Is your wireless network speed holding you back? Believe it or not, upgrading to a super-fast internet plan might not be worth it. Here’s how to tell if your router’s Wi-Fi speed is holding you back and what you can do about it.
How to Test Your Wi-Fi Speed
Comparing your wired speed to your wireless speed can indicate whether or not your router is holding you back. Feeling confused? Don’t be. While many think of “Wi-Fi” and “internet” as the same thing, there’s a clear difference.
Your internet speed is determined by your connection to the broader network, usually over traditional telecommunications infrastructure via a wire connected to your house. You may also have a fixed wireless, satellite, or even 4G or 5G connection, depending on where you live.
Your router takes this connection and shares it among your devices. It does this wirelessly using Wi-Fi, or over wires known as Ethernet cables. Since internet speeds have been steadily increasing as infrastructure improves, many of us are finding that our old routers are now slower than the internet connections we pay for.
You can test this theory by running both wired and wireless tests and comparing the results. It helps if you know what internet speed you should be getting from your service provider, but it’s not strictly necessary. You’ll find it easy to run this test if you have a laptop or if your router is positioned close to a computer for wiring purposes.
First, run a wired test. Take a standard Ethernet cable (you probably received one with your router), plug it into a free slot on your router, then connect it to your computer. Make sure Wi-Fi is disabled on your computer (you can do this in the bottom-right corner of the screen on Windows via the Quick Menu, or from the top-right corner of the screen on a Mac).
Now launch your web browser and navigate to a speed testing website like Speedtest by Ookla. Run the test and make a note of the result. You probably want to run the test a few times to get an idea of your average internet speed. You’ll likely get the best results late at night when few people are online.
Disconnect your Ethernet cable and enable Wi-Fi. Once you’re connected to your wireless network, it’s time to run the same internet speed test again. Try testing your speed while standing right next to the router for best results, but also from any areas you frequently use wireless devices: in an office, on the sofa, in bed, and so on.
Now take a look at your results. Do you notice a huge difference between the two? We ran the test on an old router after upgrading to a faster connection. Using a wired connection, we managed to hit around 700Mbps:
We then switched to Wi-Fi and ran the test again, just across the room from where the router is positioned. This time we only measured just over 100Mbps, nearly seven times slower than the “true” connection speed:
Wi-Fi Slow? It’s Time for a New Router
Do you see a large difference between your wired and wireless performance? The first solution to consider is a router upgrade. If it’s been a few years since you purchased a new router, there’s a good chance you’re stuck on older (Wi-Fi 5 or earlier) speeds, which means you’re not getting the most out of your internet connection.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is a meaningful upgrade over Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), with speeds of up to 9.6Gbps (compared to 6.9Gbps). Keep in mind that earlier Wi-Fi 5 routers didn’t get anywhere near their maximum theoretical speeds, and that routers built on Wi-Fi 6 are more likely to have other technologies that can help maintain performance like MU-MIMO.
Wi-Fi 6 is now available on many of the best budget routers, and there is a huge range of access points available. Some of our favorite Wi-Fi routers hit speeds of 11Gbps and are packed with features, but performance comes at a real cost.
If coverage is your main concern, investing in one of the best mesh routers might be worthwhile. Mesh networks use multiple nodes to deliver unbeatable coverage, and they take a more modern approach to networking using smartphone apps for setup and configuration. Knowing where to place mesh router nodes can help guarantee the best performance (you can buy a pack and split it with some friends, or use a single mesh node on its own).
If money is no object and you want the best possible wireless performance, check out the best Wi-Fi 6E routers and Wi-Fi 7 routers which offer even faster speeds. The more you pay, the faster your wireless experience will be. These routers use an expanded range of channels and often come with more powerful systems-on-chip for handling more devices and higher volumes of network traffic.
Just remember that any devices you want to use with faster Wi-Fi standards will need to be compatible with those same standards. Many devices won’t yet be Wi-Fi 6E compliant, though that doesn’t mean a Wi-Fi 6E router is a bad idea (it just means you’re ready when the time comes). You can always buy an aftermarket Wi-Fi adapter to enable faster connection speeds.
Connect via Ethernet Instead
Where possible, connecting to your network via Ethernet will result in a faster and more stable experience that isn’t affected by interference. The downside is that you have to lay cable to make this possible. Depending on your space, this could be significantly cheaper than a new router (or it could be way more hassle).
If you go this route, make sure you understand the ins and outs of picking an Ethernet cable. For short runs to a nearby router, we recommend cheap Ethernet cables. Just like HDMI cables, don’t spend money on pricey cables when cheap ones will do the job.
Another option you can consider is powerline Ethernet, which uses the cabling already in your walls to deliver wired internet. Interference and distance can greatly impact your results here, so if you’re thinking of going this route it might be worth buying from a retailer that offers a change of mind policy in case the results are disappointing.
Alternatively, Save Some Money and Downgrade Your Internet
If you’re happy with the speeds you get on your current network hardware and would rather save money each month, explore cheaper (slower) plans and save some money. Don’t pay for internet speeds that you can’t take advantage of; you can always upgrade at a later date when it’s time to invest in a new router.
Just be careful when you’re changing your plan that you don’t impose additional limits on your internet usage, like bandwidth caps.
Remember: Wi-Fi Can Be Temperamental
Even the latest and greatest routers can fall short of the mark when it comes to super-fast internet connections. Router placement can make a big difference when it comes to performance, and you may still find yourself often needing to reboot to solve connectivity issues.
Lastly, keep in mind that internet speed isn’t the be-all and end-all. There are other things you should focus on like keeping your router up to date, poor internet latency, and packet loss.