What Internet Speeds Should You Really Be Paying For? Here's How to Decide

Patrick Lucas Austin

If the new year brought some new gadgets — like a 4K TV, new streaming device, or even a new video game — into your life, you’re probably itching to get them hooked up and online. Just one problem, though: That 4K-quality stream you’re looking to extract from your Netflix subscription isn’t exactly in 4K, thanks to your less-than-stellar Internet connection.

When it comes to Internet speeds, the jargon can get a bit confusing. In short, speeds are usually measured in megabits per second, or Mbps. The higher the rate, the faster your Internet. Megabits are one-eighth the size of a megabyte (at a rate of 1 megabit per second, for example, a 10MB image would take 80 seconds to download).

So here’s how to figure out whether you’re getting the most out of your Internet speeds, and how to get there without breaking the bank.

When do speeds matter?

Download speeds matter most when it comes to enjoying what you might consider “passive” content, like streaming TV, downloading huge files, or browsing social media. The faster your download rate, the more data you can utilize — perfect for high-definition content that requires a steady download stream to maximize picture quality.

Upload speeds matter most when it comes to more participatory content: think playing games online with friends, talking on a video call, live-streaming your day, or uploading your photos to your cloud storage service. Upload speeds can vary wildly depending on your ISP, the type of internet connection you’re using (be it DSL, cable, or fiber), and your location. It’s also worth remembering that, generally speaking, your download rate will always be higher than your upload rate.

What if I just want to play Fortnite and watch Frasier again?

Just want to play some casual games online, or enjoy a little Netflix on the weekends? You don’t need much: streaming sites like Netflix recommend speeds of 5 megabits per second (or more) to best enjoy content in HD. That download speed will work for enjoying content with at least 720p resolution, but won’t get you any 4K-quality media — and you might find 1080p content slower to load by comparison.

If your Internet speeds hover around that 5 Mbps range, you’ll also likely have an equivalent or slower upload speed, meaning streaming fast-paced games from the cloud or video chatting with multiple people might leave you more frustrated than not.

What if I want to stream everything, all the time, in 4K?

If you want the highest of high-def video content, or if you’re one of the growing number of users streaming games from the cloud either using PlayStation Now, Google Stadia, or Microsoft’s XCloud, you’re probably in need of a beefier connection. Streaming media in 4K usually requires a connection of 25 Mbps or greater, but you can always splurge on connections offering download speeds of 100 Mbps or more if you’re downloading giant files regularly.

It’s important to consider upload speeds if you’re planning on going all-in on streaming. But be warned: hunting for faster upload speeds may involve paying for gigabit Internet, which is otherwise overkill for all but the most committed to live-streaming or transmitting large files regularly.

In addition, the number of in-use devices connected to your single router could cause some network congestion, meaning you’ll see slower speeds all around. Aside from directly connecting your devices with something like an Ethernet cable, you can check your router’s settings (either in your web browser or via its associated app) and designate priority devices, granting them the fastest connection to your network.

Does your network hardware affect your Internet speed?

While your ISP likely named your broadband speed tier based on its advertised download speed, you can get a good estimate of your actual Internet speeds using sites like Speedtest. From there, you can also see whether or not it’s your Internet speed or your hardware that’s responsible for any sluggishness.

If you’re not getting the speeds you think you should be, your wireless router may be to blame. Most routers’ capabilities are based on standards that govern factors like effective distance (how far you can be before your connection degrades) and throughput (how much data the router can send or receive over a period of time). Routers using more recent standards are more suited to moving large amounts of data required by something like a 4K video stream.

Range affects speed as well as the strength of your router’s connection — the farther away from your router, the weaker your connection, and the more likely you are to lose information (perceived as, for example, a degradation in streaming quality). A low throughput rate may also result in the dreaded buffering you might experience during a stream as well.

If you, like me, live in an apartment with brick walls, your range may be vastly diminished, leaving you frustrated as to why your living room router can’t propagate a signal strong enough to serve you TikTok videos in your bedroom only a few dozen feet away. That’s where a mesh network comes in handy, with one connected to your modem and the other in the problem area of your home.

If you’re not in the market for a new wireless router or mesh network to solve connectivity issues, consider investing in a cheaper, wired solution like a network switch (essentially a box with a row of ethernet ports you connect to your router and other devices), which allows you to directly connect devices like your game console, PC, or 4K TV to the web without suffering any speed reductions due to factors like distance or age of your wireless router.