Read this before spending hundreds on a new gaming router.
Ry CristSenior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
In short, it's a great time to be an online gamer -- but only if your internet connection can keep up. And while it doesn't take lightning-fast speeds to play most games, you'll still want to keep a close eye on one key metric: ping.
Put simply, ping is a measurement of how long it takes your computer or device to fetch data from a specific server somewhere on the internet. And if that data is, say, a couple of critical frames of movement as your opponent peeks out from behind a tree to take a shot at you in PUBG, you'll quickly learn that high ping is a real killer.
So, what can you do about it? Glad you asked, it's kind of the whole point of this post.
It might help to think of your internet signal as a courier. Whenever you use the internet for anything, you're sending that courier out to fetch whatever data you need to stream a show, use an app or play a game online. In this sense, your internet speed is really describing how much data the little guy can carry at once, typically in megabits per second (Mbps). Meanwhile, the ping tells you how long it's taking, in milliseconds (ms), for him to make the trip.
The length of that trip depends on his route, as well as how far away the destination is to begin with. If you're playing an online game that's hosted on a server that isn't too far from you, then the trip should be pretty quick. However, if that server is located on the other side of the world -- or if your signal isn't taking the most direct route to it -- then the trip might take a lot longer. Translation: higher ping.
Apart from advanced DNS server trickery, you don't always have a whole lot of control over that route, but if your game lets you pick between multiple servers before you start playing, picking the one that's located closest to you can make a big difference. And if the network is busy on your end with lots of other users, devices or browser windows open on your home network, clearing as much of that excess traffic as you can will also help bring your ping down.
Upgrading to a good gaming router can definitely help, too. Along with fast speeds and powerful processors, most high-end options can prioritize gaming traffic above everything else to help keep your roommate's Netflix binge from slowing you down. Others promise to route your signal on the fastest possible path to whatever server your game is hosted on. That said, you'll want to be sure to understand the other factors in your home that might be affecting things before you spend hundreds on new networking hardware.
First things first, do a speed test
Better yet, do a couple of them -- and at different times of day, if you can. Your goal is simply to get a good, baseline sense of what your average Wi-Fi speeds look like before you start making changes. Oftentimes, the right set of tests can point you in the right direction as you start trying to speed things up. For instance, running speed tests on a computer that's wired to your modem and then comparing those results with what you see when you're wired to the router can help you figure out if it might be time to get a new one.
There are lots of free speed testing tools on the web these days. Claiming over 25 billion speed tests since 2006, the most popular is probably the Ookla Speedtest -- it's fast, simple and easy to use, and I like that it gives you control over which nearby server you're using. The SpeedOf.me speed test is another good option that includes a latency measurement, and if you'd like, SpeedSmart's speed test lets you measure the ping to servers all over the globe.
For example, I was able to measure latency of 30 ms to a server about 750 miles away from me in New York, then latency of 290 ms to a server located in Sydney, Australia, roughly 10,000 miles away. The distance obviously makes a huge difference.
Whichever speed test you're using, start fresh by rebooting all of your hardware first -- then, grab an Ethernet cable and connect your laptop directly to your router. From there, a speed test will tell you what your speed -- and ping -- looks like before your router starts transmitting the signal throughout your home. After that, you can unplug and do a couple of wireless speed tests at different spots around the house to see how much the numbers change.
As an example, in my home, ping went up by about 20% after unplugging and doing a wireless speed test at close range. It likely would have gone up even more if I had tested the wireless connection at a greater distance.
That's why most online gamers will tell you to use a wired connection whenever possible. That's all well and good if your computer or gaming console is in the same room as your router, but if you're using a bedroom or a back room for gaming, then the wired approach probably sounds less feasible.
One potential solution: powerline adapters that use your home's electrical wiring to move your internet signal around your home without the same speed degradation as Wi-Fi. Plug one in near your router and connect it with an Ethernet cable, then plug the second one in near your gaming setup and wire it to your computer or console, and voila, you'll enjoy speeds and latency that are almost as good as what you'd get from a direct, wired connection.
We'll have some fresh powerline adapter tests for you later this year, but in the meantime, our longtime, go-to favorite is the Netgear Powerline AC1200. It delivered speeds of up to 386 Mbps in our tests, so if your Wi-Fi in that back bedroom is any slower than that, it should make an immediate difference. Available in a two-pack for about $80, the product has an average review score of 4.4 at Best Buy, with over 1,000 5-star reviews.
While you're at it, check those cables
One quick note while we're talking about the importance of a wired connection -- it's also worthwhile to make sure that you're using current, up-to-date cables that can support today's top speeds. Just don't expect them to do much of anything as far as ping is concerned.
In fact, during a recent run of speed tests, I tested both a 300 Mbps fiber connection and a 50 Mbps cable connection using multiple speed-check services at different times of day. I ran each round of tests four times -- once with the laptop connected to the modem via Wi-Fi, and then once again using a wired connection to the modem with each of the three most common types of Ethernet cables: Cat 5, Cat 5e, and Cat 6. On both networks, the Cat 6 cable connection returned the highest average download speeds, but the type of cable didn't have a noticeable effect on ping, with all three averaging out to within 2 ms of one another.
Still, Ethernet cables with the Cat 5e or Cat 6 designation are your clear best bet, as they're made to handle top speeds of up to 1,000 or even 10,000 Mbps. Outdated Cat 5 cables aren't designed for speeds higher than 100 Mbps, and they don't do as much to prevent interference as signals pass through the copper wiring inside. If you're using cables like that, then it's worth picking up some new ones.
Proper cabling is nice, but maybe you're playing a game on your phone, tablet, or another mobile device that can't easily benefit from a wired connection. In that case, upgrading to a better router might be the right play -- but you'll want to make sure that you're getting the most out of your current setup first. To bring our metaphorical data courier back into it, stronger signal strength in your home makes the first and last leg of his journey easier and faster, which can help bring your ping down.
The angle of the antennas can make a difference, too, so if you can, try staggering them at 45-degree intervals: one straight up, the next diagonal, the next straight back. It might take some experimentation, but you might be able to find a much steadier connection with just a few quick tweaks.
Once you've done everything you can to optimize your router's performance, you'll want to run some final speed tests to see how much of a difference your efforts made. If you aren't able to get your ping below 30 ms or so for a routine speed check to a server that's within a few hundred miles of you, then it's probably time to call your ISP -- or maybe even start shopping for a new one, assuming that's an option.
Like I said, a fancy gaming router can definitely help guarantee that your home's connection is optimized for gaming. If you're thinking about upgrading, start by looking for a feature called Quality of Service (QoS) -- that'll let you tell the router to prioritize gaming traffic above everything else, which comes in handy if you're sharing bandwidth with roommates or family members.
Beyond that, most gaming routers are aimed at die-hard gamers willing to spend big on their setups, so they definitely aren't casual investments. Prices for current-gen models typically range from around $175 to as high as $400 or even $500. That's a lot to pay for a bit less ping.
Beyond that, we're just starting to see a new generation of routers on the market that support 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6. That's the next version of Wi-Fi and it comes with faster top speeds and a lot of other benefits, too -- but since it's so new, prices for routers that support it are very high. With more options (and more time for us to put them to the test), plus the potential for a sale or two, next year will almost certainly be a much, much better time to make a big router upgrade.
That's why I'd rather try to improve my home's network conditions with a powerline adapter or, if I'm struggling with something that's at least five years old, with a more modest router upgrade. We're just gearing up for our end-of-year router tests, so I should have some fresh hardware recommendations soon -- both high-end gaming routers and options that are a bit friendlier on your budget, too. When that happens, I'll update this space, but in the meantime, if there are any models you're particularly interested in, now would be a terrific time to let me know about it in the comments.