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 since updated it with additional 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.
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 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 occur 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.
(Note: Cloud-recording security cameras like those from Google or Arlo can put a massive strain on 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 — delivered in small portions called packets — needs both directions to work. That’s because 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.
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 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 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 speed test websites, such as Speedof.me, Fast.com, or Speedtest.net . Since you’re on this page, do a quick test right now. (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.
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, you need to do a bit of preparation before the testing.
What you need to do a real Internet speed test
- A test computer with a Gigabit (or faster) network port.
- Connect the test machine directly to the Internet source — such as a modem, a gateway, or a Fiber ONT — using a network cable. The objective here is to remove all middle devices, like a slow switch or router, that can be the bottleneck.
- 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.)
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 a router’s Wi-Fi speed. None of these are accurate for a couple of reasons.
To conserve battery life, mobile devices tend to optimize its Wi-Fi adapter for battery life and not speed.
Most importantly, none of these apps replicate what users do in real life. They are all synthetic. So, avoid using Wi-Fi test apps if you want to know how fast your Wi-Fi really is.
For the same token, you shouldn’t use Internet speed test apps to test Wi-Fi, either. 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, there are many variations in the world wide web that can adversely affect the broadband speeds. As a result, it’s rarely accurate, if at all, 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 testing, the router’s Wi-Fi bandwidth is shared, and therefore, you can’t find out how fast its Wi-Fi can truly 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 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 can be a lot faster.
Also, but one important thing to note in testing: The connection speed between a pair of network devices is at the mercy of the lowest party involved. You can read more about that in this post about network basics, but the gist is the rate you see is that of the bottleneck device.
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 that 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 role of the Wi-Fi client. This computer needs to have a highest-end (fastest possible) 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, 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, 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.
How Wi-Fi is tested for Dong Knows Tech’s reviews
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.
Important note: My testing method requires the router to a Gigabit (or faster) LAN port(s) to work. For this reason, I generally don’t review routers that use the old Fast Ethernet (10/100Mbps) wired standard, nor should you consider them.
After that, I use various high-end Wi-Fi clients to conduct the throughput tests. The following are the general specs of my equipment, which I, by the way, upgrade quite frequently — I will update this post when the changes are significant enough.
Wi-Fi test server specs
My server is a custom-built computer with the following specs:
- CPU: Intel Core i5-8600 Processor
- RAM: 16GB DDR 4
- Storage: 1TB Samsung 970 Pro.
- LAN connection: 10GBASE-T network adapter card.
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. The server connects to the test router via a 1Gbps (Gigabit), or faster when applicable, wired connection.
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 — the only on the market for now. 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, USB Wi-Fi adapters, and phones of different Wi-Fi standards, including some extra Wi-Fi 6 devices, 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.) to get their official sustained real-world wireless speeds.
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.
- I upgrade the hardware to the latest firmware available.
- 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 2 GB, 6GB, 10 GB, or 20 GB test file. Generally, I use the small test file when a test would take too long to complete with a larger one.
- 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.
- 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 are (1) less than 10 feet (3 m) and (2) 40 feet (12.2 m) away from the router.
- 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.
- Besides 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.
I report Wi-Fi performance in megabits per second (Mbps).
Again, I measure the official test score by using just a single high-speed Wi-Fi client at a time. That’s the only way to figure out all broadcasters’ speeds consistently.
If I use multiple clients, due to different speed tiers, standards, and the fact Wi-Fi bandwidth is shared, it’s impossible to come up with relevant throughput numbers to say if this router is faster than the other, etc.
So, the scores reported in my reviews are likely those of the best-case scenario. It’s the total real-world bandwidth of the router’s Wi-Fi band in question.
Additionally, I also test all routers anecdotally with multiple concurrent wireless and wired clients in various scenarios to have a real sense of how good (or bad) it is compared with others.
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, the following is the standard way I go about it:
- I use at least two portable SSDs, out of this list, for the test and pick the one with higher consistent scores as the official numbers. So far, any portable SSD has proved to have way higher speeds than the router’s USB port. In other words, no matter what drive I used, the performance was almost the same for each router.
- The drive is formatted in NTFS. If the router doesn’t support this file system, I’ll use the applicable one and note that in the review. So far, all routers I’ve reviewed support NTFS.
- For the official scores, I perform the test using Windows 10’s File Explorer (a.ka. Windows Explorer). It’s a simple drag and drops copy test with a 20GB single file as the data.
- I do the test using a wired Gigabit connection. If the router has a multi-gig port, I’ll use that port, too.
- I perform each test (write and read) at least three times and pick the highest consistent numbers (within 5 percent) as the router’s scores.
- I report NAS performance in megabytes per second (MB/s).
Wi-Fi speed: You can’t really put your finger on it.
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. Also, no one can try every scenario, considering a router can have a lot of features and settings.
It’s 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 the fact a router 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 mean to represent your experience of a router in terms of throughputs. Instead, it describes how better, or worse, a choice it is, among others, at the time of the review.
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 outcome. But over time, after so many bottles, chances are you’ll be able to tell how fine the 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 assessment is fair and correct, within reason.
That said, Wi-Fi speed is just one of many things I use to evaluate networking devices. As a rule, again, I always spend the time to have some real-life experience with them before publishing my reviews. You can count on that.