Bandwidth and latency are two terms that you can hear a lot when addressing internet services. But what's the difference? And how do they impact speed on the internet?
While these two words are often confused, they are not the same thing. There are some subtle but significant variations between bandwidth and latency, and it can be the key to getting the most out of your internet connection to know which is your problem.
Having a higher bandwidth is great. But what does that mean exactly? Many individuals assume that bandwidth is just a fancy term for internet speed. That isn't exactly specific.
Bandwidth is a measure of how much data can be transmitted within a given period of time from one point in a network to another. When talking about internet connections, how much data can be downloaded from a server on the internet to your computer is generally measured.
Because of network congestion and other external causes, your real bandwidth will always be less than your full bandwidth. Using a speed test if you want to see just how fast your internet connection is now.
It is easier to lower latency. Latency applies to the time it takes for a signal to move back and forth to its destination. Your machine sends a' ping' of data to a remote server to test this and checks how long it takes for the signal to come back.
Lower latency is better because latency is basically a gap from when you take an operation and when you see the result—high latency is when it takes longer to see the results. The less delay it takes, the better.
Any time you put in a request to your internet connection (search for something on Google, check social media, etc.), it transmits a request to the server to retrieve the data and then delivers it back to you. Since this typically occurs very rapidly, latency is calculated in milliseconds.
Most games do not need a very fast internet connection, so bandwidth has a fairly limited effect on your gaming experience (unless you have a lot of people gaming at once on the same connection). Many games already have their properties loaded into your computer or console. They just need to contact the server to keep it updated with where you are local.
But latency, particularly in fast-paced games like Call of Duty or Overwatch, is essential for a good online gaming experience. High latency is manifested in games as lag and can result in substantial delays between your input and the behavior of your character. In other words, while you're still trying to get off the shot, you may already be dead, but you won't know until your link catches up.
Because streaming requires uploading content from a cloud, the key factor in both video and audio streaming appears to be bandwidth. That's because streaming happens with little feedback on your end: you just press and wait.
Usually, low bandwidth can reveal itself in two ways. As your connection attempts to keep up with the size of the content, it will both manifest as a frustrating amount of buffering. Or because your streaming service is trying to compensate for the slow download pace, it will show up as awful video quality.
Video chatting can be adversely affected by both low bandwidth and high latency, such as FaceTime or Skype. Low bandwidth can affect your chat efficiency, making it difficult to see things. Sync problems and freezing can be triggered by latency.
Not even simple, daily web surfing is resistant to the impact of a bad internet connection. Low bandwidth allows pages to be loaded slowly and in parts (like in the old dial-up days).
And pages will load super fast with high latency, but at the beginning, there will be a maddening pause where it seems like nothing's going on.
How to improve your connection speed.
There are a couple of things you can do about it if your internet connection is getting you down.
Try to ensure the settings of your router are solid. Check in to your modem and router and make sure bottlenecks are not created by any of your settings. Most routers have a setup page that allows you to change your password, change which channel the router uses, and more.
The login details are usually printed directly on a sticker on the bottom of the unit. For more info about what to do, check out our guide to enhancing Wi-Fi speed.
Router update. Right, yeah, we're getting it: this stuff lasts forever. But if you still use an old 2008 package, chances are good that it won't let your connection live up to its true potential. Although your bandwidth can't be improved by a new router, it can improve your internet speed (remember the difference?).
Upgrade your kit on the internet. The next move is to upgrade to a faster internet plan if you have updated your equipment and changed your settings but are still not getting the speeds you want. Not sure how much pace you're going to need? To help with that, we have a handy speed recommendation instrument.
Check for a new ISP. It might be time to move on to someone else if anything else fails and you can't get a decent offer from your current provider. In the internet service arena, the rivalry is fierce, and most areas have at least two great choices for providers. We've got a roundup of the fastest internet providers if you're not sure where to start. You can also see all your available choices by entering your ZIP code in the tool below.
For a great online experience, bandwidth and latency are both important, but the distinction can be a little confusing. But you can use what you know and your newfound experience to get on the quick road to improving the internet.
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