Internet connectivity is a moving target. At times, you're enjoying blazing speeds on your laptop, phone or tablet and at others, you're wondering why your connection is so slow. Or maybe your Roku keeps buffering just as you're getting to the best part of that movie on Netflix.
And all the while, you're questioning just how much speed you need to get the job done.
Tom's Guide asked broadband experts and some folks who work at ISPs to find out if you really need to pay extra for faster connectivity. This is what we found out.
The Speed You Need
|Number of devices||Use Cases||Recommended Download Speed|
|1-2||Web surfing, email, social networking, moderate video||Up to 25 Mbps|
|3-5||Online multiplayer gaming, 4K streaming||50 - 100 Mbps|
|More than 5||All of the above plus sharing large files and live streaming video.||150 to 200 Mbps|
- One expert told us that most families can get away with a cheap 20x5 package, allowing you to surf the Web and stream video with 20Mbps download speeds or back up your content to the cloud with 5Mbps upload speeds.
- Netflix says you need 5 Mbps to stream HD content and 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD content, but you'll want faster speeds if you plan on connecting several devices to the web at once.
- If you're planning to stream 4K video content and have multiple devices connecting to your network simultaneously, seriously consider investing in faster download speeds, like 200Mbps, which should work for most users.
- Use tools like Fast.com or Speed Test to check your Internet connection and determine whether you're really getting the bandwidth you're paying for.
There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Speed
I know, I know: all the ISPs are telling you to get faster connectivity. But you may be paying more for connectivity than what you really need.
Speaking to Tom's Guide in an interview, Lincoln Lavoie, a senior engineer of broadband technologies at the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Laboratory and a broadband expert, said that users need to understand their bandwidth needs in order to select the best services or package for their respective usage. Ultimately, a person's ceiling is individually determined based on what they're doing.
"This depends more on the applications being used (streaming is largely a downstream application), but as users start doing more things like video calls, and movie sharing, upload also becomes very important. Similarly, upload speeds are critical for people working remotely from home, as upload speeds would impact things like screen sharing and online conference calls."
Lavoie went on to say that ultimately, the packages offered by service providers will reflect the value to the customers, based on their use of these applications weighed against what they are willing to pay for the services that meet those needs.
Another broadband expert, Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, told Tom's Guide that the more bandwidth you have, the better, since it will ensure you have enough in the event you have a big file to upload or you're doing sophisticated work on your network. But there's even a limitation on that.
"Anything over 10 Gbps to a home user is pretty likely overkill," he said. "Only a few networks in the U.S. do 10 Gbps. A gig everywhere should be a goal -- not because people will max it out, but because it will ensure everyone can do what they want without worrying about the network being the bottleneck.
However, not everyone is so sure that 1Gbps is really all that appealing. One senior engineer who works at a well-known ISP and spoke to Tom's Guide on condition of anonymity said that Internet speeds ultimately depend on what the customer is doing with his or her Internet connection.
The person added that the "average family" shouldn't pay for "anything beyond 20x5," a reference to 20Mbps of download speeds and 5Mbps upload speeds.
The Cost of Connectivity
While debate rages over how much Internet speeds you need, it's clear that ISPs benefit from your desire to travel at faster speeds across the Web. But they can also provide some insight into how much speed you really need by listing how many devices can connect to the network at any given time.
Comcast Xfinity, a prominent U.S. ISP, has varying prices based on the speed you desire. If you listen to the above engineer, you can probably get away with the company's cheapest package, offering you download speeds of up to 25Mbps. The plan is available for new customers at $50 per month and according to Xfinity, should be able to accommodate up to four devices simultaneously connecting to the Internet at the same time.
If you feel you need a bit more, though, Xfinity delivers a Blast! connection with up to 200Mbps download speeds for $88 per month. According to the company, that should be able to accommodate eight or more devices simultaneously connecting to the Internet.
Xfinity offers a 2Gbps connection for $225 per month with a two-year agreement. "Any number of devices" should be able to connect to the Web at that speed, the company says.
Netflix similarly offers a handy tool for determining how much Internet you should be paying for. While the company's tool isn't necessarily great if you're planning to do a lot of uploading over your connection, if you think you'll just be streaming video and surfing the Web, it's an ideal way to determine whether you're spending too much.
According to Netflix, which bases its tool on the quality of its stream at different speeds, 0.5Mbps is the required broadband connection you need just to connect to the service. If you're at 3Mbps download speeds, you should be able to get standard-definition quality on Netflix. Bumping that to 5Mbps gives you HD quality and, at 25Mbps, you should be able to watch Netflix content in 4K resolution.
Netflix also has a tool, called Fast.com, that can tell you how fast your Internet connection is right now.
Beware of These Pitfalls
While in many cases, choosing your Internet connection means computing how much you're hoping to get and comparing that against how much you're willing to pay, you need to be ready for the possibility of not getting what you want.
Note that most ISPs offer Internet packages with an important caveat: "up to." In other words, for the average residential Internet customer, ISPs aren't guaranteeing a certain download of upload speed. So, if you're paying for a 25Mbps package, it's possible you'll get that speed (if not more) at times. But it's also possible that you'll get less.
But even if your ISP is delivering the speeds you want, the number of devices simultaneously connecting to your network could also give you some trouble that could ultimately slow down your connection.
"Internet connections serve households or businesses that have multiple users that each have multiple devices (sometimes more than 10 per person ultimately)," Mitchell said. "They create congestion in unexpected ways - you may not need a 100 Mbps connection most of the day, but when you need it, you want it there. Much like a car can go 100 mph but we rarely drive it that way."
So, how can you tell if you need a boost? For one, Lavoie says to look for "quality of experience" metrics, including loading times, how many glitches you're seeing in your connectivity, and if your connection is dropping out. He also said it's important to use online connectivity tools, like the aforementioned Fast.com or others, to see what your Internet speeds might be when things start to go awry.
Ultimately, deciding on how much Internet connectivity you need isn't as simple as it looks -- or as simple as ISPs want you to believe. According to the experts, you need to think about the number of devices that will simultaneously connect to your network and exactly what you want to do with your connection. If it's just streaming and Web surfing you're after, you likely won't need much. But if you're looking to stream 4K video, play online games and connect multiple devices, expect to pay more.
Along the way, you should be analyzing your network for speeds at a given time and seeing what's happening during slowdown or connectivity loss.