Broadband for Gamers Buyers Guide
If you're a keen online gamer there's no doubt you’ll already be aware of just how much your internet connection affects your experience. Some days it can be flawless; others it could not be more frustrating. In this guide take a look at how to pick the best gaming broadband service, some of the technical factors that affect your gaming experience, and how to make the most of all the extras that your console has to offer.
What should I look for in a broadband deal for gaming?
As long as you aren't out in the sticks with internet that barely gets beyond a crawl, any broadband deal should be capable of online gaming. Though certain factors will affect how good your gaming experience will be.
Despite what you might have thought, download and upload speeds are not massively important for lag-free gaming. So long as you meet the minimum requirements for the platform you're playing on you'll be fine. Speed isn't completely irrelevant, though. Download speed is important if you prefer to download games rather than buy them on disc. And upload speed matters if you want to stream your gameplay on Twitch or YouTube.
The most important factors for a gaming broadband deal are technical things like ping rate and packet loss. We'll explain exactly what these are later, but they affect your reaction times in games, and dictate how smooth or jerky the gameplay will be. Trouble is, these things are somewhat unknown. A broadband provider will tell you what your download speed will be before you sign up, but they won't do the same for your ping rate. You have to do a little research of your own.
Other things to consider? Download allowances, the pros and cons of 4G and 5G, and future proofing your network for new services like cloud gaming. Let's take a look at all these issues in more detail.
What download speed do I need for gaming?
The broadband speed requirements for gaming are a lot more modest than you might expect. Xbox Live, for instance, needs just 3Mb download and 0.5Mb upload - something that's well within the reach of most people in the UK. But that's only one part of the story.
Online gaming doesn't need an especially fast internet service. Unless you live somewhere with especially poor coverage, such as a remote rural area, then even a cheap standard broadband package will be good enough. In fact, you might not even notice the difference between that and a much faster fibre deal (although broadband with faster download speeds will tend to deliver other benefits through faster upload speeds and a better ping rate).
That's not to say that download speeds don't matter. They're integral to the modern gaming experience. Many of us now prefer to buy games as digital downloads rather than on disc. They create less clutter around the house, don't get lost or damaged, and can be more convenient - but only if your broadband is fast enough to handle massive downloads.
Take 2018's big hit Red Dead Redemption 2. It came on two discs, or as a file measuring nearly 90GB in size. How long would it take you to download that? It depends...
- On a standard broadband package hitting average speeds of 10Mb, you'd be downloading for a full 21 and a half hours before you could start enjoying some gunslinging action
- For a basic fibre deal with average speeds of 36Mb, it would take around six hours
- On a high end fibre deal averaging 63Mb speeds, the download would last three and a half hours
- With Virgin Media's M350 package hitting average speeds of 362Mb you'd be saddled up in just 35 minutes
- On a gigabit service with 900Mb speeds the download would take just 14 minutes. Sadly, these services currently have very limited availability.
Clearly, you need a fast broadband service if you want to be downloading games on a regular basis.
Even if you're still committed to physical media, and happy to continue buying discs, don't think you can escape the need for faster speeds. Most games deliver regular patches and updates - often including a mandatory download available as soon as you first install the game - that can run into the tens of gigabytes. There's also extra free or paid downloadable content sometimes as large as a whole new game, plus regular hefty console updates that won't let you go online until they've been installed.
There's nothing more annoying than settling down for a game only to find that you need to wait an hour and a half for all the updates to finish.
And that's not all. Games consoles aren't just for gaming, they're full entertainment hubs. You can install apps like Netflix, NOW TV or Spotify on these machines, and they can burn through a large amount of data in a very short space of time. Want to watch Netflix on your Xbox in 4K? You'll need broadband speed of at least 25Mb just for that.
In short, if you are resolutely an old school gamer, playing only single player games or older titles that are no longer updated, and don't use your console for anything else then you don't need to worry about what broadband package you've got. For everyone else, faster is very much better.
Speed isn't the only thing you need to consider. As we've established, games and game updates can be huge, and this can be a problem if you're on a metered plan.
Download allowances are thankfully becoming rarer - although they're still pretty common on mobile broadband - but you definitely don't want one if you're a gamer. A single download will eat through a massive chunk of your monthly internet usage in one sitting.
Buying discs is the obvious way round this, but even that won't guarantee you'll never be affected. Both Playstation Plus and Xbox Live offer a small selection of premium-quality games for free every month. If one of these catches your eye you don't want to miss out because you just because your data use is restricted.
Remember how we said that online gaming doesn't actually need fast speeds? There's an exception: the new breed of cloud gaming services.
Services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud don't rely on a console or gaming PC to run games. All the processing happens on remote servers and is then streamed to your TV or laptop. It's potentially revolutionary because you no longer have to fork out for expensive hardware with a limited lifespan, and you don't have to download, install or update games. It all happens in the cloud. You just sign up to a free or cheap monthly subscription to the service and then sit back and play.
What you do need, though, is a fast internet connection. Google Stadia requires a minimum 10Mb connection for 720p gaming, rising to at least 35Mb if you want to play in 4K. In practice, you'll probably need much more to guarantee consistent performance and stable frame rate.
Keep an eye on download limits as well. Stadia will use 4.5GB of data an hour at the lowest quality, or a massive 15.75GB an hour at the best.
What upload speed do I need for gaming?
Like download speed, upload speed is unlikely to have a big impact on your ability to play online games.
Ofcom figures show that the average upload speed in the UK is 7.2Mb, well beyond the 0.5 to 1Mb you'd be looking for on an Xbox or Playstation. You'll be closer to the limit if you're on a standard broadband connection, where speeds tend to be around the 1Mb mark. Although this should still be fast enough unless you're in a very poor coverage area, keep in mind that if you've got lots of people in your house online together the actual speeds you achieve will be slower.
As for cloud gaming, upload speed requirements are not specified - downloads are the main concern there.
What do I need to live stream my games?
Where upload speed is more important is when you want to live stream your gameplay. The most popular service, Twitch, sets the minimum requirements at between 3Mb and 6Mb depending on the resolution you want to stream in. These are only baseline speeds - you'll need to go beyond them to ensure steady frame rates.
Whatever, these requirements are beyond the capabilities of most standard broadband services. A basic fibre deal should get you the speed you need, with the 36Mb download services normally offering around an average 9Mb upload speed. Do double check that before you sign up, though, because providers don't always advertise their upload speeds prominently.
Use our speed test tool to see what upload speed you're getting on your current deal.
What about ping rate and other things that affect online gaming?
Rather than speed, the keys to smooth online gaming performance are low latency (also known as ping rate) and packet loss. In addition, there are a few other technical factors that can have an impact.
The problem with these kinds of technical details is that you won't find any of them quoted on a broadband provider's spec sheet. Ofcom publish an annual report on some of the major ISPs, with data showing how they perform in each respect. We'd recommend checking that out, along with user reviews, to see how well your chosen provider is doing.
Do keep in mind, though, that an 'average' result is not a guarantee of what you'll actually get. There are a huge array of things that affect something like the ping rate, from a fault on the line to issues within the setup of your home network.
Ping rate, or Latency
In simple terms, ping rate, or latency, is the amount of time it takes for a data transfer or download to start. In time-critical applications this can be just as important as the time taken to download data once the transfer has begun.
In gaming terms, the ping rate dictates the delay between you pressing a button on your controller, and the results of that button-press being seen on screen. It affects the responsiveness of the game. Whether you're saving a penalty in FIFA, or attacking the enemy in Call of Duty, fast reactions are essential. High latency artificially increases your reaction time.
Latency is measured in milliseconds, and anything over 150ms can potentially cause problems when gaming. Ideally, the latency on your connection will be as low as possible. Under 50ms should not be noticeable, and under 20ms is regarded as excellent.
The good news is that broadband providers are delivering in this area. Ofcom research shows that all major providers are delivering a ping rate of less than 30ms on all broadband types even during peak hours.
Sometimes data gets lost or discarded when travelling to or from a server. This is called packet loss. A sign of packet loss is when a game freezes or stutters. While a small amount is inevitable (and often largely imperceptible), high levels will render a game unplayable.
Packet loss is measured as a percentage of data packets that get lost, with a figure below 1% often quoted as the target for gaming. Ofcom has found that broadband providers perform well in this regard, at under 0.3% on all standard broadband networks, and under 0.2% on fibre. The odd TalkTalk and Virgin Media package perform slightly worse, but still remain under 0.4%.
Jitter is a measurement of the rate that latency changes. Measured in milliseconds, a high jitter rate indicates a less stable broadband connection. A low rate, typically below 20ms, is better for online gaming.
In the Ofcom report, all tested providers showed very low levels of jitter. A few Virgin Media connections fared marginally worst, but even then they remained below 3ms.
Traffic management (also sometimes referred to as shaping) occurs when a broadband provider regulates network traffic to prioritise (or penalise) data from specific applications.
Traffic management used to be more common than it is now. By and large, most providers not longer have these kinds of policies in place, and where they do it'll more geared towards restricting things like file sharing rather than gaming. The providers that do use traffic management are more likely to be the smaller brands that have less capacity available, or some of the niche services aimed at rural users, such as satellite broadband.
All providers are required to publish details of their traffic management policies in a Key Facts Indicator (KFI). You can find this information on the website for each provider.
Reliability and tech support
Fast and responsive broadband can still be bad for gamers if you have frequent downtime or if technical support are ineffective or unavailable when you do have problems.
Gamers are likely to want well trained tech support staff who can help with specialist problems, rather than call centre staff who always follow the same script. Support via live chat, social media or email can also be an added bonus. Also check to make sure support is free and available around the clock, not just during office hours.
Check our user ratings and reviews to get a feel of which providers are most reliable and have the best technical support. Ofcom have also published complaint levels for the biggest internet service providers — currently Sky Broadband has the lowest levels and Plusnet the highest.
Should I use Wi-Fi or a wired connection?
All broadband providers will supply a router capable of supporting both wireless and wired connections. For most users the wireless connection will be good enough, although a wired connection is likely to offer small benefits in terms of speed and stability.
This is especially true if your console or PC is located in a far corner of your house and doesn't get as strong a connection to the Wi-Fi network. Interference from other electrical devices can also be a problem - microwave ovens and even flashing fairy lights rank among potential culprits. For mobile gaming, you will of course have no choice but to use wireless, since your device is unlikely to support wired connections.
It’s worth checking hardware review sites to see how well the router supplied by your chosen broadband provider performs in real-world conditions. If it doesn’t get strong reviews you might want to consider buying your own - better - router, but should also be aware that some providers, including Sky and Virgin, prefer you not to use third party routers with their services.
Do you have options if your Wi-Fi coverage at home is patchy? Yes, of course!
You can buy a Wi-Fi Extender to push your wireless signal into the pokier corners of your house, or into your back garden if you prefer. BT have a Whole Home Wi-Fi kit that includes three stylish and discreet Wi-Fi Discs to do this very job on their network. They connect to your BT Smart Hub and you set them up and control them via a smartphone app.
Failing that, take a look also at Powerline adapters. These run the broadband signal along the existing electrical wires in your walls, meaning you can get a wired connection throughout your home without having to lay a bunch of new cables.
Want some more ideas on how to speed up slow broadband? Check out our full guide.
Is 4G or 5G home broadband suitable for gaming?
Home broadband through 4G or 5G mobile networks are both more than fast enough for gaming. But watch out for those data limits.
In time, 5G home broadband will become an awesome choice for gamers. It promises a latency of around a near-instantaneous 1ms, far shorter than anything we can currently get through fibre. Even now, home broadband through 5G or 4G networks is good enough for gaming. The only hitch is that they very often come with either download limits or traffic management policies.
So while playing games won't be an issue, downloading those games in the first place might be.
What about mobile gaming?
Prefer mobile gaming on your phone or tablet? Almost all of the above still applies to you. The big difference is that you'll often be playing on mobile networks with a data allowance in place.
Mobile games are a lot smaller than those you download for a console or through Steam on a PC. But they can still hit several gigabytes, so you should connect to a Wi-Fi network before you download them. (The app store for your chosen platform will normally warn you to do this anyway.)
A lot of games also use quite a lot of data even when you wouldn't necessarily expect them to. A game like Fortnite uses around 50 to 60MB an hour, while simple single-player games will routinely use your data connection to sync your progress, process in-app purchases, and more. If you're on Wi-Fi then this doesn't matter, but if you're catching a quick game on the morning commute it could easily eat through your data allowance without you realising.