Latency vs Speed: What Does It All Mean?
Let’s start by defining our terms.
Latency is a length of time. It measures the time it takes for a connected device to make a request and receive a response. This round-trip time is also called a ping and is measured in milliseconds (ms).
Speed is a capacity. It measures how much data your device can download or upload at once. Speed is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). Download speed is the rate at which your device can receive information from another server, while upload speed is the rate at which it can send that information.
At this point, you might be wondering why there’s a difference. It seems like both are about how fast data moves on your internet connection. However, that’s not quite right. Let’s explain with a quick analogy.
Picture a highway. The amount of vehicle traffic the highway can carry at one time is determined by the number of lanes. That’s its speed, a term internet service providers often use interchangeably with network bandwidth (see “Is Internet Speed Connected to Bandwidth?” below).
A car driving on the highway represents internet latency — the time it takes to travel from one location to another. Even if a system has the capacity to move huge amounts of data, it might still appear slow if its latency is high (bad). A six-lane highway won’t do you much good if you have a slow car.
It can be confusing. The thing people usually call “speed” is more about the potential for speed, while “latency” — which sounds like a measure of inaction — is the actual measure of speed. Just remember, you need a wide road and a fast car to move quickly.
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Is Internet Speed Connected to Bandwidth?
Bandwidth and speed are extremely similar measurements, and they’re often used interchangeably. However, their accurate definitions differ slightly. To oversimplify: Maximum bandwidth determines how much data your internet connection can move at one time, while speed is the amount of data it is moving.
Think about our highway again. Most highways have speed limits, but when driving on the highway, you don’t often get to go the speed limit. You might manage it if there’s no traffic, but with a lot of other cars on the road, you’ll always travel a little slower than the road allows.
That slowdown represents high latency. On highways, the problem might be heavy traffic, accidents or road construction. On a website, issues might include an overloaded server, downtime or poor data distribution.
There’s another reason speed is different from bandwidth: Origin servers and destination servers don’t always allow the same maximum speeds.
If your maximum bandwidth is higher than that of the server you’re connecting to, you’ll have to work at the lower speed. In the analogy, imagine it as the difference between your car’s theoretical max speed and the actual speed limit and conditions of the road.
ISPs use bandwidth numbers in their ads instead of speed because that’s the number they can control. If someone offers to sell you 50 Mbps of “internet speed,” they’re usually referring to bandwidth — actual speed is out of their control, since it relies partly on your hardware and that of your destination server.
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Is Higher Internet Latency Better Than Lower Latency?
No, this is backwards. Latency is like a golf score: You want it to be low. A shorter ping is better, since low latency means your device can exchange information more quickly.
Suppose you’re playing Overwatch and an opponent is shooting at you. Naturally, you’d want to get that information from the game server in the shortest time possible. Lower latency is your goal.
Ping vs Latency
You might sometimes hear latency described as a “ping” or “ping rate.” There’s no difference between these terms. A ping helps with measuring latency by sending a small data packet from one server to another and back. The faster the ping returns, the lower your latency.
Note that the ping rate you get from online speed tests will normally be lower than your actual ping rate. Latency depends on the other servers as much as your own modem, and distance plays a major role. As with speed and bandwidth, don’t assume that your best possible latency is what you’re actually getting.