When it comes to broadband, faster is always better, right? Actually, no. Not everyone needs the fastest speeds, or the latest technology. And while those people don't want to get sucked in to paying for a service they don't use, others really would benefit from an upgrade to something a bit quicker.
But with so many broadband deals to choose from, how do you work out which is right for you?
What speeds are available?
Most of the major broadband providers in the UK offer broadband at three speeds. Standard broadband is available in speeds up to 17Mb, and fibre broadband has two options, up to 38Mb and up to 76Mb. Virgin, along with a few specialist fibre broadband providers, have different speed tiers, the fastest currently being up to 1Gb from Hyperoptic.
Note the use of the words "up to" in all these cases. Quoted speeds represent an absolute maximum, and in reality you'll likely get somewhat less. There are numerous factors that affect the broadband speeds you can get. For standard and superfast broadband the distance you live from your nearest telephone exchange or cabinet is crucial, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it. Faster services over 80Mb are more likely to be affected by the hardware you’re using, and whether your devices support the latest home networking technology.
What speed do you need?
Even so, you might be surprised to learn that slower speeds are still capable of handling most common internet tasks. The base requirements for many popular services are relatively modest.
- Web, email, Facebook: for what we might class as light use, with general browsing and using social apps, any broadband speed will suffice
- TV on demand: downloads using Sky On Demand require a minimum 2Mb broadband speed. BBC iPlayer recommends a minimum of 2.8Mb for HD viewing, or 1.5Mb for standard definition quality. Streaming over Netflix requires 3Mb for SD quality and 5MB for HD. All are possible on a standard broadband package
- Ultra HD TV streaming: the exception is with Ultra HD — or 4K — streaming on Netflix. This requires superfast fibre broadband with a speed of at least 25Mb
- Streaming music: music streaming services don't need fast speeds to function properly. The recommendation for Spotify is 512Kb; for a lossless service you'll want something closer to 2Mb
- Gaming: speed is less important than other factors such as latency for gaming, and the requirements are quite low. For Xbox Live you need 3Mb speeds, well within the reach of most standard broadband users
- Video chat: to make video calls with Skype you need 1.5Mb broadband speed for HD, or as low as 0.5Mb for what is classed as "high quality"
- Downloading: it goes without saying that files will download faster on faster networks. It's possible to get a rough idea of how fast they will be: divide your internet speed (in megabits per second) by eight, to convert it into megabytes (MB) per second. You can then see how long it will take to download a file. (For example, 24Mb broadband downloads at 4MB per second, so a 1GB file will download in around four and a half minutes.) If you regularly download large files, or are a heavy user of cloud services, you will benefit from faster broadband
On the whole, fast speeds aren't all that important when it comes to just getting these services to work. Where it does become an issue is when you have several people in your household each trying to do one of these things at the same time.
If one person is watching music videos on YouTube while another is downloading a video game on a PS4, your Netflix stream may have drop down to a lower resolution, and may even start buffering. Unless your connection is fast enough to handle them all together.
When trying to decide what speed broadband you need, it's really important to weigh up the needs of your entire household together. If you're a "light use" household then you should be safe in making a decision on price alone; if you're a heavy use family you'll want to compare fibre broadband deals in your area to find the one that will give you the best online experience.