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The Right Way To Do an Internet or Wi-Fi Speed Test

It’s a challenge to find out how fast a Wi-Fi router truly is. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

At one point or another, you might have wondered how fast your Internet actually is, or the real Wi-Fi speed of your router for that matter. You’ll find in this post the answer to that question, namely the absolute speeds of your connections. Take absolute with a big grain of salt, though, since these speeds vary a great deal. As a bonus, I’ll also reveal how I test Wi-Fi speed — including the latest Wi-Fi 6 — for my reviews on this website. Spoiler: It’s easier, though more time-consuming than you think.

Before we continue, make sure you understand how Wi-Fi and the Internet are two different things.

Dong’s note: I first published this post on December 19, 2018, and have updated it since with more relevant information.

Why you should care about your Internet speed

It’s generally helpful to know how fast your Internet is. Faster is always better, but most importantly, you need certain speed grades to do specific tasks. Take Netflix streaming — one of the most bandwidth-taxing online activities — for example; you’ll need a minimum download speed of:

  • 3 Megabits per second for DVD quality.
  • 5 Mbps for HD quality.
  • 25 Mbps for Blu-ray quality.

While the numbers seem small, keep in mind that they are what required by a single stream. If you have more than one person streaming at the same time, you generally need to multiply those numbers with the concurrent clients to find out the speeds you need.

Also, there are a lot more online applications than streaming. Some of these applications — such as automatic updates — even take place within a connected device without you getting involved. So yes, again, the faster Internet is always better. But there’s more than the download speed when it comes to the Internet.

Internet connection explained

When testing an Internet connection, you’ll get two main numbers, download and upload — sometimes they are called downlink and uplink. And you might also see a few other values, including ping, jitter, and package loss. Following are the breakdown of what they mean.

Upload vs. download

Download speed represents how fast you can pull things from outside your local network — specifically from the remote server that hosts the test data — on to your device. That said, streaming a movie, surfing a website, downloading a file, etc. use the download pipe.

Upload represents the speed of the opposite direction. Things like sending an email, posting a photo or comment to Facebook, saving a file to Dropbox, etc. use the upload pipe.

In most traditional broadband connections, such as cable or DSL, download tends to be much faster than upload. But you’ll get the same rate for both directions with a modern connection, like a fiberoptic service.

While we use more of the download pipe, data transmission needs both directions to work. That’s because when you download, data arrives in small portions called packets. Your computer uses the upload pipe to send a confirmation to the remote server that it has received a packet and is ready for the next one. That said, if the upload pipe is all clogged up, you can’t download anything at all.

Packet loss

As the name suggests, packet loss happens when a packet of data is either not received or partially received. Most of the time, this is the consequence of a bad physical connection. In this case, the packet will be resent. Packet loss, measured in percentage, shouldn’t be higher than 1 percent.

Ping vs. jitter

Both ping and jitter relate to the delay in a connection, but they are slightly different.

Ping is the fixed latency or lag at a given time — generally at the beginning of a speed test. It’s the amount of time, measured in milliseconds, needed for a data packet from one party to reach another or vice versa. The shorter your ping is, the better your Internet connection is for applications that require real-time interaction, such as Wi-Fi calling or online gaming. Generally, a ping of 15ms or shorter is considered excellent.

Jitter, often referred to as Packet Delay Variation (PDV) or ping variations, is a measure of the changes in ping values over time. In other words, if every packet takes the exact amount of time — no matter how long — to arrive at the destination, then there’s no jitter. The higher the jitter value, the more likely a packet loss will occur. Jitter value should be below 30ms and is generally below 10ms.

How to do a real Internet speed test

There are many websites for testing Internet speed, such as Speedof.me, Fast.com, or Speedtest.net (also available as a mobile app). Since you’re on this page, click on the Go button below right now for a quick test. (Note: If you’re on the phone without Wi-Fi, this will use up your data.)

So how fast is it? Totally fast, and you’re happy with it? Good for you! You can move on now. But if for some reason it’s not what you expected, keep in mind that chances are it’s not your correct Internet speed anyway.

(Note: If you were using a phone’s cellular connection during the test, then that was indeed the real speed of your Internet. However, mobile Internet speed always varies a great deal depending on where you are.)

Let me explain. When you did the test, there might have been other devices in the network, also using part of the connection’s bandwidth. Also, if you have an ultra-high-speed broadband plan, the local Wi-Fi, or your computer’s wired connection, might not be fast enough to deliver the Internet speed in full.

That said, to find out the real speed of your broadband connection — in case, for some reason, you want to know for sure — you need to do a bit of preparation before testing.

What you need to do a real Internet speed test

  1. A test computer with a Gigabit (or faster) network port.
  2. Connect the test machine to the Internet source, such as a modem, or a gateway, using a network cable. The objective here is to remove all middle devices, like a slow switch or router, that can be the bottleneck.
  3. Check to make sure the computer is the only device using the broadband connection during the test. For example, if the Internet source is a gateway, make sure you disconnect all other devices from it (unplug all other network cables and turn off its Wi-Fi.)
    READ MORE:  Common Networking Lingoes Everyone Should Know

And that’s it! Now on the test computer, do a few speed tests as you did earlier, the number you get is your real Internet speed.

By the way, you’ll likely still get a different result each time you do a test. That’s just how the Internet is. Feel free to use the highest number as your broadband score. Now, if it’s still significantly lower than what you pay for, it’s time to call the provider to complain.

How to test a router’s Wi-Fi speed test

There are many apps designed to test Wi-Fi speed. All of these apps are confusing or overkill. Most importantly, they don’t replicate what users do in real life. So, avoid using these apps if you want to know how fast your Wi-Fi really is.

Pro tip: You shouldn’t use Internet speed test apps to test Wi-Fi, either. That’s because a router’s Wi-Fi speed is likely much faster than the speed of a broadband connection. And even when you have an ultra-fast Internet connection, there are many variations in the world wide web that can adversely affect the broadband speeds. As a result, it’s rarely accurate to use the Internet to test your Wi-Fi’s throughputs.

The best way to find out a router’s Wi-Fi speed is to copy data from one computer (a server) to another (a Wi-Fi client) within the local network, using a single wired-to-wireless connection. If you use multiple Wi-Fi clients for the test, the Wi-Fi bandwidth is shared, and therefore, you can’t find out how fast a router’s Wi-Fi can be.

And that means, again, you need to do some preparation.

What you need to do a real Wi-Fi speed test

In my experience, the actual speed of Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), even at its best, has never surpassed that of a wired Gigabit connection. But Wi-Fi 6 can be a lot faster than that. That said, this is what you need to test Wi-Fi:

  1. A computer that plays the role of the server and hosts the test data. This computer must have a Gigabit network port — or a 10 Gigabit Ethernet port if you intend to test a Wi-Fi 6 router — and use a solid-state drive as its storage. Connect this computer to a LAN port of the Wi-Fi router that you want to test. (If the router doesn’t support Gigabit, you can forget about it, it’s already too slow, anyway). Share the folder that contains the test data so that it’s accessible to other computers that connect to the same router.
  2. A second computer — be it a laptop or a desktop — to play the role of the Wi-Fi client. This computer needs to have a high-end Wi-Fi adapter of at least the same speed grate as that of the router. This computer should also use a solid-state drive as its storage. Connect this computer to the Wi-Fi network of the router.

And that’s it! Now from the second computer (the Wi-Fi client), browse for the shared folder on the server computer and copy the data over. Time how long that process takes, and you’ll figure out how fast the connection is. For example, if the data you copy is 2000 megabytes and the copy process takes 30 seconds, then the speed is 66.7 megabytes per second or 533.6 Mbps.

You can move the Wi-Fi client around to find out how the distances — between the router and the client — affect the Wi-Fi speed.

Similar to Internet speed, the Wi-Fi speed also tends to fluctuate. That said, feel free to pick the highest number of the same location as the speed of your router.

To test a Wi-Fi 6 router, a 10Gbps network adapter card is a must Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

How I test Wi-Fi for a review on Dong Knows Tech

It usually takes me about a week to finish evaluating a router. For Wi-Fi throughput speed, I use the same test method above. That means there’s a server that connects to the router in questions via a wired connection. After that, I use a variety of high-end Wi-Fi clients to conduct the throughput tests. The following are the general specs of my equipment, which, by the way, changes quite frequently — I will update this post when that happens.

Server specs

My server is a custom-built computer with the following specs:

Again, this server hosts the test data, which I use to copy to clients via the test router’s wireless connection to figure out the Wi-Fi speeds.

Clients specs

Generally, I use three clients for throughput testing. All of them use relatively high-end Intel CPU, 16GB of RAM, and an NVMe SSD as the primary storage.

  • Client #1: This is a desktop computer using an Asus PCE-AC88 4×4 Wi-Fi 5 adapter — the fastest  Wi-Fi 5 client on the market. I use this mostly for close range (10 feet or shorter) throughput test of Wi-Fi 5 router.
  • Client #2: Apple MacBook Pro 15 mid-2015, top of the line. This laptop has a 3×3 Wi-Fi 5 adapter. I use this one to mostly test the range speed (at a 40 feet distance) of Wi-Fi 5 routers. This laptop runs both MacOS and Windows 10.
  • Client #3: A Dell XPS 9550 15-inch laptop. This machine has top-of-the-line specs, and I have upgraded it to Wi-Fi 6 using an Intel AX200-based (2×2) Wi-Fi 6 adapter. I use this one to test Wi-Fi 6 routers, for now, until faster clients are available.

I also use a few other laptops, tablets, and phones for additional tests.

Test data and configurations

The following are the data and how I conduct tests on Wi-Fi broadcaster (routers, access points, Extenders, etc.). Depending on a particular device, there might be more testing — for example, a Wi-Fi 6 router will also be tested as though it were a Wi-Fi 5 router — but all of them have to go through these.

  1. I upgrade the hardware to the latest firmware available.
  2. For test data, I use single large files, which generally take less time to copy than multiple small files. Depending on the tests and how fast a router is, I use a 2GB, a 6GB, or a 10GB test file. Generally, I use the small test file when a test would take too long to complete with a larger one.
  3. When possible, I change the router’s settings to favor speed (and not compatibility, which is generally the default). I also test each Wi-Fi channel separately, as well as using the Auto channel setting.
  4. For official performance scores, I test the router with just one Wi-Fi client at a time. I place this client at two specific locations that (1) are less than 10 feet (3.04m) and (2) 40 feet (12.2m) away from the router.
  5. I do multiple tests at different times of the day and different days of a week and use the highest consistent numbers as the final scores.
  6. Other than the performance, I also used the router for an extended amount of time, from a few days to even a few weeks, with many clients of different Wi-Fi standards and tiers to find out how the router functions in daily life.
    READ MORE:  Networking Your Home Properly with these Wi-Fi Basics

I report Wi-Fi performance in megabits per second (Mbps).

Router network-attached storage (NAS) test

If a router has a USB or eSATA port that can host a storage device, I test the performance of its NAS feature, too.

In this case, I connect a fast, portable SSD drive, like the WD My Passport SSD, to the router’s peripheral port and share the access to the rest of the network. After that, via a wired connection — using the fastest network port the router supports, be it Gigabit or faster — I copy the 10GB test file to the router’s shared storage space, and back. I do this a couple of times to figure out the writing and reading speeds.

I report NAS performance in megabytes per second (MB/s).

An Intel AX200 Wi-Fi 5 adapter card (left) and an AC7260 Wi-Fi counterpart. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Wi-Fi testing: It’s boring!

After years of working with hundreds of routers, I have to admit that Wi-Fi testing can get repetitive and tedious. It’s also not 100% accurate. It’s just impossible to say for sure how fast a router’s Wi-Fi is because there are so many factors and elements that can affect a test’s outcome. That’s not to mention that a router’s performance and features can change dramatically via firmware updates.

For this reason, I try to keep my testing as consistent as possible. In the end, my goal is to show how a particular Wi-Fi device does, compared with others. In other words, my testing doesn’t necessarily represent your exact experience of a router itself — in terms of speed — at your home. Instead, it describes how better, or worse, a choice it is, among others.

In a way, Wi-Fi is like red wine — the experience changes depending on when, how, and with whom you open a bottle. It’s tough to pinpoint what is what in the complex taste. But over time, after so many bottles, chances are you’ll be able to tell how fine a bottle of wine is just by the nose. No, I don’t smell any router — not purposely –, but I can sense how good (or bad) a router is rather quickly. Still, I always take time to use it to make sure my judgment is correct.

That said, one thing is for sure: Wi-Fi speed is just one of many things I use to evaluate a networking device. As a rule, again, I always spend the time to have real-life experience with it before publishing my reviews.

Ω Found a typo? Please report it by selecting the text and pressing Ctrl + Enter. Thanks! ♥

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About the Author: Dong Ngo

Before Dong Knows Tech, I spent some 18 years testing and reviewing gadgets at CNET.com. Technology is my passion and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

12 Comments

  1. Howdy! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with Search Engine Optimization? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but
    I’m not seeing very good results. If you know of any please share.
    Thanks!

    1. This depends on the WiFi standard, the time of day and especially where you are. The two channels you mentioned are both DFS and might not be available in certain places.

  2. Hi Dong, I have an Aimesh with an AC86U as my main router. How do I make the 5GHz band work only with 802.11ac clients and the 2.4GHz band just for 802.11n clients? Thanks!

    1. You need to turn off the SmartConnect mode (It’s in Wireless section under Advanced Settings) then change the Wireless Mode for each band accordingly. You can choose to name the two bands differently or the same (in this case make sure the password — WPA Pre-Shared Key — is the same too.)

  3. I would like to know what 5GHz channel that you are using? Asus (exp. AC86U) is well known as working well in channel 149~161 and Netgear (exp XR500) works well in channel 36~48. Also, what region did you set to those router in Wi-Fi setup (AC86U great in Australia region and XR500 great in US region )? This make major changes as many reviewers use these channels and region trick to “promote” some sponsored routers by putting it to the optimized position to make it looks great (Australia AC86U in channel 149~161 wins XR500 and US XR500 in channel 36~48 wins AC86U) , too tricky in this industry, I hope I can finally find the trustworthy site which disclose it all for the testing setup, thanks

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for your input. I actually test routers using ALL channels, one after another, as well as using the Auto setting, which is generally the default. I report the highest scores.

      Hope this helps, 🙂

      -Dong.

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