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How to set up your home for cloud gaming

The internet speed and router settings you’ll need in order to maximize games streamed from the cloud

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Cloud gaming has a lot of hidden requirements. Not only are there several different services to choose from with various kinds of subscription fees, but there are specific internet speeds you have to hit in order to play the games in the first place. You need as close to a perfect response time as possible when you’re fighting against enemy players in a competitive game, or even if you’re in a particularly hard section of an action-based game. Everything about cloud gaming falls apart as soon as your internet connection can’t handle the kind of games you want to play. Destiny 2’s Sanctified Mind, Sol Inherent boss isn’t going to wait around while you work out your latency problem. If you want cloud gaming to be the seamless experience that its marketing campaigns have promised, you have to know how it works so you can pick the hardware that’s right for you.

Internet connection

Cloud gaming calls for a fast and stable internet connection. Internet speeds can fluctuate wildly across the world and also inside each country itself. If you can, opt for cable or fiber internet. DSL or satellite connections often won’t cut it, given the high demand of cloud gaming when it comes to speed and latency.

For the major cloud gaming services, like Google Stadia, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Sony’s PlayStation Now, and Microsoft’s xCloud, you want an internet connection speed of around 15 megabits per second (xCloud requires at least 10 Mbps) to be able to stream games to your screen at 720p resolution. If you want to play games in 4K, you’ll need a connection speed of 35 Mbps or more. If you’ve used video streaming services like Netflix, you may already be familiar with these requirements. If you remove the player input part of the equation — which is, admittedly, very important — cloud gaming is just a video feed streamed to you. Any speeds lower than the minimum will result in buffering that will completely derail the experience.

Connection speeds only determine whether you can see the game, though. Latency is what determines whether it’s playable. Games played on a connection with high latency will incur a delay between your controller inputs and what happens in the game, while games on low latency will respond more closely to what it’s like to play a game that’s been downloaded onto a local device. Unfortunately, no internet service provider will be able to tell you their suggested latency for cloud gaming, because the answer to that depends on which cloud gaming service you use.

High latency is bad no matter what, but there’s a middle ground between that and super-low latency that some people might tolerate. A slow-paced game like The Sims 4 is still playable even with some delay. By comparison, a game that requires immediate button responses in order for the player to overcome the challenges presented to them, like a breakneck shooter such as Doom Eternal, would be virtually unplayable. It depends on what kinds of games you want to play, but generally, you want latency of 50 ms or less. The only truly accurate way to test your latency is to use one of the cloud gaming services’ own test tools; any other way won’t be accurate enough. Even with those tools, this is the kind of thing that only becomes clear when you actually play.

a 5G sign at the 3rd Digital China Summit & Exhibition
A 5G sign is seen during the 3rd Digital China Summit & Exhibition at the Fuzhou Strait International Conference and Exhibition Center on October 11, 2020 in Fuzhou, Fujian Province of China.
Photo: Zhang Bin/China News Service/Getty Images

Latency gets even more dicey if you plan to play on a 4G or 5G connection using either a device that supports it, like a smartphone, or using a personal Wi-Fi hotspot. 4G and 5G can result in generally higher average speeds than regular internet connections, but performance of these networks around the world is still just as scattered. Still, 4G and 5G can be a lot more accessible for people in areas that aren’t covered by the other types of internet connections.

The speed and latency of a 4G connection change based on high-usage times more than those of a regular internet connection, so it can be unreliable for anything more than browsing and video streaming, depending on where you’re located. That said, there are anecdotal reports on social media of players using Stadia, xCloud, and GeForce Now just fine on 4G connections and personal hotspots. Again, how well it works depends on what kinds of games you play and where you’re located.

5G has way faster speeds — we’re talking around 50 Mbps — and it promises lower latency specifically for gaming, but it’s still relatively new. Its availability is limited for most countries outside the U.S. and Korea.

Keep in mind that only GeForce Now and xCloud fully support 4G and 5G connections. Google is currently running a test for 4G and 5G in Stadia that you can turn on in an “experiments” menu on your Android phone. Right now, the feature is available “to gather data and feedback for further improvements,” Stadia product manager Elias Wald told Polygon.

“Of course depending on the title or genre, some games are more (or less) latency-sensitive, but under solid network conditions we’ve seen that even action-oriented games can be a good experience on 4G/5G,” said Stadia product manager Alan Joyce.

Andrew Fear, senior product manager at Nvidia, told Polygon that the company has been testing GeForce Now using 5G in Korea, and that it continues to optimize for both 4G and 5G mobile networks in its 71 supported countries.

“4G networks typically have higher latency and lower bandwidth, which is not as good for cloud gaming,” Fear said. “We still support it, but we recommend switching to Wi-Fi or upgrading to a 5G phone if you want to game on the go.”

Microsoft’s xCloud will support 4G and 5G connections, too. A Microsoft spokesperson told us that the company plans to “work with mobile carriers and ISPs to improve technology, and garner feedback from users to better understand their experience.” On top of that, Microsoft plans to expand xCloud to more countries in the future.

It’s clear that most of these services are still in their infancy, so the reliability and accessibility of 4G and 5G cloud gaming is going to be inconsistent. It’ll be up to you to test it for yourself.

Routers

A speedy connection doesn’t matter if your router sucks. There are thousands of routers out there that promise you blazing-fast speeds and better “gaming” performance over others, but it’s important to know how to see past the marketing speak.

For cloud gaming, there are three things you want in a router. You want it to give you fast and low-latency connections. You want it to be able to connect to all of the devices in your house without interference. And you want it to support cloud gaming’s high demand on your bandwidth.

Finding all three in one router can be tricky, given all of the information out there. At the bottom of this article, we’ve included some recommendations, but new routers come out all the time; it’s better to know what you need to look for rather than specific models to buy.

Speed ratings

Before we get into Wi-Fi connection speeds, it’s important to note that a wired Ethernet connection to your router is always going to be the best option for cloud gaming. Wi-Fi will never be as reliable as a LAN connection, due to the interference to which radio signals are susceptible when compared to wires. Your first step when looking at a listing for a router is to check for gigabit LAN ports — something almost every router has. All that means is that the router can deliver internet speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps. For cloud gaming, this is the ideal way to be connected, and the easiest feature to find in any modern router you can buy.

Wi-Fi is a different story. If you search for “router” online, one of the first things you’ll see next to the brand name is something like “AC1750” or “AC4000.” That’s the router’s AC speed rating, which corresponds to the current Wi-Fi 5 standard. For the most part, you don’t need to worry about the letters. Any modern router you buy will support the current standard, and the signals are backward-compatible with any older versions, for devices that don’t support the newest standards.

plugging a network cable into a DSL port on a router Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images

The numbers, however, tell a different story. The 4000 in “AC4000” translates to the combined speeds of the router’s 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands — or the two signals you can use, although a device can only connect to one at a time. These numbers are misleading and shouldn’t be trusted. Router manufacturers like to combine the numbers to make it sound like their router is really fast, when all that matters is the speed of the individual bands.

Instead, you want to look for the speeds listed for both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. The 2.4 GHz band provides long-range signals at lower speeds, while the 5 GHz band provides short-range signals at higher speeds. Keep in mind that your computer, phone, and other devices have their own speed ratings too, so you won’t necessarily get exactly what it says on the box. Ideally, you want something that can well exceed the 35 Mbps requirement for 4K streaming, especially if you know there will be other people in your home using the same connection simultaneously.

Signal coverage

If you live in a large house, or in an area with a lot of Wi-Fi congestion (like an apartment building), you’ll need to pay careful attention to the router’s bands. Pretty much any router you can buy today is dual-band. That simply means it offers both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. The catch is that some routers will make you create two separate networks (with separate SSIDs, or names). This becomes annoying when your devices aren’t smart enough to figure out which band is the best for them at a given moment, which can be a serious problem if you plan to game on a mobile device like a laptop or a tablet.

To fix that, some routers have a feature called band steering. Band steering allows you to create one network using both bands, and lets the router handle the swapping itself. This prevents you from ever moving around your home and ending up on the worst connection, screwing up whatever game you’re trying to play.

Some routers will also be labeled “tri-band.” That means they have the same 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, but with an additional 5 GHz network. The extra band allows more devices to connect, which could be crucial to keeping wireless traffic uncongested if you have several people living with you.

Surprisingly, routers don’t actually talk to multiple devices at the same time; they just talk to all of them in turns, but blazingly fast. MU-MIMO technology, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” changes that. It allows a router to give the internet out at the same time to theoretically improve speeds. As more and more routers and devices support it, connection speeds on congested networks will hopefully improve. Unfortunately, the technology is still relatively early and its implementation and ubiquity isn’t quite there yet. It’s unclear whether or not going out of your way to buy a router that supports MU-MIMO is worth it. That said, our top pick does have it and should work with newer devices that will accommodate MU-MIMO, like the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S and a lot of popular smartphones.

workers installing 5G antennas Photo: Christoph Dernbach/picture alliance/Getty Images

For now, the biggest factors for getting good Wi-Fi coverage are the placement of the router, how big your home is, and what materials your home is made out of. Your router should sit in a central location, with as few walls and other obstructions as possible between it and your devices. Aluminum studs, glass, brick, and stone all will greatly reduce your signal strength (and therefore, your speeds). And if you live in an apartment or near a major city, you might have to use only the 5 GHz band, to avoid interference with other nearby routers.

If you have a particularly large home, or one with a layout that restricts your router’s signals, you should consider a Wi-Fi mesh network instead of a traditional router. Wi-Fi repeaters also exist, but they degrade the signal, which you definitely don’t want for cloud gaming. Range extenders are fine, but they’re only good for small spaces. Mesh networks are the way to go, and they’re pretty easy to set up.

Mesh network kits like Eero Pro, D-Link Covr, or Google Nest Wi-Fi allow you to place multiple additional devices around your home that take information and pass it along to a main router. This can allow the signal to get around obstacles that would otherwise block or damage it. You buy the main device, and can add access points to it whenever you want.

You might also be tempted to look into 4G and 5G personal hotspots or routers. If you’re in an area where the available internet options are poor, they could definitely work. Know that they lack the fancy features of other routers, and that they’ll be at the mercy of all of the same potential latency problems we talked about earlier. It’ll be up to you to test that out with your setup.

antennas mounted on a roof Photo: Christian Charisius/picture alliance/Getty Images

Processor and RAM

Routers are like PCs in that they have their own CPUs and RAM for dealing with the devices that connect to them. A fast processor and a good amount of RAM can allow for better handling of all the connections, ensuring that the router can process all of them without hurting your performance while playing a game. Quad-core processors at 1.5 GHz or more and at least 512 MB of RAM are ideal if you have a lot of devices in your home. Our budget pick has less power, but it might suit your situation better.

Gaming prioritization

Multiplayer games, such as MMOs or even some competitive shooters, require an internet connection to work but don’t necessarily need it to be consistent the whole time. Cloud gaming requires a constant, near-flawless connection, at least for certain types of games. If a slight hiccup of lag is noticeable in Valorant, the built-in delay of cloud gaming with the same hiccup on top of that is going to be a nightmare.

Latency and bandwidth problems will often be either your internet connection’s problem or a function of your physical distance from the router. If those aren’t the issue, then you can potentially increase the speeds for a particular device by using a router feature called QoS, or Quality of Service. QoS prioritizes high-bandwidth devices and gives them more juice than others.

On paper, it should make your cloud gaming experience smooth while other people in your home are watching Netflix or downloading large files. Keep in mind that it will make other people’s connections much slower while you’re playing, which could significantly impact whatever they’re doing. Every router is different when it comes to implementing QoS. You can change the QoS settings on your own, but it’ll take a lot of knowledge on your part about your bandwidth use in order to do it manually. It’s the kind of thing where you’ll have to play with it and see what it feels like. The option can be found in your router’s settings, typically accessed by typing 192.168.1.1 into your browser’s address bar.

A handful of routers include QoS profiles made specifically for Nvidia’s GeForce Now. The company worked with the manufacturers to create these profiles, Nvidia’s Fear told us. Nvidia has a list of those routers available on its website. We’d only recommend them if you specifically want to play on GeForce Now; otherwise, our picks should work just as well.

For xCloud, Microsoft told us, “Use of the Quality of Service function on your router is not necessary to have a great experience with cloud gaming.” Instead, the company recommends using a router’s default setup process.

Stadia users have reported that Google’s automatic “gaming preferred” setting on its Nest Wi-Fi mesh network gives good results. So if you plan on going for a mesh system, that might narrow down your choice.

Don’t bank on QoS working perfectly for you, because like all of this, it’s going to depend on a lot of other factors, including the quality of the connection from your ISP.


Routers: Top pick

TP-Link Archer A20

  • $168
  • $190
  • 12% off

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Routers: Budget pick

Asus RT-AC66U

  • $85
  • $100
  • 16% off

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Wi-Fi mesh networks: Top pick

Amazon eero Pro mesh Wi-Fi system

  • $399

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Wi-Fi mesh networks: Budget pick

Google Nest Wi-Fi Router

  • $169

Prices taken at time of publishing.

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