[New] Testing & Understanding Your Mobile Internet Speeds

Bars and dots are relatively meaningless in the effort to determine your mobile internet data performance. They're a nice visual indicator, but each device manufacturer uses their own formulas for coming up with what determines 1 bar versus 4 bars  (or dots).

And usually, bars have nothing to do with how fast your connection will be because there's a lot going on behind the scenes that can affect your data performance whether you are connecting to a Wi-Fi network, cable, satellite or cellular internet data source.

Data speeds & consistency is what really matters when considering a mobile internet connection.

To truly optimize your connectivity, you need to learn how to measure your real-world performance to know if your efforts are having an impact.

And the best quantitative measurement of this is the download and upload speeds you are actually getting, which often have no direct relation to bars or dots.


Included In This Guide:

This Free Guide Brought To You By Our Members

This in-depth guide was first released as an exclusive offering for our premium members - our MIAs, who fund all the content on this site.
If you are a member, please log in below view/leave comments.

 


Setting Up to Test

Testing can be a bit tricky, as you really need to isolate as many factors as you can.

For instance, multiple Wi-Fi transmitting devices in the same area can cause congestion and slow speeds down. Multiple cellular devices within range of a booster's interior antenna can divide up the enhanced signal. The distance between devices when connected over Wi-Fi can also make a huge impact.

It's best to test each component individually, with as many devices as possible around you turned off or in airplane mode.

Then, run speed tests with and without your various signal enhancing options - such as boosters or antennas. Remember to also take a baseline reading for each device without any signal enhancing so you can tell if your antennas or boosters are having any impact.

We generally recommend running 3-5 tests for each combination and looking at the average results. Anomalies can happen, and the speed testing servers themselves can impact the results.

Here's an example of the testing data we collect, in this case comparing different cellular boosters with AT&T and Verizon hotspot devices:

A sample of our field testing data from a cellular signal enhancing round.

Our members have access to our extensive field testing data for various devices we're constantly experimenting with in our Field Testing Lab.


Speed Testing Services

To test your upload and download speeds, use one of the many free speed testing services out there. These services allow you to send a chunk of data to their servers and they measure how long it takes.

There are numerous speed testing services and apps but these are the ones we regularly use:

A Note About Crowdsourced Apps: There are several crowdsourced signal apps out there - Sensorly, Rootmetrics, Open Signal - that include a speedtest service as well.

Please don't use these apps for *testing* your signal enhancing efforts. The results of these speedtests get recorded in a central database for sharing about your current location with others. Adding in your experimental data with boosters & antennas will skew the results for everyone.

You should only report speeds to these crowdsourced resources using your baseline readings - unenhanced - without boosters & antennas. That's the data these apps are looking to record, so that other users know what to expect. Remember, not everyone travels with boosters and antennas.

Run the app on your phone, tablet or computer.

If you are testing the signal enhancement and performance of a mobile hotspot or cellular embedded router (not the phone's cellular connection itself), then connect via Wi-Fi directly to that source from your testing device.

Do keep in mind that the distance between your device and the Wi-Fi source can have an impact on speeds too - so keep this consistent during your testing.

Understanding Speed Testing Results

The Ookla Speedtest app is our go to measurement tool.

You will typically get some of these results from most speed test apps:

Latency (aka Ping)

This is the time in milliseconds it takes for a request from your computer to reach the speed-test server and to return, like the ping of a ship’s sonar. The higher the number, the slower the speed.

Latencies under 100ms are good, under 50ms are great, and ping times over 500ms (half a second!) begin to feel painful.

Unusually high latencies are often a sign of an unreliable connection - indicating that the cellular tower is needing to resend data multiple times to get through successfully.

This measurement is particularly important for online gaming, but any interactive task can begin to suffer from higher latencies. For general surfing, it will be noticeable as that blank pause when you first request a new website.

Jitter

Jitter is an indication of how much the connection latency varies moment-to-moment. The higher the number, the worse it is.

Packet Loss

Some apps report a percentage of “packet loss.” Think of this as letters lost in the mail. Substantial and persistent packet loss on a connection means the connection is unreliable, and web pages may not reliably load (for instance, you may be noticing images not loading and displaying a little 'Red X' instead).

Download Speed

Reported in either kilobits per second (Kbps) or megabits (equivalent to 1000 kilobits) per second (Mbps). This is a measurement of the maximum speed that data is able to flow to you from the speed-testing server.

Get the Book

Here are some benchmarks:

  • Over 20Mbps will feel awesome for all web surfing and a required minimum for 4K HD video streaming.
  • Speeds over 5Mbps give a solid surfing experience and are suitable for most HD (720-1080p) video streaming.
  • Speeds under 1Mbps start to make the modern internet feel slow but usable - and even low res video (360-420p) streaming may still be possible.
  • Speeds under 500Kbps can get downright painful for anything more than the basics.

Fast.com measures video streaming speed - very useful to determine your video streaming bandwidth.

Download speeds have a particularly large impact on streaming audio and video. If the speeds aren’t able to keep up with the resolution you’ve selected, you will experience stuttering, pauses and long buffering delays. And of course, the slower the speeds the longer it will take to download large files.

 

Modern LTE devices are capable of real-world speeds over 100Mbps when the conditions are right - but as long as you are getting at least 5Mbps you shouldn't stress too much about optimizing for more unless you have some big downloads or 4K video.

 

Upload Speed

The opposite of download speed, the upload speed tells you how fast data is able to get from your device to the speed-test server. Upload speeds are almost always substantially lower than download speeds. For many typical internet tasks, upload speeds don’t have a huge impact.

But, upload speeds are critical for two-way video chatting, video broadcasts and uploading large files like photos, videos or cloud-synced backups.

  • Speeds over 500Kbps are the bare minimum for low-resolution video chat.
  • Speeds over 1.5Mbps should deliver smoother video chat results at higher resolutions.
  • Anything higher will be awesome

TIP: If you see upload speeds faster than download speeds, that may be an indication that the cell tower is congested since there is usually more download demand on a tower than upload demand.


Speed Test Tips & Tricks

Speed tests work by sending a large chunk of data from your device to a server on the internet, and measuring how long it takes. Each app has their own set of servers used, and the servers themselves can impact the results based on their current load and their distance from your current location.

This can cause speed test results to have variability which may not have anything to do with your current signal conditions. And an individual speed test is just a snapshot of the current conditions - and not always an indicator of how your connection will be later in the day when weather moves in or your local tower or Wi-Fi hotspot becomes overloaded.

To get a sense for the actual health of your connection you can run several speed tests over the course of the day. Doing this can help you get a better sense of what average speeds you are actually achieving.

Most speed-testing sites and apps have a way to change the test server, letting you select a different server to communicate with and test against. Trying different servers can help you rule out whether strange results are isolated or not.

Make sure that your speed tests are using the same server when comparing them! An overloaded server can make one connection test out slower than another, when in fact it might actually be faster.

And finally - keep an eye on your data usage. Excessive speed testing can burn through your monthly data caps rapidly if you are not careful because they are sending large bits of data to run the tests.


Is internet essential to your mobile lifestyle?

It is our passion to provide informative unbiased content and have made it our job to track this constantly evolving industry.

We stay on top of the technology
so that you can focus on what drives you!

We welcome you to utilize our free resources - like our news Center, discussion group, videos, glossary and basic guides.

We could not provide any of this without the support of those who chose to become members  funding this resource center. We do not accept sponsorships, third party advertising and we do not resell products or gear. We strive to be an unbiased community funded resource. 

Support this site and Go Further!

Become a member starting at $75/year

Our premium membership - Mobile Internet Aficionados - is designed for those who consider internet essential for their mobile lifestyle.

In thanks for their support our members go deeper with our content - and receive benefits that help them save money, stay up to date, learn, get guidance and make informed choices.

Our goal is to save you time, money and frustration.

Learn More about the MIA


Other Resources We Offer:

Members, Please Log In to Comment on this Article.