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The Cable Modem Buyer's Guide: What to Look for in a Modem

Only people who live in rural areas that don’t get the best internet service know what it’s like to have real internet troubles. There’s nothing worse than waiting an eternity for your internet service to load, especially in an age where virtually everything is done over the internet.

Part of ensuring that you’ve got the fastest internet possible is to get the best cable modem you can afford. But if you’re not tech-savvy, picking out a new cable modem can feel like taking a shot in the dark.

If you’re in the market for a new cable modem, keep reading. We’re going to break down all the specs you need to understand so you can make the best choice for your home internet use.

Buying vs Renting Your Cable Modem

If you’re renting your cable modem from your rural internet provider, it’s time to give them a call and tell them you’ll be sending it back.

Cable companies jack up the rental costs of sub-standard modems, which drives up your bill and doesn’t give you the most bang for your buck.

The cost of a high-quality modem will eventually pay for itself when you stop renting the overpriced ones from your cable company.

If you decide to buy your own cable modem, make sure that you double-check your next month’s bill. Ensure that the cable company stops charging you for the rental because these things have been known to slip through the cracks in the past.

Cable vs DSL Modems

When you live in a rural area, it might seem tempting to select a DSL modem. However, this is a practice that is starting to fade into oblivion.

DSL technology is aging fast, and like all things that are getting older, it moves slower and slower every day. Phone lines aren’t the first thing on anyone’s mind to update today, which means that you’ll likely be stuck with slower internet service.

If you want fast internet, you want a cable modem. Some cable modems can reach speeds up to 1000 Mbps, which is something that DSL simply can't compete with. It’s time to leave DSL in the dust.

Make Sure You’re Up to Date All-Around

Now that you’ve settled on buying a new cable modem, it’s time to talk about what you need to look for.

The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure that your router is up to date. If your router is a newer one, you most likely won’t run into any issues with compatibility with your modem. But it’s a good idea to make sure that your firmware is up to date anyway.

Also, if you’re renting your router from your cable company, see our advice above!

If it’s time for you to get a newer router as well, there are router/modem combinations called gateways that you can select from as well. They do the work of both the modem and the router, picking up a signal and transmitting it to the rest of your house.

If you live in a small place, this might be the option for you. Otherwise, keeping them separate is your best bet.

The DOCSIS Downlow

One of the first things you’ll see when you look at the specs of a modem is the DOCSIS capabilities. But the manufacturers of these modems don’t make an effort to explain what that means. So, unless you’re tech-savvy, you’re just taking a shot in the dark when you decide which one to buy.

Well, not anymore.

DOCSIS is an acronym for “data over cable service interface specification.” That doesn’t exactly clear it up, does it?

Basically, when your modem has DOCSIS 3.0 or 3.1 on it, that means that it can provide you with broadband internet access.

3.0 and 3.1 are the different versions of the protocol. The main difference in them is the speed of your internet or the number of channels.

If your internet provider offers 1,000 Mbps internet speeds, the DOCSIS 3.1 is the one you want to go with. If you don’t have ultra-fast internet (as most people living in rural areas don’t) stick with the 3.0 to save yourself a little money.

Upstream and Downstream

Another spec you’ll find on your modem is something that looks like 8 x 4 or 32 x 8. Those numbers don’t mean anything to most people, but it’s an important factor when considering what modem you need to buy.

The first number in that two-number sequence tells you how capable your modem is of downloading things. The second number tells you how capable it is of uploading things.

If you’re not too worried about downloading and uploading, don’t stress too much about these numbers. The rule of thumb is that the higher the number, the better the modem will operate.

If you want to make sure that you’ve got an updated modem, pick one with at least 16 downstream channels (which is represented by the second number in the sequence).

Need for Speed

This is one of the most important things you need to look at when selecting a new modem, but it’s the piece of information that’s the most muddled and hard to find.

Whatever number you see in relation to the speed of the modem is only telling you about the download speed. If your modem says it has a speed of 1,000 Mbps, that means it can use that much from your ISP.

The upload speed is always much less than the download speed.

It’s important to remember that you will not get any use out of buying a modem that has a higher speed than your internet service provider allows. If your plan only goes up to 60 Mbps, that’s all you’re going to get from your modem even if you buy one that boasts a speed of 1,000 Mbps.

Is It Compatible?

Now all that’s left is to make sure that your selected modem works with your internet service provider. Most of the time, any modem you select will operate fine no matter what company you buy the internet from.

But if you work with a small ISP, you might run into some issues. If that’s the case, you should research what modem brands are compatible with your internet service before you buy it. Giving them a call is a great way to get this done.

Picking the Right Modem for your Needs

Buying a cable modem doesn’t have to feel like a guessing game. All it takes is a little bit of research to figure out which modem will work best with your ISP. And once you’ve got a new, updated modem, your rural internet connection will work so much better.