Comparing internet providers and plans can be confusing when you're a gamer. When ISPs market to you, chances are they are going to tell you that if you don't spring for the fastest possible connection, you're going to get owned on the battlefield. You might be wondering if it's all just hype. Will the difference between connections really matter when you're gaming?
The short answer is yes. Your broadband internet connection can make or break your gaming experience. But what most people don't know about comparing internet providers is that having a super fast connection is less important than having a consistent one. That's because online gaming is typically not a download-heavy activity unless you're patching (or upload-heavy unless you're doing something like streaming on Twitch).
So what is causing the lag that makes rage quitting so tempting? And how do you compare internet providers to find the best broadband plans for gaming? In this post, we'll walk you through some of the things you need to keep in mind when choosing broadband for gaming so you can pick an ISP that won't let you down when you're on the field of battle.
Super Speed Doesn't Always Equal Gaming Success
A faster connection is useful when you're gaming but speed isn't the only factor affecting your game play experience. It might not even be the main factor! As you compare internet providers, you should look for plans with 10-20 Mbps. Why not spring for 100 Mbps? You can go big if you want, but you may not see any real increase in the quality of your gaming experience when you pay more for that extra fast connection. That's because more speed doesn't mean you'll get a more stable connection to the game server. And if you have a lot of other people in your household doing things like streaming video or downloading music, you may experience some degree of lag no matter how fast your broadband is.
Ping and Latency Versus Bandwidth
It's unfortunate that ISPs talk a lot about bandwidth and ignore ping and latency almost entirely in their marketing materials because the latter are what gamers really need to think about when comparing internet providers. Ping is the time it takes data to go from your device to a server and back, and latency is the time it takes for data to travel from a server to your device. If all that data is flowing quickly, without interruptions, then you are going to be able to compete in real time against opponents without issues. But if lag is putting you out of sync with other players, good luck coming out on top. That's why you can have a great gaming experience on a relatively slow connection. As long as your latency is low, your in-game reaction times will be competitive.
You can test the ping and latency of the connection you have now using any of the online speed test tools. An ideal ping rate is less than 20 m/s, though yours will probably be higher. Anything below 50 m/s will feel instantaneous, and anything under 80 m/s is probably okay. Once you get into the 150 m/s range, game play starts to feel frustratingly slow. Make sure you're testing at peak times so you're getting accurate readings. Then ask your local gamer friends to do the same and share their results. Ping and latency won't be the only things you think about when you compare internet providers, but knowing whether other plans offer consistent low latency can help you make a smart decision.
Connection Type Matters When You Compare Internet Providers
Cable broadband and DSL look nearly identical on paper but really aren't. DSL's top speeds are usually slower than cable's but since cable bandwidth may be shared by entire neighborhoods, you won't get those top speeds at peak times. If you're close to your DSL provider's hub (i.e., you live in an urban area), you'll get the best possible speeds but your connection will be slower the further you live from the hub. When you're comparing cable and DSL, ask local friends and your neighbors what their experience with different providers has been like and check out reviews from unbiased sources like BroadbandSearch.
The best possible connection type for gamers is fiber, which has the lowest latency and the highest download and upload speeds. Unfortunately, it's also the rarest connection type. If satellite internet is the only option available to you then you may have to live with lag, but know that satellite broadband technology is getting better every day. It won't be long before satellite internet will be a viable option for hardcore gamers.
How Much Data Do You Really Need?
This is a question all gamers should ask when they compare internet providers, though it's important to realize there are no one size fits all answers. How many games do you play and for how long? How many devices do you game on? Are you sharing your connection with roommates or your family? Serious gamers should probably invest in plans that offer unlimited data or as close to it as possible. At minimum, you should look for plans that offer 50–100GB.
Otherwise you risk hitting a cap you didn't even know you had. Some ISPs have quietly rolled out data caps - even on their plans advertised as unlimited - which means some customers are receiving confusingly high bills or having their service throttled or even cut off seemingly out of the blue. Typically, caps come in two flavors: hard caps, where your connection is cut off and you pay steep fees when you go over, and soft caps, where you're charged a per-GB fee after you hit your cap but you stay connected. As you compare internet providers, make sure you understand how each ISP caps their data and the penalties for exceeding those caps.
Finally, the best way to be sure the broadband plans you're looking at have enough data is to measure your typical usage habits. You may be able to get a report from your ISP that lays out how much data you've used each month. If you can't, there is software that you can use to monitor your usage via your computer or your router.
Uploading, Downloading, and Getting More Games
As noted above, even relatively serious gamers can probably get by with the same connection their parents are using to like photos on Facebook. But when you don't just play, but also broadcast your games to the world, you're going to need more bandwidth. And not just any bandwidth! To compare internet providers when you have made a name for yourself on Twitch, you need to look at upload speeds. Most ISPs spend a lot of advertising dollars on pushing their lightning fast download speeds and the upload speeds look pretty dinky by comparison. It's a real problem for Twitch broadcasters and their ilk because uploading real-time video game play, audio, and a webcam stream means moving a lot of data!
Ideally, you're putting a 1080p stream out there but if not, you're probably shooting for 720p. To broadcast a 720p stream at 30fps consistently, you need an upload speed of 4 Mbps. A lot of broadband plans don't offer that. Some don't even publish their upload speeds! But there are ISPs out there offering the kinds of upload speeds required by broadcasters, and if Twitch is a big part of your life, choose one of them.
When it comes to getting games, download speeds (and data caps) should be your main considerations. How long are you willing to wait for that new game? How many games do you typically download in a month? If you go through games like other people go through shirts, you need to keep that in mind as you compare internet providers. Getting a single game can mean eating through 50GB (way more than casual internet users use in a month) and hitting your cap in a single day. Look for high-bandwidth plans in the 500GB and up range or unlimited plans to ensure that grabbing new games doesn't become an exercise in frustration.
Troubleshooting: You've Switched Plans But Your Connection Feels the Same
Let's say you compare internet providers and choose one with a plan that seems tailor-made for gamers. Your new setup is supposedly good to go, but your connection feels laggier than ever. The problem might not be your new ISP! Here are some fixes to try before you call customer service.
Are you gaming with an older router? There are gaming-specific routers out there, but you'll get the same quality of connection with any high-end router.
Are you gaming wirelessly? Then it's time to wire up. As convenient as it is to have your gaming rig be unwired, Wi-Fi is susceptible to interference from other devices. Having a direct ethernet line going to the router will give you the most stable connection.
Is your Wi-Fi positioned properly? You need to be close enough to the router to get a strong signal and that signal will be better if there is nothing next to the router to interfere with it.
As a gamer, you'll know when it's time to switch ISPs because you've tried optimizing your home network for gaming and you're still getting lag - even during off-peak hours. If gaming is a big part of your life, then don't settle for less. Prioritize your hobby when you're choosing between broadband plans so you can enjoy the online games you love and kick the competition's butt in the process.
Are you ready to make the switch? A good place to start is by finding the ISPs near you. From there, you can compare internet service providers and plans until you find one that has what you need at a price you like.