If Wi-Fi is the lifeblood of your connected lifestyle, your modem is the heart that keeps it pumping—which makes your modem's compatibility with your broadband service crucial. While most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will gladly rent you a modem, purchasing one on your own frees you of the monthly payment, and can lead to a better Wi-Fi experience.
Understanding that each ISP has a list of modems best suited for their broadband services is the place to start. If you use a mismatched device, you risk very noticeable performance issues that you may not be able to address without another trip to the store. So make sure you check modem-ISP compatibility first, then seek modem features that will both meet your needs and improve your Internet experience—now and in the future.
Not all modems are created equally—to avoid compatibility hiccups, look for modems that comply with DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) standards. These international standards certify that the modem is ready to play nice with most cable providers like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, and Cox.
The current spec available today, DOCSIS 3.0, supports downstream speeds from 170 Megabits per second (Mbps) up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps), depending on the number of channels used. Sometimes, you'll also spot numbers like “4x4” and “8x4” when modem shopping. These indicate the number of downstream and upstream channels supported by the modem—which refer to downstream data (like streaming or browsing) and upstream data (like transferring files or sending emails), respectively.
An 8x4 modem, for instance, works well with Internet service plans of up to 100 Mbps—a safe bet for the average, well-connected household. If you're a hardcore tech user or have a growing family of Netflix streamers, you’ll want a powerful, DOCSIS-compatible 24x8 modem that can handle Internet service plans between 100 and 300 Mbps. If any of this seems confusing, think of it this way: bonded channels are most commonly referred to like lanes on a highway—the more lanes (or channels), the more cars (or data) that can flow.
ISPs typically have services divided into speed brackets based on cost—you can check out these brackets on the ISP's website, or if you're already subscribed, on your monthly bill. Here are some speed recommendations for common services:
Just 5 Mbps of bandwidth to stream Netflix doesn't sound like much—until you take an active, connected household into account. If you're streaming “Orange is the New Black” in 4K while the kids play “Destiny” online, you're suddenly looking at a whole lot of data usage.
All these numbers help determine your Wi-Fi needs, which tie directly into your modem and broadband speeds. Therefore, if your Wi-Fi speed isn't up to par, everyone using the Internet is going to have a choppy, frustrating experience. So analyze your maximum household usage, check the modem's specs before you buy to make sure it can handle your needs as well as the speed tier you subscribe to from your ISP. Lastly, make sure your Internet connection and modem are funneling all this data to your household full of connected devices through a current-generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi Router and not some old 802.11g router from fifteen years ago.
Once you're up and running, check your Wi-Fi's real-world performance against your ISP's promised speed with a free, browser-based speed test. Head over to Ookla's industry-standard Speedtest and simply click the “Begin Test” button. The test tosses your computer a chunk of data to download, and scrutinizes your download and upload speeds in less than a minute.
You'll also nab a measurement of your ping—your connection's response time—which is the key to a smooth online gaming experience, whether you're using the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, or Nintendo Network. Like in golf, a low score is good; you'll want a ping of less than 100 milliseconds for responsive online play. Keep in mind that results may fluctuate based on a variety of factors like time of day, which can be affected by Internet “rush hours” in the evening.
Getting familiar with your home's Wi-Fi performance helps you determine if connection issues are network-related or device-related, and it can clue you in on when your gear is in need of an upgrade. Ensure that your modem, broadband service, and Wi-Fi router are working together as a team and you’ll be one step closer to a fast, buffer-free Internet experience.