Most of us are familiar with those popular internet speed test services out there. You've probably seen some of these sites before, like Speedtest.net, Speakeasy, etc. What these sites do is let you test your upload and download bandwidth, giving you some idea of the quality of your connection to the internet. But what they don’t tell you is what your internet speed test is saying. Speed tests are not as simple as pressing a button and bam, there are your results. There is a lot more that goes into your speed test and numerous factors that can affect your results.
First what is a speed test exactly? Speed tests measure your current devices’ maximum speed – how fast your device can upload and download information – by accessing nearby test servers. The test mimics your online activity in a controlled setting by downloading large sample files and recording speeds. Speed tests won’t tell you your absolute internet speed, but they will give you a close approximation. Also, different tests highlight different aspects of your connection.
Now that you know what a speed test is, let’s provide some helpful vocabulary before we dig deeper into your speed test.
Things to Consider Before Running Your Speed Test
Restarting is the standard first step advice for just about every tech problem out there, but it's also a great proactive step to take as well, especially with routers and high-speed digital modems. The modem and router that work together to give your computers and other devices access to the internet is, itself, a tiny computer. A tiny computer with several huge jobs, like properly navigating all sorts of traffic around your connected home. Just like your computer or smartphone, various things can begin bogging down processes over time. With modems and routers, those issues sometimes manifest as sluggish web browsing and movie-streaming. Since you’re after a really accurate internet speed test, restarting your modem and router often helps return them both to full working status. This is usually accomplished by unplugging power to your modem and router and plugging it back in.
This is probably the most important rule to remember when testing your internet speed: don't use the internet while you're testing it. Obviously, this means you shouldn't have a dozen other windows open on your computer but be sure to check on other things that you might take for granted that use the internet a lot. A few things that come to mind include streaming music services that run in the background, patches downloading via Windows Update, Wi-Fi security cameras uploading HD video, Netflix streaming on a TV in another room, a smart speaker playing music in your bedroom, etc. Don't forget mobile devices, too. Most smartphones auto-connect to your wireless network when they're within range, so turning on airplane mode is probably a smart idea during your test. Assuming you're not testing from your phone, of course. If you skip this step, your phone might be competing for bandwidth as it's updating apps, downloading a software upgrade, or playing music. If you're not sure if something might be using the internet, turning it off is a safe bet during your test or using managed router app to see which devices are currently connected.
You should do this before any test. Most internet speed tests work by downloading and uploading one or more files of specific sizes, and then using the time those files take to do that to calculate your internet speed. If you're testing numerous times in a row, test results after the initial test might be impacted by the fact that those files already exist on your computer (i.e., they're cached). A good internet speed test should compensate for that, but you'd be surprised how often they don't. These caches don’t just apply to your computer, but to streaming devices such as Apple TV’s, Fire Sticks, iPads, etc.
Reading Your Speed Test Results
Now that you have run a speed test, it’s time to decipher the results that you received. Both your upload and download speeds should score approximately close to the numbers stated in your service plan.
Most connections are designed to download faster than they upload. The majority of online activity—like loading web pages or streaming music—consists of downloads. Upload speed comes into play when you’re sending out big files from your location. Or if you work from home with a lot of video conferencing, it’s important to have a healthy upload speed because you’ll be uploading a lot of videos.
Most speed tests will display a ping result, measured in milliseconds, alongside your download/upload speed. Your ping refers to your latency, or the reaction time of your connection. In other words, how fast you get a response after sending out a request. Whether you focus more on ping or bandwidth depends on what task you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re downloading huge files, bandwidth is more important, if you’re in an important call or an online gamer, then ping is everything.
Here is a helpful break down of speeds to see if your internet connection is sufficient for your needs or if you need to consider updating.
Keep in mind that these needed speeds multiply with every device running a given task. Your needs may differ based on how many devices you have connected to your network. This includes security cameras, laptops, streaming TVs, etc. Remember that even if a device isn’t actively in use, it is still connected to your internet and using a portion of your speed.
Other Things That Can Affect Your Test
Remember, a speed test is how fast your device can send and receive data across the internet. But there are lot of obstacles between your device and the world wide web and well as many other devices fighting for the same bandwidth.
Obstacles can include the age and internal processing speed of the device you are using, the age and efficiency of the router being used, the network you are directly connected to, the servers that feed that network, and the network and servers that feed the test server. For instance, if you are on the Anthem Broadband network and test against a CenturyLink server in Denver, you are testing that entire path, including the Anthem network, CenturyLink network and servers, and the distance and hardware in-between.
And as mentioned before, the speed test gives you a report of what speed is currently available. So, if you have kids upstairs streaming a movie, security cameras upload live feeds, and your device tries to run a speed test, it has whatever bandwidth is left over to run your test.
Finally, you can review the small print on nearly any service provider’s website and get an idea what they believe may affect your service speed. Looking at the local cable company and other service providers, they expect that actual speed will vary by customer based upon time of day, network congestion, customer equipment and other factors. Or, speed will vary, especially when accessing the internet wirelessly from various devices. Download speeds are via a wired connection. Internet speeds are not guaranteed due to conditions outside of network control, including customer location, devices, equipment, and access through a wired or wireless connection.
If after running these tests you find that your speeds are slower than expected and are affecting your normal internet usage, give your service provider a call as they should be able to improve your experience. Often all it takes is a few tweaks of some backend settings.