you an idea of your connection’s quality (lower is better). It’s a good idea to test against multiple servers if you suspect your initial readouts are inconsistent.
Choosing the best internet providers in your area
Now that you know what kind of plan you need, it’s time to sign up for one—or upgrade to a better plan. This is a good time to be shopping for internet service, because it’s no longer a monopoly in many cities.
There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of which internet provider is the best for you. That’ll largely depend on your specific area, where the available providers can vary greatly. Even within the same internet service area, speeds and technology can vary from one neighborhood to another. Check out some of the most common options below to see what’s available in your area and what fits your needs and budget. If that doesn’t do it for you, be sure to hit Google with your zip code for a deeper search.
DSL delivers internet to your home through the phone line. It’s generally the slowest of the broadband services, with most service plans offering in the neighborhood of 5-20Mbps (and the fastest DSL plans top out around 100Mbps). That said, remember that the speeds, prices and plans will vary depending upon where you live and what local providers offer. Here are a few of the most common DSL providers:
Verizon DSL Internet
CenturyLink DSL Internet
Cable internet is the most common kind of broadband in the US today, delivered over the same kind of coaxial cable that’s used by cable TV. Cable internet can reach very high speeds and is a good choice for families and anyone who taxes their internet connection with lots of large file downloads, games and streaming video. Cable speeds range from 10Mbps-1Gbps, though the most common plans are in the range of 100-300Mbps. Here are the most common cable providers:
Cox Cable Internet
Spectrum Cable Internet
Xfinity by Comcast Cable Internet
Fiber Optic Internet
If you’re looking for the fastest possible internet, go fiber. Fiber sends data via beams of light through flexible glass tubes, and most fiber plans offer speeds ranging from 300Mbps to 940Mbps, which is just shy of 1Gbps and considered gigabit speeds. Here are the most common fiber providers:
Verizon FIOS Fiber Internet
AT&T Fiber Internet
Frontier Fiber Internet
Pair your internet with the right router
It’s one thing to bring high speed internet into your home; it’s another to get it all the way to the devices that need it. If your router is old and slow, it won’t be able to take advantage of all the bandwidth coming into your home. The good news is that there are a lot of excellent routers to choose from. In addition to the Forbes roundup of the 6 best Wi-Fi routers for every budget, here are some superb choices that focus on speed and performance.
TP-Link AX6000 Wi-Fi 6 Router
TP-Link has a solid reputation and its new AX6000 router is a powerhouse of a router. It has no fewer than 8 gigabit Ethernet ports for connecting wired devices as well as the ability to achieve (in theory) speeds of up to 1.15Gbps—more than enough to completely soak up a gigabit fiber optic internet connection. It’s a MU-MIMO router that supports up to 8 streams, which is a mouthful of tech jargon, but the important takeaway is that the AX6000 can send large amounts of data to multiple devices on the Wi-Fi network at once without slowing down. Throw in good parental controls and a convenient mobile app to control the router, and this is a smart, future-proofed Wi-Fi router.
Netgear Orbi Tri-Band Wi-Fi 6 Mesh Router
Most routers are single-piece affairs that try to blanket your home in Wi-Fi by broadcasting from a single location, but that means the edges of your home run more slowly or are simply dead zones. A mesh router, on the other hand, includes two or more nodes that work together to cover a larger area more thoroughly, and it’s expandable—you can always buy additional nodes to extend the network. This Netgear Orbi mesh router is Wi-Fi 6 compliant, which is the current state of the art in Wi-Fi tech, and is among the most powerful you can buy. It’s an expensive option, but pairs well with a very high-speed internet connection in a large home that has coverage problems with traditional routers.
Linksys EA6350 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router
Not every home needs the fastest routers that money can buy. If your needs are more modest—there aren’t several people clamoring to stream HD video at once every night, for example—then a router like the Linksys EA6350 could be all you need. It’s fast and has a sizable coverage area, but because it’s just a dual band router (one 2.4GHz and one 5GHz transmitter) this kit works best when it isn’t trying to accommodate several high-bandwidth devices at once. Even so, you get four gigabit Ethernet ports, easy setup and management, and a very reasonable price tag.
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