Varying Internet Speeds: The Great Device Divide

Tablets, laptops, and smartphones are handy gadgets — so handy, in fact, that sales of mobile technology are starting to outstrip that of desktops. But despite their ease of use, portability, and multi-functionality, you may notice varying Internet speeds across mobile devices, with some delivering high-end performance while others lag behind. Here are five reasons your speed doesn’t stay the same across devices:


1. The Wired/Wireless Divide

Wired is faster. Copper-based Ethernet and phone cables (or glass-based fiber optics) offer higher data transfer rates than wireless networks. Download rates of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) are offered by major telecom providers for most wired Internet plans, with some “high-speed” offerings pushing the 500 Mbps or even 1 Gb (gigabit) mark. In large part, this increased speed is due to a solid connection. On wireless connections, interference in a wireless signal, distance from the wireless source, and number of users on the network all impact overall speed, meaning you’ll rarely see the theoretical “maximum.” In addition, wireless networks may “drop” connections, leaving you temporarily without access.

2. Wireless Network Card Type

If you’re using a wireless-enabled device such as a laptop or smartphone, the type of networking card installed makes a big difference when it comes to speed. Older cards use what’s known as the 802.11b wireless networking standard, which has a maximum transfer rate of 11 Mbps. Cards using 802.11g or 802.11a can theoretically achieve 54 Mbps, while those using 802.11n can potentially reach 500 Mbps. To improve your chances of a speedy wireless connection, work as close to the wireless source as possible and use a network with the fewest number of other connected devices.

3. 3G/4G

You may also choose to access the Internet using your smartphone or tablet provider’s cellular data network. There are two main types of cellular data networks: 3G and 4G. The “G” simply stands for “generation,” meaning 3G is third-generation technology and 4G is fourth-generation. The first generation (1G) was analog cell phones, followed by 2G digital phones. Both 3G and 4G offer broadband Internet access for users, but at very different speeds. To be considered 3G, a network must offer a peak data transfer rate of at least 200 kilobits per second, but many newer networks offer ten times that speed. 4G, meanwhile, must offer up to 1 Gbps when the device is stationary and 100 Mbps when in motion.

4. Differing Networks

Even if you’re on a 4G network, you may experience varying Internet speeds. This is because not all networks are created equal — in the United States alone, there are three major 4G network deployments: LTE (long term evolution), WiMAX (worldwide interoperability for microwave access), and HSPA+ (evolved high-speed packet access). LTE is the most popular and typically offers the best overall speed. It’s also worth noting that a 4G device won’t always work in 4G mode. If you travel outside major urban areas, your tablet or smartphone will seek out the best available network, which is often 3G.

5. Your Operating System and Software

If you’re on a solid network with a powerful device but still getting poor performance, your operating system (OS) may be to blame. Both Android and iOS users have complained over the years that certain OS iterations slow down Internet speeds or impact downloads. On wired PCs or laptops, this kind of slowdown is often related to virus protection software or firewalls, which scan incoming packets of data. Some real-time protection software scans deeply enough that overall speed is affected.

Looking for the best speed on your device? Make sure you know your connection and understand its maximum potential.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons