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Starlink review (hands on): How good is Elon Musk's satellite internet service?

Starlink satellite internet is impressively fast — even if it’s not consistent in beta form

Starlink review
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Our Verdict

Even in its current beta form, Elon Musk's Starlink largely delivers on its promise of bringing high-speed internet access to those living in rural areas.

For

  • High-speed service
  • Simple setup
  • Solid Wi-Fi router included

Against

  • High monthly fee
  • Sporadic connection (so far)

Starlink delivers on a promise that’s been made for decades: getting broadband internet access in rural parts of the country. None has been able to deliver the goods. Until now. Elon Musk's rather audacious proposal to put thousands of satellites in the air to reach remote customers is already paying off according to our tests of the still-in-beta Starlink service.

In our initial Starlink review, we found it simple to set up and faster not only than DSL lines but also quicker than what many basic cable packages are actually able to deliver. Certainly as the only option for sparsely populated areas, Starlink could prove to be a godsend, albeit an expensive one. The basic hardware package is $499, plus $99 a month for service. (Shipping and taxes put the initial total at $581.94).

Based on several weeks of testing, here is what we like about Starlink so far — and what needs improvement.

Starlink updates

Update Sept. 2: Starlink was expected to exit beta sometime this summer, according to Elon Musk, but is still in its trial phase. SpaceX was to have launched at least two more rockets with Starlink satellites in August, but paused so it could install lasers in its latest batch of satellites. Flights are expected to resume in September.

So why is Starlink such a savior? Because in many areas of the United States — let alone parts of the developing world — there is either no or very poor high-speed internet options. In our bucolic Vermont testing spot, for example, there is no cell service, no cable service and no optical fiber. And 5G won't help. The towers have to be too numerous to bounce signals around the mountains, and the lower frequency version of 5G that gives you more distance simply isn't fast enough. Enter Starlink's service.

Starlink review (hands on): High-speed satellite internet is finally here

(Image credit: SpaceX)

Starlink uses a network of satellites in low earth orbit to bring the signal down to you. As of May 2021, there are more than 1,700 tiny Starlink satellites aloft, but thousands more are needed before the system is complete (each SpaceX Falcon 9 launch carries 60 satellites).

Starlink review

(Image credit: Yuri Smityuk/Getty)

Unlike Dish or DirecTV birds, these are not geosynchronous or geostationary satellites, so the Starlink dish consumers use has to be able to move automatically should it need to realign itself to pick up a new satellite. But the big advantage Starlink has is that the lower earth orbit satellites, which are about 340 miles above the earth, substantially reduce the signal delay or latency, especially compared to DirecTV satellites, which are sitting over 22,000 miles above the planet.

There are no official Starlink data plans yet announced. Starlink only offers the flat $99-a-month service at the moment during the beta period. Whether that will change when the service goes live is unknown.

There is no official coverage map, but Starlink plans to eventually offer its service around the world. In an FCC filing, the company revealed that it would initially offer "commercial service in the northern United States and southern Canada, and then will rapidly expand to near global coverage of the populated world in 2021." Our tests were conducted in southern Vermont.

There are reportedly 10,000 Starlink users thus far and counting. In late February, published Starlink coverage maps from Ookla Speedtest and PCMag found the higest concentration of Starlink users in the Northwest United States, California and upper Midwest, as well as Vermont.

SpaceX continues to launch new satellites into orbit for the Starlink service, topping over 1,300 as of the beginning of April. This should help expand and improve coverage. Furthermore, in a recent bulletin sent to beta testers, Starlink said it was working on ground-based gateways and software to reduce the number of dropouts, as well as make changes in the way the dish systems connect to the satellites themselves.

Today, the dishes typical lock into a single assigned satellite and can only connect with one satellite at a time. In the future, Starlink plans to allow systems to automatically and "seamlessly" switch to a different satellite in the event of a service interruption.

Everything you need to get Starlink up and running comes in a single package: the flat, large pizza box-sized dish, a temporary tripod stand for the dish, 100-foot connecting cable, and a Wi-Fi router/controller that connects to the dish. You don't even have to plug things in; everything is already connected. There's no user manual or instructions, just a piece of poster board with a large 3-step graphic setup guide.

Starlink review

(Image credit: SpaceX)

The dish is motorized to automatically adjust its aim, and heated to keep it clear of snow and ice. To perform these tricks it uses a special cable that is permanently attached to the dish and carries not only the signal to the router but also power to the dish. So if the cable gets damaged, you cannot simply disconnect it from the antenna and get a new one or use a basic coaxial cable.

Unlike installing and aiming a TV satellite dish, getting the Starlink system running is a relative breeze. Just push the dish stanchion into the tripod and put it on the lawn outside where there's an unobstructed view of the sky. Plug in the Wi-Fi router inside and then you simply run the Starlink app to get online. (Note: If you have no internet connection where you live, remember to go into town first so you can download the Starlink app.) If you're quick, it can all be accomplished in 10 minutes.

Starlink review

(Image credit: John R. Quain/Tom's Guide)

That's assuming everything goes smoothly. We ran into a few snags.

The first issue was the supplied cable's length.The power over Ethernet cable is only 100 feet long, so if you have a large home (for a roof installation) or have to put the dish far from the house to get a tree-free look at the sky, you're going to run into trouble. And because it's permanently attached to the dish, you can't simply swap it out for a longer cable.

Starlink review

(Image credit: John R. Quain/Tom's Guide)

The second issue was that checking for obstructions can be a tricky process. We placed the dish in an open area but found the dish aiming at a northern portion of the sky (versus south, where satellite TV dishes need to be aimed). So not surprisingly, we received an "Obstructions are blocking your internet connection around 9 hours each day" message. It was accompanied by a graphic showing the direction of the obstructions. The culprit: trees that are hundreds of feet away but manage to occlude the view.

Starlink review

(Image credit: SpaceX)

The Starlink smartphone app has an option for checking for obstructions as you move it around using the phone's camera. But placing the phone exactly in the proposed position of the dish and following the on-screen instructions for aiming the camera up or down is tricky, if not impossible because the camera needs to be at knee height. We tried lying on the ground to get a better look.

Once you have found the ideal position for the Starlink dish, the idea is to then permanently install it. Roof locations will require additional brackets and hardware, which can be found online starting at about $15. If you need a pole bracket adapter, Starlink sells one for $24.

Starlink speed test results

(Image credit: Future)

We tested Starlink for several weeks in all kinds of weather and subjected it to typical Internet tasks, from streaming 4K movies and participating in Zoom conference calls to uploading and downloading voluminous videos

 In general, we witnessed some impressive speeds but found Starlink is still very much a beta work in progress. Still, anyone who has suffered through pokey country downloads of hundreds of emails or waited for an episode of Bridgerton to finish buffering will be thrilled to see Starlink handle such tasks in fractions of a second.

Starlink review

(Image credit: SpaceX)

So far, in our tests, Starlink is definitely improving. While dropouts are still too frequent, speeds have steadily picked up. Initially, we saw top download rates of just under 90 Mbps. As of April 12, those numbers more than doubled with top download speeds of 200 Mbps. In an earlier Tweet, Elon Musk promised speeds of over 300 Mbps by the end of the year. So we'll keep testing.

So why the variation in speeds? Some of the results depended on the time of day. We checked and found that the number and location of Starlink's satellites varied. Most seem to be clustered over the northwest U.S. and the ones we were aiming at were farther north over southern Quebec.

For its part, Starlink does warn beta users to expect speeds anywhere from 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps — and to expect some drop outs. Indeed, the greatest annoyance in this beta testing period is that the Starlink service will drop out without warning —only to reconnect milliseconds later.

In our Zoom-obsessed world, video calls present an excellent test application. We did numerous Skype, Zoom, Facetime and Microsoft Teams sessions to see how Starlink did on such critical applications. Skype calls, for example, initially looked sharp and crystal clear — until they didn't and people on the other end couldn't hear half of what we said.

We had the same experience with VoIP calls, and even encountered a few hiccups with streaming services. In one instance. after streaming a 4K movie for half an hour, it suddenly stopped and had to be reloaded. The same comments apply to gaming: Starlink can be quite snappy, but the dropouts during the beta period mean you won't win any Call of Duty battles for now.

Given those provisos, Starlink shows tremendous potential and was still impressively fast, especially when comparing it to DSL in the same location. The best the fixed DSL line could do on Fast.com was a 1.2 Mbps downloads, 320 Kbps uploads, and a latency of 182 ms.

Starlink review

(Image credit: John R. Quain/Tom's Guide)

Lastly, satellite service can be vulnerable to snow and rain. Starlink thwarts snow by actually heating the dish and melting the flakes as they land. During several heavy snow storms this worked well, especially compared to a TV satellite dish that we have to occasionally sweep clean. However, we did experience a reduction in bandwidth during blizzards and heavy rain. Bandwidth would typically be cut in half during these periods to around 20 Mbps download speeds.

Anyone who has lived for any length of time in an area that does not have fast Internet access will find Starlink worth the price. It is the only game in town until Amazon and others launch competing services (whenever that will be). Starlink is also bound to improve and eliminate its beta drop outs as the company puts thousands more satellites above the earth.

Elon Musk has promised that Starlink will reach speeds of approximately 300 Mbps later this year when more satellites are in place. That may seem like nothing to city dwellers with fiber cables running down the street, but to folks in the country it's an Internet dream come true.

John R. Quain

John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. For Tom's Guide, he has reviewed televisions, HDTV antennas, electric bikes, electric cars, as well as other outdoor equipment. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program.

  • bernie17
    admin said:
    Star satellite internet is impressively fast and finally brings broadband to rural areas. It just needs to be more consistent and work out the beta kinks.

    Star review (hands on): High-speed satellite internet is finally here : Read more
    Can the router be used in ethernet only mode to connect to an existing network?
    Reply
  • Dustin247
    Fast.com is owned by Netflix and typically shows speeds your ISP have capped data speeds at to conserve bandwidth. Im sure you could extend the data cable if thats what comes withe the antenna by cutting adding a cat5 or cat6 coupler. Im assuming the router has a bridge mode.
    Reply
  • jrharbort
    One detail that isn't mentioned in this review is if Dishy was kept in one place for at least a week. There has been quite a few reports that keeping it stationary for a long enough period of time allows the dish to better calibrate and achieve higher speeds, as well as connection stability.
    Reply
  • Salisburysenior
    Good review of Starlink, but I'm concerned about the installation after reading the cables are permanently attached. What size hole is required to get the cable from the outside to the inside of the house?
    Reply
  • Canuck23
    I’ve found using my own router means rebooting it about twice a week whereas I didn’t have to reboot my router rarely ever before. With that said it’s a very minor inconvenience for the speeds I’m getting. Also the first week was a little unstable but I’ve had service for a month and almost never have drops now.
    Reply
  • Canuck23
    Salisburysenior said:
    Good review of Starlink, but I'm concerned about the installation after reading the cables are permanently attached. What size hole is required to get the cable from the outside to the inside of the house?
    I did have to have a fairly large hole to fit the cord in because of the large RMI on the cord. Needed a little more than a 3/4” hole because of it. I’ve seen some kits with split grommets to help with the install because of it.
    Reply
  • Canuck23
    bernie17 said:
    Can the router be used in ethernet only mode to connect to an existing network?
    I use my own router that plugs into the poe port for the starlink router. It autodetects and works with any routers. You just lose some of the stats for the connection the starlink app collects.
    Reply
  • Salisburysenior
    I've always experienced a loss of signal with Direct TV whenever storm clouds passed overhead. Is this also true with Starlink?
    Reply
  • JLIntegra
    This is one of the best reviews of the Starlink I have read.
    I should point out though that you have an inaccuracy in your report. Weather intentionally omitted or not.
    - ViaSat and Hughes Net have been "getting broadband to the rural parts of the country" for years now. It is with draw backs like high latency rates. However, at least with ViaSat, you can Stream Netflix and even conduct Zoom meetings on it even have VIOP connections work fairly well on it. Albeit usually at a much higher price, leased equipment, as well as long contracts. What Starlnk does bring is gaping much of the broadband shortfalls of these other services. at a slightly lower price and with out the long contracts. You are purchasing the equipment though. So some of them like ViaSat (And even Amazon, which is in works to have their own version like Starlink in the near future) are try to use interesting legal means to halt the deployment of Starlink. Fast switch gaming (FPS and such) would now be possible with Starlink as well as a better connection of video conference services such as Zoon, Teams and such. As well as 4K downloads and the like (pending bandwidth limits that will likely be coming.)
    Reply
  • Canuck23
    Salisburysenior said:
    I've always experienced a loss of signal with Direct TV whenever storm clouds passed overhead. Is this also true with Starlink?
    I’ve had my speed drop to 80 Mbps but kept that with a constant connection in a snow storm.
    Reply