It’s easy to get fixated on speed test results, but factors like the age and placement of your Wi-Fi router have a bigger impact on your actual experience.
Running a speed test on your home internet connection (and getting great results) is important, right? Not so fast. Sure, a flashy test result is great. But it doesn’t matter that much. Here’s what does.
Why Speed Test Results Don’t Matter As Much As You Think
Who doesn’t like a good speed test result? You just upgraded your cable broadband to a better package, or maybe fiber finally came to town, and the tech just finished hooking up your fiber line. That first speed test where you have so much more bandwidth than you ever had before feels great—no denying it. And we’re certainly not trying to take that satisfying feeling away.
But maybe you noticed that despite a good-looking speed test, your home internet connection doesn’t feel that much better than it used to feel. Here’s why speed test results aren’t as useful as they seem.
Speed Tests Measure Maximum Speed Under Ideal Conditions
A speed test result is similar to taking a car to a race track with a professional driver and closed-course conditions to absolutely stress test the car and see the maximum potential performance of the vehicle.
It doesn’t tell you much about how the car will perform day in and day out, how comfortable you’ll be driving the car on a long trip, if the car can transport your whole family plus all your luggage, or other things that might be important to you. A speed test is largely a Cannonball Run experience: how fast can the test data get from A to B.
Speed Tests Are Optimized For Good Results
If you read up on speed tests, you’ll inevitably come across people saying, almost conspiratorially, that internet speed tests are rigged. They’re not exactly rigged in the fraudulent carnival game sense, but they are designed for optimal results.
The internet is a great big place, and the conditions speed tests are run under are quite small. When you use the general internet for browsing, downloading, watching videos, and all manner of activities, the location of the data you want (be it a video game download or a streaming video) is likely many hops along the internet chain from where you are.
But speed tests are optimized to connect you with the nearest speed test server, which is selected based expressly on how few hops there are between you and the test server. If you’re 30 miles outside of Chicago, for example, the speed test application will likely pick a speed test server located in Chicago.
To keep with the transportation analogies, if you’re shipping or receiving something, do you really care how fast something can get to the post office a town over, or do you care how long the total trip will take? If all my packages get to the local depot nearly instantly but then take ages to get across the country to their final destination, the speed of the first leg of the journey doesn’t really matter much.
Most People Aren’t Conducting Speed Tests Properly Anyway
We’ve received more than a few emails over the years from readers curious about why their speed test results seem wonky and not aligned with the advertised speeds for their broadband package.
The usual culprit is the method by which they have conducted the speed test. In the last section, we noted that speed tests are optimized so that you get the best possible path from your home to the remote test server. If, within your home, you haven’t optimized that path to conduct the test, then your speed tests won’t be accurate either.
The most common mistake is running the speed test on your smartphone or a Wi-Fi-connected laptop. Ideally, you should conduct speed tests with a computer connected to your router via Ethernet capable.
You Don’t Need as Much Download Bandwith As You Think
Everyone overestimates how much bandwidth they need. Among many reasons, this is in no small part to the amount of emphasis Internet Service Providers (ISPs) place on speed. If you based your opinion just on broadband provider ad copy, you’d think switching from the 100 Mbps package to the gigabit package would help you win every videogame match and turn plain old Netflix into a VR super-sensory experience.
But the reality is as cool as it is to say you have a gigabit internet package (at least if you run in circles that care about such matters!) it doesn’t have much impact on your day-to-day life. Outside of downloading very large files slightly faster, most people don’t need much more than around 25 Mbps per member of the household to enjoy browsing the web, streaming video, downloading game updates, and so on.
The jump from an old 10 Mbps DSL connection to 100 Mbps or better cable or fiber connection is a huge one, to be sure. But most people won’t notice the difference between 100 Mbps and 500 Mbps, or 500 Mbps and a gigabit connection.
Here’s What Matters More Than Speed Test Results
If speed tests don’t matter that much, what does? To keep with the car analogy where a super fast speed test to a single test server is like having a car that can drive extremely fast, there’s so much more to the car experience than speed. And with your home internet, just like with a car, it’s far more likely you care about comfort, reliability, and quality of life features than the highest number on the speedometer.
An Up-to-Date Wi-Fi Router
Your Wi-Fi router is the heart and brain of your entire home network experience. It just can’t be stated strongly enough how big of an impact your router has on every aspect of your home internet experience.
You can have a nice fiber connection, you can have newer devices that support Wi-Fi 6, and if your router is a dusty old potato your ISP gave you shoved in the corner of your basement or living room, you’re going to have an absolutely terrible time.
We feel so strongly about this we encourage people to update their routers before they upgrade their broadband package. And even people that don’t have screaming fast internet should still update their router despite their slow internet connection.
Because updating your router isn’t just about the speed of your internet connection (most people don’t even have enough bandwidth to saturate a modern Wi-Fi router completely), it’s about the quality of the experience. Wi-Fi 6 routers, for example, are designed to handle high-density Wi-Fi environments better than Wi-Fi 5 and older routers (and to do so for both current generation and older Wi-Fi devices). How your router handles all your devices is more important than your router maxing out the connection to any individual device.
On the fence about upgrading to a better router? If your router is five years or older, you should replace it. And if it’s younger than that, you should still consider these six signs it’s time to upgrade your Wi-Fi router. On a personal note, never once have I upgraded my Wi-Fi router and not immediately said, “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”
Placing Your Wi-Fi Router in an Optimal Location
In addition to updating your router so you’re running new hardware that gets regular updates, the easiest thing you can do to improve the internet experience for everyone in your household is to move the router.
Nine times out of ten, when we help a friend or neighbor with their internet issues, the router is parked wherever in the house their ISP found it convenient to hook it up with no consideration for the household’s needs. If the corner of the rec room is closest to the utility pole, that’s where the combo router/modem ends up. And the complaint we hear from them is usually, “When I use my iPhone on that side of the house, the Wi-Fi drops, and I use up all my mobile data halfway through the month,” or something similar.
If you can move your router to a more central location in your home, you should do so. Remember, central doesn’t always mean central to the footprint of the house but central to where your devices are located. And while you’re at it, be sure to place it away from these common Wi-Fi-blocking materials.
No good way to move the router? Consider getting a mesh system, placing the base node where your old router is located, and then optimally placing the rest of the mesh nodes through your home.
Using Ethernet As Much as Possible
It’s easy not to think about Ethernet at all these days. But it’s just as useful for stable high-speed data connections today as it was twenty years ago.
Anything in your house you can connect using Ethernet will improve both the connection for that device and the connections for all your wireless devices (by decreasing the load on your Wi-Fi router). If your Wi-Fi router is in your living room, den, rec room, or another place where people commonly have smart TVs, game consoles, and so on, plug those things directly into the router.
And don’t neglect the handy Ethernet ports on your mesh network nodes if you have a mesh network. Not every mesh system has Ethernet ports on the nodes, but if yours does, then plugging devices into them streamlines the Wi-Fi in your home.
These tips are all focused on improving the conditions of your home network from the inside out and not worrying about speed test results. Because at the end of the day, the difference between one internet package and the next becomes nearly undetectable once you get past around 75-100 Mbps or so. But the difference between a cruddy old router, poorly placed and overworked, compared to a newer setup placed in an optimal location, is enormous.