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 to look for
If you're planning on using your broadband service for gaming, you will need to make sure your package provides you with everything you need. Whether you’re playing on a console or a PC, here are some things to look out for.
- Speed — Although speed isn’t the most important factor, it’s true to say that faster is always better. Especially if there are others in your household that will be using the service at the same time.
- No limits — With the rise of downloadable content (DLC), along with full game downloads and console software updates you need a service with no data limits.
- Low latency and packet loss — For the best possible performance look for a service with low latency — for responsiveness — and packet loss — for smoothness.
- No traffic management — A provider that enables you to play at full speed any time of the day is often the best option.
- A quality router — If you’re playing wirelessly then you will need a router that gives you the best speed, stability and range.
- Reliability and strong tech support — You don't want a provider with downtime problems or with a tech support team that are ineffective or only available during office hours.
- Low contention ratio — The contention ratio indicates the number of users sharing the same bandwidth. The lower the ratio, the better performance you will receive. This usually isn’t within your control, but may be offered on some full fibre-to-the-home service.
How fast does your broadband need to be?
Speed is not the most important factor when choosing a broadband service for gaming.
Speed requirements for online gaming are low. Xbox Live, for example, recommends download and upload speeds of 3Mb and 0.5Mb respectively, which should be comfortably covered by all broadband packages unless you're unlucky enough to live far from your exchange or street cabinet.
That's not to say there are no benefits to a faster service. Large downloads are a part of the online gaming experience. Full game downloads through Steam or console firmware updates can run into several gigabytes of data. The faster your connection, the quicker the downloads will finish.
Similarly, using HD TV services like BBC iPlayer or Netflix require fast speeds, as do streaming apps like Twitch. And if you have several users in your household you will need a fast enough connection to accommodate them all.
What technical factors can affect performance?
There are several important factors that can have a major effect on your online gaming experience.
A 2014 survey by Ofcom tested the performance of major broadband providers in many of these key areas:
In simple terms, latency is the amount of time it takes for a data transfer or download to start, which in time-critical applications can be just as important as the time taken to download data once the transfer has begun.
In gaming, this might be the delay between you pressing a button on your controller, and the results of that button-press being seen. Whether you're saving a penalty in FIFA, or attacking the enemy in Call of Duty, fast reactions are essential. Latency affects the responsiveness of a game, and 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.
Fortunately, UK broadband providers appear to be able to deliver low latency. The Ofcom survey showed that latency on the ADSL2+ networks of five major providers was around or lower than 30ms. On superfast (30Mb and faster) packages from BT, EE, Plusnet, Sky and Virgin Media latency was routinely around or lower than 20ms.
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 can render a game unplayable.
Packet loss is measured as a percentage of data packets that get lost. As with latency, you want as low a number as possible.
The Ofcom report showed that broadband providers performed well in this regard, hovering at around 0.25% on ADSL2+ networks. Plusnet was the exception, with the level jumping to around 0.6% during peak hours. Packet loss was comfortably below 0.20% on all the faster networks tested.
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. Virgin Media's ‘up to 50Mb' and faster connections fared worst, with jitter rate of up to 3ms on average.
Traffic management (also sometimes referred to as shaping) occurs when a broadband provider regulates network traffic to prioritise (or penalise) data from specific applications (eg video, or P2P file sharing).
In general terms a large provider that has invested in capacity and has no traffic management is preferable. Budget providers often often have less capacity, and in this instance no traffic management can be a negative. The network would be likely to experience considerable slowdown during peak periods.
Some providers prioritise gaming traffic, and this should guarantee consistent speeds even during busy periods. However there are risks that some part of the gaming traffic is miscategorised as peer-to-peer or other penalised traffic types, resulting in worse performance.
Of the major broadband providers EE and Plusnet both prioritise traffic for gamers. BT, Sky and TalkTalk use no traffic management (although the latter does reserve capacity for its TalkTalk TV users). Virgin Media limits upload speeds for heavy users during peak times.
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 and Virgin Media have the lowest levels while EE is worst. Plusnet, BT and TalkTalk also have levels well above the industry average.
Should you use a wireless or 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. For mobile gaming, you will of course be using wireless. Microwave ovens and even flashing fairy lights can also cause wireless problems. Ofcom provide a Wi-Fi checker app to help you check whether your wireless network's working well.
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, don’t allow you to use third party routers with their services.
Should you choose fibre or standard broadband?
Fibre broadband offers significantly faster download and upload speeds than a standard broadband offerings.
As we’ve seen, faster download speeds are desirable, even if they’re not essential. Faster uploads are more beneficial, especially if you want to use streaming services like Twitch or YouTube Gaming.
Fibre broadband also tends to perform better for latency. This is particularly true of fibre-to-the-home services such as those provided by Hyperoptic.
Gaming downloads and streaming
Online gaming involves more than just playing games. There are other features to explore, and even consoles are capable of running additional services. Here’s a few things to look out for.
- DLC — Downloadable content is an important part of gaming. Many games get new features, maps, expansion packs and more after release. These can be quite large, so you’ll need to have a service with no download limits.
- TV streaming — To watch services like Netflix, Prime Instant Video or NOW TV on your games console you will need a connection fast enough to handle HD streaming. Netflix recommends 5Mb for HD streaming, or a massive 25Mb to stream in 4K, Ultra HD.
- Playstation Now — The cloud gaming service for the PS3 and PS4 requires an internet speed of 5Mb. Sony also recommends using a wired connection instead of a wireless one.
- Twitch — If you want to stream your own gaming experience on the web then you need a fast upload speed. Twitch recommends at least 0.9Mb for 480p streaming, 1.8Mb for 720p, and over 3Mb for maximum quality 1080p streaming.
Which package should you choose?
There are many things to consider when choosing the right broadband package for gaming.
In most cases, download speeds should be sufficient no matter which service you choose. The exception is if you live a long way from your nearest telephone exchange. In this instance you might find you speeds you can get through standard broadband are too slow, and would benefit from the increased speeds offered by fibre broadband.
More important are low latency and packet loss, which may be fine on a top-performing standard broadband service, and will both be improved through an upgrade to a fibre-based service.
In general terms, you should look for a truly unlimited broadband service with lots of capacity and low congestion, and don't forget to check user ratings and complaint levels to make sure it's reliable in practice, not just on paper. If your chosen provider does use traffic management, you should make sure they give priority to gaming traffic.