How to choose a modem [your top 3 questions, answered]
It can be confusing and frustrating to piece together a customized home network for yourself, especially with new products launching each year. Deciding between a modem vs router vs gateway, for example, is only half the battle; now that you know which device you need, how do you choose the best option?
In this guide, we're walking through the top three questions to ask when purchasing a cable modem. We hope this breakdown helps you select the best cable modem device for your space!
1. Should I rent or buy a modem?
First thing’s first: is it the right time to own your own networking equipment? If you're willing to make the upfront investment, purchasing a high-performance modem could actually save you money in the long run. Modern hardware is also made to keep up with faster future speeds and ongoing Internet innovations, so a quality modem at the right price point— like Wirecutter's best cable modem from 2020— is likely to last you awhile.
If you don’t mind paying for convenience, your other option is to rent a modem or a modem router combo (gateway) from your service provider. For many, the added perks of the rental contract, such as a streamlined onboarding process, full access to repair services, and free device support, are worth the fee.
Note that timeliness is a very important factor in your decision to purchase a modem. If you plan on switching service providers or relocating any time soon, it may be wise to hold off on your investment and stick with renting. You don’t want to purchase a device only to find out a few months later that it isn't compatible with your new service provider.
But, if you are ready to shop for your own equipment, you may find our explanations of key modem specs below useful in your search.
2. What should I look for when buying a modem?
Below are three top terms to keep an eye out for when it comes to picking out your modem:
- Channels (Downstream Channels x Upstream Channels)
- DOCSIS (Right now, the latest standard is DOCSIS 3.1)
- Theoretical maximum speed (Calculation based on number of channels)
Channels in modems are like highways that lead to and from your Internet Service Provider. A higher number of channels means there are more lanes for data to be transmitted. Channels are notated as Downstream Channels x Upstream Channels. For example, a 16x4 cable modem has 16 channels available to stream your next Netflix binge session while 4 channels allow you to post your next tweet. The more channels there are, the faster your connection will be. So, consider a higher amount of channels if you want to throttle throughput speeds with more intensive network use.
DOCSIS, which stands for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, is a standard for cable systems to communicate data. When looking at modems, you may notice that there's DOCSIS 3.0 and DOCSIS 3.1. The short explanation is that DOCSIS 3.0 performs at up to 1Gbps and DOCSIS 3.1 is ten times faster at up to 10Gbps. This doesn't mean that DOCSIS 3.0 is bad though! In fact, it will absolutely work with most common service plans. DOCSIS 3.1 is just particularly great for people who want to maximize their gigabit service plans and prepare for speeds to get even faster in the future.
DOCSIS standards and channels are then used to calculate the theoretical maximum speed of the device. Since this advertised maximum speed is calculated at optimal research conditions that the real world can't in fact meet, it's better to get a modem that advertises an even higher speed than your plan to ensure an optimal connected experience.
3. Choosing the best cable modem: How can I get maximum internet speed?
To help make the distinction between theoretical and realistic maximums more clear, most Americans have a service plan that's close to 100Mbps, but the average speed of internet packages offered by ISPs is 290Mbps. Let’s say your plan is up to 290Mbps; a cable modem that’s rated up to 1000Mbps will give you a much better performance and carry itself further into the future than a modem rated up to 300Mbps. This is due to the fact that the lower performance modem is highly unlikely to ever hit its researched maximum since conditions outside of the lab are never perfect. Also, as ISPs advance further, the speeds of plans will only continue to climb.
Generally, the higher the price of a modem, the better performance and future-proofing you’ll receive. But it’s also important to consider what your network habits require of you in your service plans. If you need a high-speed plan for heavy streaming or gaming, then it makes sense to invest in a powerful, long-lasting modem with a higher price tag. However, if your appetite for speed is satisfied by a more modest plan, a budget modem could be just the solution you’re looking for.
Since cable modems are the bridge between your home network and your ISP, you’ll want enough power from your modem to make the most out of your service plan. Purchasing your own modem can offer a current increase in your network’s performance and allow for smooth transitions into the future of Internet connectivity.
Other WiFi 101 topics you may like:
- Modem vs. router vs. gateway explained
- What is MU-MIMO technology: 2x2, 3x3, 4x4 explained
- Best cable modem router combo for Xfinity: the Motorola MG8702
- WiFi boosters, repeaters, and extenders: What's the difference?
- WiFi extenders vs mesh networks [pros and cons]
- 3 steps to find the best WiFi channel for your router