Broadband for gaming - is it time to level up?
The internet sits at the heart of gaming. Almost every modern console or PC game requires a broadband connection in some way.
The most obvious online feature is multiplayer - the latest Call of Duty is literally half a game without it for example. But even ostensibly single-player games benefit from being online - downloadable quests and gameplay fixes for the Witcher 3 for example, or in-game advice from other players in Dark Souls III.
All of which is to say, if you're a gamer, a decent internet connection is essential.
What's the best broadband for gaming?
You don't need a particularly fast broadband connection to play games but you do need decent speeds - ideally from fibre optic broadband - to take advantage of all that the modern gaming scene offers, from games titles and updates, to instantly streaming HD movies.
You also need unlimited downloads. Games are getting big these days, and you don't want to spend your time worrying about data, when you could be worrying about how to unlock the next loot box on Overwatch.
Fortunately, there are a few providers that can provide the type of package that gamers need:
- Virgin Media has the fastest broadband in the UK, with speeds up to 300Mb - for many gamers it's the obvious choice. On the downside, it's pretty pricey, and not available as widely as other providers. You'll need to use a postcode checker to see if you can get it.
- TalkTalk fibre optic broadband is more affordable and offers speeds of up to 76Mb. The provider also offers one of the cheapest TV packages around, so if you also want a YouView box too, this is a great option.
- BT Infinity superfast packages go up to 76Mb. If you choose BT, make sure you get an unlimited package, as cheaper ones come with just 20GB downloads a month - nowhere near enough for modern gaming.
- Plusnet specialises in affordable, simple packages. You won't get much in the way of extras compared to other providers, but you can get unlimited fibre packages and top-notch customer service.
- Sky broadband is truly unlimited, which means that you can download as much as you like without fear of being cut off. Fibre's the best choice if you can get it, and there are usually offers around that include TV as well.
What do I need broadband for?
These days, broadband touches nearly every part of gaming. Without a reasonably fast connection, you'll miss out on many of the amazing experiences that games consoles and PCs offer. For example:
- Online gaming - There are few gaming experiences as thrilling, satisfying and downright fun as playing with others online. Although you don't technically need a particularly fast connection for most games, the faster the speed, the better the experience will be.
- Single player gaming - Even single-player games benefit from a web connection. Developers are constantly tinkering with their games, fixing bugs and other issues that come to light after a game has released. These fixes are known as patches or updates, and are typically downloaded automatically if you're online. Sometimes a patch is a few MB, but sometimes they can be enormous - the Xbox One Borderlands Handsome Collection update, for example, was a stonking great 16GB!
- Buying the hottest games - Increasing numbers of people are downloading their games digitally, using services like veev.co.uk, rather than buying boxed copies from a shop. Big blockbuster games can be 50GB these days, and even smaller digital-only games are getting pretty chunky.
- Indie games - The big games publishers get a lot of attention, but some of the most interesting titles now come from independent developers. Games like Gone Home, Fez, The Binding of Isaac and Goat Simulator, for example - all fascinating, memorable games, and all primarily available through downloads.
- Downloadable content (DLC) - Many games get extra downloadable content after release (or in some cases, even before release). From extra multiplayer maps for series like Call of Duty and Halo, to fully-featured expansion packs, these can greatly enhance the game you're playing, or scratch an itch if you're desperate for more.
- Film, TV and music - Consoles are about more than games - they've essentially become entertainment hubs. You can watch catch-up TV services like BBC iPlayer and All 4, rent movies and TV shows, stream flicks via Netflix and NOW TV, watch feeds of other people playing games, listen to music via services like Spotify (on PS4), browse the web, and so much more. All these require a decent internet connection, and without one, you're only scratching the surface of what your machine can do.
How fast does my internet need to be for online gaming?
As a rule, the faster your connection, the better the chances of having a smooth game online, although technically, you only need speeds of around 5Mb to actually play most console or PC games.
That said, the games themselves, and the necessary updates required to play online, are often huge downloads and if you have a slow broadband connection, you're going to spend a lot of time waiting to play instead of actually doing it.
Can I play games online through mobile broadband?
Most mobile phone operators sell mobile broadband dongles that you can plug into a computer to create a Wi-Fi hotspot. Alternatively, some handsets, such as the iPhone, can also be used to create a wireless hotspot via 4G or 3G.
Which raises the question: can you use mobile broadband to play games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare? Yes you can. But, then again, you can toast a muffin in the bath or poke a grizzly bear in the eye - just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.
Yes, 4G connections are technically capable of managing online gaming, but most mobile plans come with tight data limits. That data will go fast when you start gaming, so it's best to stick to a home broadband connection where you can.
We'd advise steering clear of 3G connections entirely for gaming. They seem like they should be capable of it, but players of fast-paced shooters are likely to experience some latency issues - lag in other words.
When playing with most home broadband connections, modern games disguise latency very well. They'll adapt and adjust to give the impression of a seamless experience. But with mobile broadband, the issues tend to be more pronounced, potentially breaking the game. There are few things in Battlefield or Call of Duty as frustrating as unloading bullet after bullet into an enemy with no discernible effect - it's feels like being the bad guy in a James Bond movie.