Upload and download speed: what’s the difference?
If you’ve ever taken an internet speed test, chances are you’ll come across two separate values: upload and download speed. But what do they actually mean and what effect do they have on your overall Internet experience? Today, we’re breaking down the difference between upload and download speeds and explaining which matters most based on your online activity.
What is download speed?
Download speed refers to the speed at which your device can transfer data over the internet. Let’s say you video call someone. Your device uploads data to the Internet so that the other person on the call can see and hear you from a distance.
So let’s say, for example, that your home Wi-Fi download speed is 10 Mbps (megabits per second). A megabit contains one million bits. So, a download speed of 10 Mbps indicates that you can upload ten megabits (or ten million bits) from your device to the internet every second.
In general, you don’t want your download speed to drop below around 2 or 3 Mbps, as that will cause problems during certain activities. But such slow download speeds aren’t commonplace in many US states. For example, in 2020, the average download speed in the United States was 10.45 Mbps, and these speeds generally improve with each passing year.
So what online activities depend on your download speed?
A key online activity that requires decent download speed is gaming. Internet. You can try using a VPN to overcome slow game speeds, but it doesn’t work 100% of the time, and using a VPN usually negatively affects your connection speed.
Download speeds required for games also differ depending on your device. For example, if you’re using an online PlayStation, you need at least 2 Mbps to play. On the other hand, if you are using a Nintendo Switch, a download speed of at least 1 Mbps is required. But note that you may experience buffering if you play at these minimum speeds.
If you do a lot of video calling or live video streaming, your download speed is also important. Video calls require a minimum speed of 1.5 Mbps, but you’ll need a higher download speed of around 10 Mbps if you want to live stream.
But download speed isn’t the only important factor when surfing the web. Download speeds also play a key role.
What is download speed?
The download speed you will see on your speed test refers to how fast your device can receive data from the internet.
Download speeds come into play whether you’re streaming on Netflix, installing software from the internet, or just loading a webpage. You also need a decent download speed for online games (as well as good download speed) because you are downloading information about other players’ locations, game environment, etc. In general, you need a download speed of at least 3 Mbps to use the Internet at a basic level, but 10 Mbps is recommended for a smooth experience. When it comes to more bandwidth intensive activities, you will need a higher download speed to avoid long load times and buffering.
Some broadband providers offer very high download speeds, sometimes exceeding 900 Mbps. But you don’t really need such a high download speed for your daily online activities. To do everything you normally would online, a download speed of around 40 Mbps is sufficient. The average download speed in the United States in 2020 was 54.99 Mbps, which is more than enough for most online activities.
Streaming video content at standard display quality requires 3 Mbps, but 4K streaming will require download speeds above 25 Mbps. Surfing social media, another common online activity, only requires a minimum speed of 3 Mbps. But note that these are minimum requirements, so they may not provide the smoothest online experience.
You’ll only need super-fast speeds for UHD streaming or when many devices are using your Wi-Fi network at any given time.
Why aren’t the upload and download speeds the same?
You may have noticed that download speeds are almost always higher than upload speeds. But why is this exactly the case? In general, the average Internet user will spend more time downloading content from the Internet than downloading it. Most internet users stream movies and TV shows, check emails, browse social media, and visit websites. All of these activities depend more on download speeds than upload speeds.
Thus, there is usually a higher download demand at any given time within a network. For this reason, ISPs design their cables asymmetrically, where there is greater download capacity to better meet user demand.
Upload and download speeds dictate what you can do online
If you have extremely low upload or download speeds, you will be limited in what you can do online. These speeds determine how fast you can connect with your friends, how long it takes to install software, and how you can access online entertainment.