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 actually is.
In this post, you’ll find 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/E — 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 last updated it on June 7, 2021, to include additional relevant information.
Table of Contents
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 video streaming — one of the most bandwidth-taxing online activities — for example; you’ll generally need a minimum download speed of:
- 3 Megabits per second for DVD quality.
- 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 figure out 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 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 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 from the remote server that hosts the test data to your device.)
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 send a confirmation to the remote server that it has received a packet and is ready for the next one.
That said, when the upload pipe is all clogged up, you can’t download anything at all.
In most traditional broadband connections, such as one via a cable modem, the download speed tends to be much faster than the upload speed. But you might get the same rate for both directions with a more modern connection, like a fiberoptic service.
Still, if somebody is seeding a torrent file, or uploading something large, without limiting the upload speed for the task, others might not be able to download anything. Keep that in mind.
(Note: Cloud-recording security cameras, like those from Google or Arlo, and “smart devices” in general, 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 is the consequence of 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 or 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 test websites, such as Speedof.me, Fast.com, or Speedtest.net.
Don’t get too obsessed about which to use. These tests are all the same in the test methodology. However, the results will vary due to the server’s location (and its Internet speed). So pick one that’s best for your location, and in that sense, Speedtest.net is excellent.
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 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 actual speed of your Internet. However, mobile Internet speed continuously 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
To test your broadband connection, you need to that at the source, using devices that are not the bottleneck.
Specifically, here are what you need:
- A test computer with a network port. A Gigabit port is fine most of the time, 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.
- CAT6 or higher grade cables. Generally, CAT5e cable will work but only for Gigabit or slower connections. While this cable grade can deliver up to 10Gbps, it’s not as consistent as CAT6 or higher.
- (Optional) a router capable of Multi-Gig on both WAN and LAN sides. This applies only if you want to test the connection via the router. In this case, make sure you turn any bandwidth-related features of the router, such as QoS, off. 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 here 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 (your test computer.)
- 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.
Again this complicated real test is to make sure you get what you pay for. You can always do a random test on any device to find out the connection speed at hand. And if that’s fast enough for your need, don’t bother 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 a performance to conserve battery life. That’s because the former is way more important in real-world usage.
Second, none of these apps can move data between itself and another 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.
By the same token, you shouldn’t use Internet speed test apps to test the local Wi-Fi speed, 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 broadband speeds. As a result, it’s rarely accurate, if at all, to use the Internet to test your Wi-Fi’s throughputs.
It’s OK to use a phone to do a speed test.
Just keep in mind that it’s not 100% indicative of your Wi-Fi or broadband speeds. Rather, it’s the speed of the phone’s Wi-Fi capability or its Internet at a particular time. And that’s helpful information.
That said, if either your Internet or the Wi-Fi connection is faster than a certain speed grade, say 500Mbps, and you want to figure out the true speed, you need to test it via a real computer with the fastest network and Wi-Fi adapter to make sure.
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 genuinely be. That’s not to mention Wi-Fi software drivers tend to be optimized for battery life and therefore favor download over upload.
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. 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 Wi-Fi client’s role. 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. 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 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, 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.
Speed tests in Dong Knows Tech’s reviews
It usually takes me at least a week to finish evaluating a device. I use every one of them as my own personal device for an extended amount of time.
For Wi-Fi throughput speed, I use the same test method above. That means there’s a server that connects to the router in question 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.
Server specs for Wi-Fi speed test
My server is a custom-built computer with the following specs (or higher — I do upgrade my equipment quite regularly):
- 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, 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps, or 10Gbps, whichever highest available, wired connection.
Clients specs for Wi-Fi speed test
Generally, I use three clients for throughput testing. They all use a relatively high-end Intel CPU, 16GB or more of RAM, and a top-tier 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 a close range (10 feet or shorter) throughput test of a router’s Wi-Fi 5 band.
- Client #2: A Dell XPS 15-inch laptop. This machine has top-of-the-line specs and Wi-Fi 6E.
- Client #3: An Apple MacBook Pro 15, top of the line. This laptop has a 3×3 Wi-Fi 5 adapter. This laptop runs both macOS and Windows.
For additional tests, 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 and Wi-Fi 6E devices.
Wi-Fi router speed test: Data and configurations
The following are the data and how I conduct tests on standalone Wi-Fi broadcasters (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.
- I upgrade the hardware to the latest firmware available.
- I use single large files for test data, 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, 6GB, 10GB, or 20GB test file. Generally, I use the smaller test file when a bigger one would make the test take too long.
- 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 (a) less than 10 feet (3 m) and (b) 40 feet (12.2 m) away from the router — within the line of sight.
- I do multiple tests at different times during a day and on different days of the 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, at different places within my house or my partners’ offices, to find out how the router functions in daily life.
I report Wi-Fi performance in megabits per second (Mbps).
Wi-Fi mesh speed test: Hardware placement
This is how I test multi-hardware-unit Wi-Fi solutions to get their official sustained real-world wireless speeds.
I always test the hardware in the wireless setup. That’s because, in the wired backhaul configuration, in most cases, the performance of the extender unit (satellite) is similar to that of the router unit. This means you can use the router’s throughput numbers as that of the satellite.
For standard testing, I place the satellite 40 feet away from the router unit. After that, the test client is placed at 10 feet and 40 feet away from the satellite.
Also, I use the star topology for the testing, meaning the satellite units (if more than one) are placed around the router unit. In other words, a 2-pack mesh will generally deliver the same test results as a 3-pack one.
When the mesh hardware is Tri-band — where it has an additional 5GHz band — I will test it in a way that one of the 5GHz bands works as the backhaul and the other works as the front haul. The idea is to get the best possible performance.
A Wi-Fi connection between two direct devices occurs in a single band, using a fixed channel, at any given time. (That’s always been the case before Wi-Fi 7, which might work differently.)
Generally, when you use multiple Wi-Fi broadcasters, like in the case of a mesh network, there are two types of connections: fronthaul and backhaul.
Fronthaul is the Wi-Fi signal a mesh hub broadcasts outward for clients or its network ports for wired devices. That’s what we generally expect from a Wi-Fi broadcaster.
On the other hand, backhaul, a.k.a backbone, is the link between one broadcasting hub and another, be it the main router or another satellite hub.
This link works behind the scene to keep the hardware units together as a system. It also determines the ceiling bandwidth (and speed) of all devices connected to a satellite hub.
The connection type, a Wi-Fi band or a network port, used for the backhaul is often referred to as the uplink. A Wi-Fi broadcaster might use one of its bands (2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz) or a network port for the uplink.
When a Wi-Fi band handles backhaul and fronthaul simultaneously, only half of its bandwidth is available to either end. From the perspective of a connected client, that phenomenon is called signal loss.
When a band functions solely for backhauling, it’s called a dedicated backhaul band. In a mesh system, only traditional Tri-band hardware with an additional 5GHz band can have a dedicated backhaul band.
Generally, it’s best to use a network cable for backhauling — wired backhaul. And that’s an advantage of mesh hardware with network ports. In this case, a hub can use its entire Wi-Fi bandwidth for front-hauling.
In networking, using network cables is always much better than wireless in speed and reliability.
Similar to the case of standalone broadcasters, I also use the mesh in different real-world scenarios, with anecdotal tests, to understand how it really works and use that experience for the review.
Important note on speed test
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 — at least for my location. It’s the total real-world bandwidth of the router’s Wi-Fi band in question.
Additionally, I test all routers anecdotally with a dozen or so concurrent wireless and wired clients in various LAN and WAN scenarios — again, over at least a few days to even a few weeks — to have a real sense of how good (or bad) they are, compared with others.
In other words, I do really use them for my own daily needs.
Router network-attached storage (NAS) speed 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, for consistence’s sake, the following is the standard way I go about it:
- I use at least two random 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.
- I perform the test using Windows’ File Explorer (a.ka. Windows Explorer). It’s a simple drag and drops copy test via the common Server Message Block (SMB, a.k.a. Samba) protocol with a 20GB single file as the data.
- The test computer has the old and insecure SMBv1 disabled by default. This means the router must support SMBv2 for the test to work. (If SMBv1 must be enabled, I’ll note that in the review.)
- 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). (You can find the scores of all routers I’ve tested in this post of the best routers with NAS feature.)
Note: The test for the router’s NAS feature is just for reference in terms of raw speeds. I use a real NAS server (and I’d always recommend that you do, too.) That said, I only use the router’s USB port for a short time and do not try all available applications or functions, nor do I check for conflicts or issues.
Wi-Fi and speed test: 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 many 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 against 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 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 relatively quickly. Still, I always take time to use it to make sure the assessment is fair and correct, within reason. (And there have been more than once that my initial hunch turned out incorrect.)
That said, the speed test is just one of many things I do 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.