Choosing the right internet service provider (ISP) is crucial for gaming. There’s nothing more frustrating when playing online games than a laggy or dropped connection. Even fans of single-player games will benefit from a fast and reliable internet connection as many now download their games directly, and even games installed from a disc often require big ‘day-one’ patches of multiple gigabytes, which have become an industry standard.
Speed, however, is far from everything. Latency, packet loss and jitter are arguably more important for online gaming – and they are rarely advertised or even mentioned by ISPs. This guide goes through some of the most important qualities in an ISP for gamers, as well as comparing broadband offerings from the main ISP providers in the UK.
Before you start looking at new broadband packages, it is important to know what you already have. Use a connection speed checker to find out your current internet connection speed and use this a baseline for comparison with the alternative packages on offer. It may also be worth running a PC cleanup tool to ensure that your computer is working at the highest possible speeds, and that your gaming isn’t being hindered by wasted processing power.
What to look for in a broadband package?
The benefits of a higher internet connection speed are easily felt, which is why speed is the first thing that many consider when comparing ISPs. However, as long as you have a connection above 30Mbit/s, extra speed won’t add any noticeable benefit in online gaming. It will, however, let you download games and patches faster.
Latency is the time it takes for a ‘packet’ of data to get to a third party server and back from your device. This is one of the most important measures for online gaming performance, as you want the time it takes for your actions to be relayed to the game server to be as low as possible.
While a low latency is good, lag can still be created if too many of the data ‘packets’ get lost along the way. This is called packet loss, and you want it to be minimal for the least lag.
Latency is measured in averages, which can be misleading at times. A 20ms latency could either mean it consistently takes 20ms for data to travel between your device and the server, or it could mostly stay below 15ms with occasional spikes to 50ms. Jitter is the rate of change in latency – the lower your jitter is the more stable your latency, which means that low jitter is almost as important as low latency.
Depending on your ISP, sometimes certain types of traffic can be prioritised over others.For example, an ISP that sells TV packages can prioritise TV traffic as those customers pay them more, while reducing capacity for gaming or peer-to-peer traffic.
It’s important to make sure that your ISP doesn’t engage in throttling, as your gaming traffic might otherwise be at risk of unexpected slowdowns.
ISPs offer their own routers, some of which have been reported to have problems with games consoles. If you play on console rather than PC or Mac, check your ISPs router compatibility before switching, or invest in a gaming-ready router to get the most out of your new connection.
Most broadband packages lock you into a 12 or 18 month contract. The contracts can be difficult and costly to get out of, so switching can be hard if you’re not happy with your provider. On the other hand, contracts may guarantee you the price that you were offered when you signed on, which could protect you from price increases for the duration of your contract.
Not all of the ISPs in this guide may provide their best service in your local area. Check their coverage coverage on the official websites with your postal code before signing up.
The best ISP for gaming
EE and PlusNet offer the best value for money, with low prices and strong performances on latency, packet loss and jitter. While PlusNet is slightly cheaper, EE offers an ultra high speed plan of 300Mbit/s which is likely to be an attractive option for many gamers.
Sky & BT are two heavyweights with the strongest performance on latency and reliability, but their packages come at a premium cost.
Virgin, while performing poorly in other categories, offers higher speeds than any other ISP. The only option for speed fanatics, but otherwise to be avoided.
The full details and performance results of all the ISPs compared are below.
Sky’s broadband prices are a little higher than the competition, with a current price of £20 per month for 11Mbit/s and £30 per month for 63Mbit/s.
In the 2018 Which Broadband Survey, more than 20% of Sky customers complained about very slow speeds, and over 20% also complained about price increases.
The 2018 Ofcom Home Broadband Performance report found Sky’s broadband to have good stability and performance, with generally below 15ms of latency, very low packet loss with less than 0.1% even at peak times, and well below 1ms of jitter.
Sky claims to perform no throttling.
BT’s broadband packages are the highest priced of all the ISP’s compared here. The current prices are £29.99 for 36Mbit/s and £39.99 for 67Mbit/s. Historically BT has been the largest broadband provider in the UK, so many consumers who don’t research the ISP’s available likely pay the premium prices without a second thought.
According to the recent Which survey, more than 20% of BT customers complained about very slow speeds, and about 30% of customers complained about price increases.
BT performed admirably in the Ofcom report, with below 15ms of latency, packet loss only slightly above 0.2% at peak times (though otherwise much lower), and well below 1ms of jitter.
BT no longer throttles any connections.
PlusNet’s packages are cheap compared to the competition, with current prices of £17.49 for 36Mbit/s and £22.49 for 66Mbit/s.
PlusNet performed well in the Which survey, with less than 20% of customers having complaints in any category.
Ofcom reported good performance with below 15ms of latency, little packet loss on average though up to 0.25% at peak times, and below 1ms of jitter.
PlusNet has a history of throttling traffic, though claims not to throttle the current residential fibre plans.
While Virgin’s prices are a little on the high end, they also offer higher speeds than the competition. Their current prices include £35 for 54Mbit/s and £50 for 362Mbit/s.
According to Which, Virgin have had by far the most complaints about price increases, router problems and being left entirely without a connection for extended periods.
The Ofcom report indicates Virgin had the highest latency with up to 20m/s, and had up to 3ms of jitter at peak times, and above 2ms on average. Packet loss was the only category where Virgin performed well, with below 0.15% at even peak times.
According to choose.co.uk, Virgin perform lots of connection throttling for various data types.
EE’s prices are quite fair, with 36Mbit/s available for £26, 67Mbit/s at £30 and a 300Mbit/s option for £47.
EE performed well in the Which survey, with less than 20% of customers having complaints in any category.
Ofcom reported solid performance with below 15ms of latency, less than 0.2% packet loss on average, and well below 1ms of jitter.
EE does not throttle connections.
The packages offered by TalkTalk are on the cheap end, with current prices of £23.50 for 36Mbit/s and £26 for 63Mbit/s.
In the Which survey, TalkTalk had the most complaints about slow speeds.
In the Ofcom report, TalkTalk performed better in latency than Virgin but a bit worse than the others tested. Packet loss was mediocre with slightly above 0.2% on the 38Mbit/s package, and jitter was just below 1ms.
TalkTalk doesn’t officially perform throttling, though if you have a TV package the traffic from it may be prioritised over other traffic.
Of course, the choice between ISP providers will depend heavily on your needs, the type of games you play and the other online services you use. While the decision will ultimately be a personal preference, by considering the factors above, you can be sure that you will be getting the best performance available.