Do You Really Need A “Gaming” Router?

October 22, 2018

Gamers always want the best hardware for the best performance, but sometimes it isn’t necessary. 64 GB of RAM isn’t going to help you get headshots in Counter-Strike. So do you need an expensive gaming-focused Wi-Fi router?

The answer is usually no. You see, what’s important for online gaming isn’t necessarily the raw speed (bandwidth) of your connection. That helps with big downloads and multiple people accessing high-bandwidth content at the same time. But for high-speed online games, what you’re looking for is a low latency—the time it takes for an electronic signal to go from your computer or game console to the remote server hosting the game and vice versa. This is usually referred to as “ping.”

A better router can improve latency, but only to a certain degree. For home internet, it’s rare to get a server connection faster than approximately 30 milliseconds (that’s three-hundredths of a second), and 50-100 milliseconds is more common. A better, faster router can improve the connection from your ISP’s modem connection to your computer or console, either over Wi-Fi or with a more reliable Ethernet connection. But it can’t do anything about the connection going from your ISP’s server to the game server.

The server latency on my $100 router with a 50 ms connection is only 68ms—already much faster than I can react.

And even if it could, it’s unlikely that you’d be able to see the benefit of a connection with less than 30 ms of lag, anyway. The average human reaction time for visual stimulus—think of it as the FPS meter for your brain—is only about a quarter of a second (250 ms). Olympic athletes can get that down to about 100ms, a tenth of a second. Now, frequent gamers who play intense, fast-paced shooters or fighting games are probably better than most people regarding reactions, especially in their games of choice. But even assuming that your reaction times are better than twice the human average, you’re still not going to do much better than the ~100 ms connection that’s considered a bare minimum for fast-paced games.

If your ISP’s connection is poor, your online gaming is going to be laggy; that’s just the plain fact of it. Even using some of the most advanced tools in a $400 gaming router, like traffic shaping or an exclusive connection to a gaming-grade VPN, won’t improve the connection of the “last mile” that goes to your home. Your best option is to switch service providers, which, depending on where you live, might not be an option at all.

That isn’t to say that an expensive router is worthless. More expensive models tend to include extra Ethernet ports that negate the need for switches, more and better antennas for greater Wi-Fi coverage, more extensive setup options, or even extra radios for double coverage on high-speed wireless bands. All that can improve the connection within your home, allowing you to more effectively take advantage of a solid high-bandwidth connection (over 100 megabits a second) or use gadgets like the Steam Link to stream high-speed video through your home. They’re also great for hardwired connections: a gaming router makes everybody happy at a LAN party.

But if you’re looking for a router that will give you a specific advantage in online gaming, especially for a single machine in an otherwise uncongested local network, don’t bust out for a $500 option when a $100 one will probably do just as well.

 Image credit: ASUS

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