An Unstable Internet Connection May Be From Low Ram or a Slow CPU in Your Modem or Router
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An Unstable Internet Connection May Be From Low Ram or a Slow CPU in Your Modem or Router

More CPU and RAM can mean less data hiccups on heavily used devices, quicker response times, less 'loading' messages, and less buffering

April 26, 2021

Your instinct might be to call your Internet Service Provider (ISP) when you start to notice an unstable Internet connection, but the problem might be on your end. As the world gets more connected, we're getting more smart devices that want to connect to the Internet. If you have a router or modem that can't keep pace with your needs, you might find your connection going down without explanation.

consumer grade modems and routers aren't necessarily the best

You might not think that your brand new router or modem can be the cause of your problems, but it's possible. Most consumer grade routers and modems are designed to handle basic traffic because they're on the cheaper side. As you go up in price you'll typically, but not always, get better products. You might want the router that costs $50 as opposed to the one that costs $250, but you're probably going to notice some lag or what can appear to be an unstable Internet connection if you cheap out and you need a better product. Better modems and routers usually have faster Central Processing Units (CPUs) and more Random Access Memory (RAM) than the cheapest products, which means they can handle more devices, more requests, and more data without giving out. The more you use your Internet, the more you'll have a need for better hardware.

Combo units may not work for you

When you had your home Internet installed, did you connect to it using the WiFi password provided by the service technician? If you did, you are using a combination modem and router in one unit. These devices are good for people who don't want to buy their own routers, but they're usually on the cheaper side and aren't up to handling a large workload. While you may have WiFi, those WiFi speeds may be limited by the limited hardware in the system. The newest WiFi, called 802.11ax or WiFi 6, is faster and better than previous generations. But the WiFi technology in these devices may only support up to 802.11n or WiFi 4, which is more than 15 years old. You won't get the best speeds with your new tech on these types of units. You may even notice a lot of lag time and dropped connections to the equipment if you have a lot of devices in your home connecting at once. The equipment just might not be able to keep up with the demand.

a business ISP typically hands out better routers and modems

Consumer ISPs try to keep prices low to attract customers. If you use the ISP's devices you might get stuck with a router or modem on the very basic end, but one that is still capable of most ordinary tasks. A business ISP, on the other hand, gives out business grade equipment, and usually without any rental fees. Business ISPs know that their customers usually have a lot of traffic flowing through their equipment and give equipment that can handle more with faster CPUs that have more cores and more and faster RAM that can handle the various threads and processes going through it. And you don't have to run a business to get your service from a business ISP.

what's the deal with CPU and RAM in routers and modems?

A router is a router and a modem is a modem, right? Not exactly. Do you remember how slow your computer was ten years ago compared to the faster computer you have now? Computers have CPUs with more cores and faster frequencies than before. RAM is also faster and more of it can be crammed into a single chip, meaning better performance for all the data that gets sent back and forth. It works the same way for routers and modems. Faster CPUs are generally better and may be able to increase your performance. But RAM is typically where most routers fail. More and faster RAM can handle more threads, which is especially important is you have a lot of network traffic going back and forth, such as a lot of devices or even torrenting.

slow response times and lag can give appearance of unstable Internet connection

If you do over-utilize your network, slow CPU and RAM can cause bottlenecks in your network. When you have a bottleneck, something has to slow down. It's just like a lot of traffic on the highway having to slow down when the lanes are reduced for construction. Even though you are still moving, you feel like you're getting nowhere. When your data going back and forth through the modem and router have to slow down or even wait, it can give the appearance of an unstable Internet connection even if it's perfectly fine. Everything needs to process through the router and modem before it gets to the final destination, after all. So your frequent buffering might be caused by cheap hardware not being able to keep up.

basic Internet users are probably fine with low end routers and modems

If you use your router and modem to check the sports scores or for sending an email or two, a basic consumer grade router or modem is probably just fine for you. Several manufacturers still make versions of their old workhorse products, like the old Linksys WRT54G Series routers. These products were great back in the day and still have a cult following. Linksys has revived this old style router with several newer models that feature range and speed improvements and some upgrades CPU and RAM. One of these might be just what you need. You might not even notice any difference if you upgrade your old hardware to one of these devices if you don't over-utilize your network.

power users should consider upgraded equipment

Power users that send large amounts of data back and forth or that have a lot of users and devices accessing data at the same time can benefit from upgraded routers and modems that feature faster CPUs and more RAM. If you don't want to buy new equipment, you can consider transitioning to a business ISP, which usually has better equipment. But it usually comes at a higher cost per month. But not only is the equipment typically better, you'll get priority over the 'non-business' traffic in your area during peak demand. So if a bottleneck is happening on your ISP's equipment down the road during peak times, your traffic will get routed first while all the other homes in the neighborhood will have to wait!

rental fees are a good excuse to upgrade

Some consumer ISPs still charge rental fees to use their modems and other equipment. If you buy upgraded equipment yourself, you can get better responsiveness and avoid the rental charges. Then the equipment will pay for itself over time! Just make sure that if you are buying your own modem that it is supported by your ISP first.

Ask your ISP for an upgrade

If you are using the equipment provided by the ISP, how old is it? ISPs typically introduce new equipment every few years. So if you still have the original equipment that was installed a decade ago, you can possibly see some improvement by getting newer equipment from the ISP. It doesn't hurt to ask, and technicians who come to your home to diagnose any issues will usually upgrade the device if it's really old.

Is the equipment hot?

A device that overheats is prone to stop working properly or even reboot. The same happens with modems and routers. Your modem and router should be located somewhere it can get good air circulation. And even if your equipment does get good circulation, it certainly shouldn't be covered in dust, which reduces the effectiveness of heat dissipation. Your dusty devices could be slowing down just because they aren't cool enough.

the final verdict on upgraded CPU and ram in routers and modems

Unless you are a power user placing heavy demands on your network, you probably won't notice much of a difference in upgrading your router or modem. If you have a few kids who are constantly streaming, downloading, etc, you might benefit from upgrading your devices. Or you could use the bottleneck as an excuse to demand they do these things less! Hosting your own email server or web server in addition to doing your home networking? You should probably have something a little better than a basic consumer grade router and modem.