Broadband for gaming: top ISPs revealed
What makes a good broadband package for gamers? It's not just about speed of connection - low ping is just as important. Both factors are significantly affected by the provider.
The right broadband package can stop the lags and freezing that make interacting online irritating.
Whether we're playing retro classics, or something with 3D graphics that wouldn't be out of place in a movie, adventuring alone or as part of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, this guide to broadband deals suitable for gamers can help.
Here we look into the difference speeds, download limits and even hardware can make to gamers, as well as the five providers offering the best deals right now.
What makes gaming broadband?
Packages marketed specifically as "gaming broadband" seem to have fallen out of favour over the past few years.
Just look at how Demon's gaming broadband sank without a trace just over a year after its launch, for example.
At the time of this update, however, Virgin Media have begun selling their fastest fibre broadband with a couple of extras, aiming it specifically at gamers.
Virgin's decision may seem a little odd at first: the main reason gaming packages seemed to fall out of favour was that many of the people who would have once signed up for them opted to go with much faster, albeit non gamer specific, packages.
Being the fastest widely available broadband out there, it would have seemed that Virgin already had the advantage: getting the connection up to speed is the great first step to gaming heaven.
Higher speeds should help keep gamers on the ball when playing against others online, and they certainly save time when downloading new games or extra features.
Fibre optic cables provide the fastest broadband connections available in the UK: up to 200Mb with Virgin Media, up to 78Mb with BT Infinity, and even more with altnets in some areas (read more on the fastest deals here).
In areas where fibre isn't available, the fastest providers generally deliver about 7.4Mb on average.
Gamers who need to upload data regularly should also look at upload speeds.
Again, fibre outperforms ADSL2+ by some distance - but not in quite the way we'd think.
Virgin Media's 50Mb package offers upload speeds of 3Mb, their 100Mb deal allows uploads of up to 6Mb, and their 152Mb and standard 200Mb deals allow uploads of 12Mb. The Gamer deal offers uploads of 20Mb.
BT and their resellers, however, often provide faster uploads: the fastest are EE's and Plusnet's 76Mb package (more), which offer average upload speeds of above 16Mb.
Speeds aren't everything: reliable connection
But speed isn't everything. And we're not just saying that as a sop to the fibre-less masses.
It's not higher speeds but more consistent connections that make the best gaming broadband deals.
The aim should be to reduce jitter (wildly different ping rates) and latency (also known as lag or freezing) to give you smooth, fast game play.
Speeds have something, but not everything, to do with it.
For example, with the exception of their Gamer package, Virgin Media don't necessarily offer the fastest or most consistent gaming broadband speeds because they operate traffic management and fair use policies.
The best traffic management
Broadband packages specifically aimed at gaming use often have traffic management policies that directly benefit gaming traffic.
Tucked away on Plusnet's site is the option to add their fabled £5 a month add-on, Pro, which automatically moves all gaming and VoIP traffic into their titanium queue - giving it preferential treatment over regular streaming media and email traffic queues.
Even without the add-on, they operate a traffic management policy that prioritises gaming and VoIP, with streaming and browsing given next highest priority.
Similarly, all Aquiss broadband packages come with "gaming mode", an anti-loss feature that prevents any part of the connection becoming over saturated and causing jitter.
Eclipse broadband (RIP) allowed users to set their own traffic priorities - a boon for gamers on the once small but mighty ISP.
Conversely, however, some of the most popular gaming broadband providers have won favour by doing without traffic management altogether.
However, they've generally only been able to pull that off by having low contention ratios.
The contention ratio describes the number of people sharing bandwidth on a single connection.
To make as much cash as possible, budget providers can pack 50 or more people on to one line (ratio of 50:1). The best gaming broadband providers have lower contention ratios, decreasing lag as well as speeding up connections.
This is where Sky broadband customers face issues. Their lack of traffic management and fair use policy would suggest they're good for gamers - but the sheer number of connections pushes their contention ratios up considerably.
Sky have worked to increase capacity in high demand areas, and customers having problems with poor ping can ask the provider to reset their maximum delay levels.
However, as far as we can see Sky only offer this service to users who are experiencing problems, and they'll generally ask customers to go through a connection test before moving them to a gaming profile.
All of our top five gaming broadband providers offer unlimited packages.
Unlimited downloads are a stress saver because users know they'll only pay one fixed price, and gaming can be a download heavy online pastime.
For example, online gaming service OnLive uses 0.9GB an hour at its minimum speed requirement of 2Mb.
At the recommended speed of 5Mb, this soars to 2.25GB an hour.
Admittedly, OnLive is the most bandwidth hungry online gaming service we've ever heard of, but all online gaming falls into the category of some of the most download hungry online activity.
For that reason, "fair use" clauses are worth checking: they can seriously limit those "unlimited" deals.
There's more on what to look for in an unlimited package in our guide here.
Finally, a static IP address - for running a gaming or FTP server - is a gaming broadband must have.
Unfortunately, it's becoming a rarity and some providers - TalkTalk, for example - flatly refuse to offer this facility with their broadband packages at all.
Gaming broadband hardware
Most seventh generation consoles - so that's the Nintendo Wii and PS3 plus handhelds like the Nintendo DS and PSP - come with the ability to access wi-fi signal built-in.
After PC gaming, this is by far the easiest way to use gaming broadband since most broadband deals now come with a free wireless router.
Any wireless router with the protocol 802.11ac will have no problem connecting, but those thinking of using an older router will need to make sure that it's compatible before they reject that new router.
In addition, consider the other devices in the house. Many providers now offer dual band wireless routers, which operate on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies.
Baby monitors, cordless phones, and other wireless devices tend to operate on the 2.4Ghz frequency, interfering with the signal to our computers.
The 5Ghz frequency is much less congested, although it tends to have a shorter range.
There's more on the hubs offered by the biggest providers here.
In the meantime, to get as strong a connection as possible to the internet, ditch the wireless and connect through an Ethernet cable.
For example, those with an Xbox 360 - which can't pick up wireless signal - will need a wireless adaptor or USB-to-Ethernet adaptor, sometimes known as a LAN adaptor, to get online.
We've already mentioned many of these providers throughout this guide, but to sum up, the following are the ISPs you want to watch when it comes to gaming.
As mentioned above, Plusnet prioritise gaming and VoIP traffic; since their first unlimited deal appeared in December 2012 they've ditched their limited data packages for all but legacy customers.
Their 76Mb fibre also boasts some of the fastest upload speeds.
Sky's unlimited package, which has no traffic management and a very fair policy on fair use, makes it a favourite with heavy downloaders like gamers.
Although their connections aren't always the most consistent, they do take the time to offer gaming specific services when users face problems.
Note that both Plusnet and Sky offer fibre over BT's FTTC network - and those speeds are also making BT Infinity a gaming favourite.
However, no provider is faster, on average, than Virgin Media.
Their largely unbeatable speeds have made them popular with many gamers and are enough to put them in our top five - but bear in mind those upload speeds, and also note that some gamers report significant jitter on the network.
With the introduction of the Gamer package, they seem to be trying to address these issues, but only time (and customer feedback) will tell.
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