At one point or another, you might have wondered how to do a proper Wi-Fi speed test or the right way to figure out how fast your Internet connection is.
In this post, you'll find out what an Internet connection entails and how to figure out the absolute speeds of your connections. Take "absolute" with a big grain of salt, though, since these speeds vary greatly.
The method mentioned here is also what I use for official testing in all networking reviews on this website.
Before we continue, ensure you understand that Wi-Fi and the Internet are two different things. As a result, using one to test the other can be problematic.
Dong's note: I first published this post on December 19, 2018, and last updated it on November 9, 2022, to include additional relevant information.
Why you should care about your Internet speed
It's generally helpful to know how fast your Internet is. Faster always seems better, but you only need certain speed grades to do specific tasks.
Above a certain speed grade, where the connection is fast enough for even the most demanding application, broadband speed testing should be used only to confirm the paid bandwidth. It's meaningless otherwise.
Take video streaming -- one of the most bandwidth-taxing online activities -- for example; you'll generally need a minimum download speed of:
- 3-4 Megabits per second for DVD quality or face timing on a phone screen.
- 5Mbps for HD quality.
- 25Mbps for Blu-ray (4K) quality.
- 80Mbps for 8K video.
Keep in mind that this is the speed required by a single stream. If you have more than one person streaming simultaneously, you generally need to multiply those numbers with the concurrent clients to determine the necessary real-time bandwidth.
Also, there are a lot more online applications than streaming. Some of these applications -- such as automatic updates -- even occur within a connected device without you getting involved.
So yes, again, faster Internet is always better. But there's more than the download speed on 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 is the breakdown of what they mean.
Internet speed: Upload vs download
Download speed represents how fast you can pull things from outside your local network.
That said, streaming a movie, surfing a website, downloading a file, getting an email, etc., use the download pipe.
In a speed test, download is the speed the test device (a computer or a phone) pulls information from the remote server that hosts the test data.
Upload represents the speed of the opposite direction.
Things like sending an email, posting a photo or comment to Facebook, saving a file to Google Drive, using cloud-recording/smart devices, etc., use the upload pipe.
While we use more of the download pipe, data transmission -- delivered in small portions called packets -- needs both directions to work. That's because your computer uses the upload pipe to confirm to the remote server that it has received a packet and is ready for the next one.
That said, when the upload pipe is clogged up, you can't download anything.
Still, suppose somebody is seeding a torrent file or uploading a large amount of information without limiting the upload speed for the task. In that case, others might not be able to download anything. Keep that in mind.
Cloud-recording security cameras, like those from Google or Arlo, and "smart devices" can put a massive strain on the upload. Don't use them if you have a modest broadband connection. In this case, you might need to conserve your Internet bandwidth. )
As the name suggests, packet loss happens when a packet of data is either not received or partially received.
Most of the time, this results from a bad physical connection or incompatible MTU settings. In this case, the packet will be resent. Packet loss shouldn't be higher than 1 percent.
Lag (or latency): Ping vs jitter
Both ping and jitter relate to the delay in a connection, but they are slightly different.
Ping is the fixed latency (a.k.a lag) at a given time -- in a speed test, it's generally measured at the beginning. It's the amount of time, shown 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 called Packet Delay Variation (PDV) or ping variations, measures ping values over time -- the entire test.
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. The jitter value should be below 30ms and is generally below 10ms.
How to do a real Internet speed test
There are many speed testing websites, such as Speedof.me, Fast.com, or Speedtest.net, for you to choose from. But don't get too obsessed about which to use. They all use the same test methodology.
And no matter which you use, the results will vary due to the server's location (and Internet speed). So pick one that's best for your location, and in that sense, Speedtest.net is excellent -- it's ubiquitously available with many servers of different speed grades.
Since you're on this page, do a quick test right now.
So how fast is it? Totally fast, and you're happy with it? Good for you! You can move on now. But if it's not what you expected, keep in mind that chances are it's not your correct Internet speed anyway.
If you were using a phone's cellular connection during the test, that was indeed your Internet's actual speed. However, mobile Internet speed continuously varies greatly 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.
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 bandwidth fully.
That said, to find out the real speed of your broadband connection, you must prepare before the testing.
What you need to do a real Internet speed test
To test your broadband connection, you need to do that at the source -- the terminal device -- using equipment with a connection grade that's the same or better yet significantly faster than the expected Internet speed.
You don't want the testing equipment to be the bottleneck, else, you'll the test result is the speed of the equipment itself.
Specifically, here are what you need:
- A test computer with a network port: A Gigabit port is usually OK, but if you want to test a full Gigabit, Gig+, or faster broadband connection, a Multi-Gig-capable (2.5Gbps, 5Gbps, 10Gbps) computer is a must. That means, in most cases, you need a desktop with a 10Gbps PCIe internal adapter or a Thunderbolt laptop with a 10Gbps external adapter.
- CAT6a or higher grade cables: Generally, CAT5e cable can deliver up to 10Gbps, but for testing, it's best to use CAT6a or higher grade to make sure.
- (Optional) a router capable of Multi-Gig on both WAN and LAN sides: This applies only if you want to test the connection via (behind) the router. In this case, turn off any bandwidth-related features of the router, such as QoS, bandwidth limiter, traffic monitor, security, etc. If you have a sub-Gigabit broadband connection, a Gigabit router will do.
After that, here's how to connect the devices for the test:
- Connect the test machine directly to the Internet terminal device, a modem, a gateway, or a Fiber ONT, using a network cable. The objective is to remove all middle devices, like a slow switch or router, that can be the bottleneck.
- (Optional) If you use a router, make sure you connect its fastest ports for both the WAN -- the terminal device -- and the LAN side, which is your test computer. Generally, the speed test function of a router (via its web user interface or mobile app) is only for reference and is never correct due to various reason.
- Check to ensure 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.)
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.
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 your broadband plan, it's time to call the provider to complain.
Again this complicated real test is to make sure you get what the ISP promises you. Generally, you only need to do a random test on any device to determine the connection speed at any given time, and if it's fast enough, there's no need to do anything else.
How to test a router’s Wi-Fi speed test
There are many Wi-Fi speed test apps. None of these are accurate for a couple of reasons.
First, mobile devices almost always optimize their Wi-Fi adapter for power consumption and not performance to conserve battery life -- the former is way more important in real-world usage.
Second, none of these apps can move data between itself and another local device to replicate what users do in real life. They are all synthetic.
That said, avoid using speed test apps if you want to know how fast your local Wi-Fi speed really is.
And you shouldn't use Internet speed test apps to test the local Wi-Fi speed, either. In most cases, a router's Wi-Fi speed is likely much faster than the speed of a broadband connection. Even when you have ultra-fast Internet, many variations in the World Wide Web can adversely affect broadband speeds. The gist is that it's rarely accurate, if at all, to use the Internet to test your Wi-Fi's throughputs.
Note on speed testing using a phone
It's OK to use a phone to do a speed test via an app as long as you don't take the result as the true indicator of your Wi-Fi or broadband speed. Instead, consider the number as the phone's real-time general connection speed. And that information can be helpful enough.
If your Internet or the Wi-Fi connection is faster than a particular speed grade, say 500Mbps, and you want to figure out the actual speed, you need to test it via a computer with the fastest network and Wi-Fi adapter to make sure.
The best way to determine 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 testing, the router's Wi-Fi bandwidth is shared; therefore, you can't determine how fast its Wi-Fi can genuinely be. That's not to mention other factors, such as software driver or hardware grades.
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 real-world speed of Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), even at its best, has never surpassed the sustained rate of a wired Gigabit connection. But Wi-Fi 6, and especially Wi-Fi 6E, can be significantly faster.
In any case, keep this in mind: The connection speed between a pair of network devices is at the mercy of the lowest party involved. The rate you see is that of the bottleneck device -- if that's the device you want to test, then your result is correct.
That said, these are what you need to test a device's Wi-Fi speed:
- A computer that plays the server's role 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 the fastest LAN port of the Wi-Fi router you want to test. (If the router doesn't support Gigabit, you can forget about it. It's already too slow, anyway). Now on this server computer, share the folder that contains the test data so that it's accessible to other computers that connect to the same router.
- A second computer -- be it a laptop or a desktop -- to play the Wi-Fi client's role. This computer must have the highest-end (fastest possible) Wi-Fi adapter of at least the same speed grate as 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. Make sure you separate the bands when possible, be it 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz, into different networks to know which band is being tested.
And that's it! Now from the second computer (the Wi-Fi client), browse for the shared folder on the server and copy the data. Time how long that process takes, do some simple math with the amount of data involved, 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, 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 your router's speed.
Again, unless you need to find out the actual speed of a Wi-Fi broadcaster or your broadband, for one reason or another, there's no need to work very hard at it. Most of the time, a quick speed test is enough.
Ultimately, we only need the connection to be as fast as an application requires. Above that, the extra bandwidth will not amount to anything meaningful.