Depending on how long “several years” is exactly, there could be really good reason to upgrade your modem, or no reason at all. Still, the quick answer is that yes, there are some differences between older modems and newer ones that might make you consider upgrading—but you have to do your homework first. Here’s how.
If You Rent Your Modem, You Should Probably At Least Buy Your Own
If you’re currently renting your modem from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), you’re probably paying a small fee for the privilege (at least here in the United States.) Check your bill. It’s usually only a few dollars per month, but that can add up quickly. Do the math: if you plan to live in the same place or have the same ISP for longer than a couple of years, you’re better off just buying your own cable modem and using that, instead of paying your ISP a monthly fee to rent one. Photo by Luis Ventura.
There’s something to the argument that renting a cable modem lets you call your ISP at any time and ask for a new one that supports newer networking technologies (and potentially faster connection speeds), but don’t worry much about that. ISPs don’t update their networks so frequently that you’d benefit from a new cable modem more often than it would make sense to buy one. Plus, even if you called your ISP and asked for a new modem, there’s no guarantee they’d give you a better one, or even give you a new one at all. They’d probably charge you for the replacement. Remember, we think it’s rarely a good idea to rent a cable modem, and if you do opt to buy one, we have a great recommendation for you.
Does Your Modem Support Your ISP’s Latest Networking Technology?
The next major question you should ask, even if you own your cable modem, is whether your ISP’s network technology has surpassed it. Let’s say you bought your cable modem way back in 2005, and you’ve been using it at different homes with the same cable company ever since. Sure, it works, but odds are your cable company has upgraded their network since then, and your modem may not be capable of taking advantage of the speed available to you. Photo by Bryan Brenneman.
DOCSIS (short for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) is an international data transmission standard for use with cable networks. You may have heard the term when most major cable companies were making the uplift from DOCSIS 2.0 to DOCSIS 3.0, back around 2010 and 2011. Most cable companies—especially in urban and suburban areas—have already made the switch. Others in more rural regions are still working on it, or haven’t made the change at all. Check with your cable company and see if they’re made the switch. Then, Google the model number of your current cable modem and see if it’s a DOCSIS 3.0 modem. If it is, you’re good to go and you don’t need to upgrade.
If your modem isn’t a DOCSIS 3.0 modem, it’s time to go shopping. Most providers have preferred models that they’ve tested and recommend you use. Check your ISP’s compatible device list (here’s Comcast’s, Time Warner’s, Cox’s, and ATT’s, for example) for leads on what you should buy. If you still have an old DOCSIS 2.0 modem and there’s a firmware upgrade for it, you may be able to extend its life a bit and even see a speed boost in the process. If you’re somehow still rocking an old DOCSIS 1.1 modem, your best bet would be to upgrade if you want the added speed and features available to you. It’s the only way you’ll ever see some of those super-fast download speeds your ISP claims to deliver.
Weigh the Pros and Cons
Now that we’ve tackled the two biggest questions you should answer before you think about upgrading your cable modem, let’s look at the pros and cons:
- A newer, DOCSIS 3.0 modem can, if your ISP supports it, offer a significant performance boost over older modems on any plan (except low-end, low-speed tiers). Photo by Kevin Jarrett.
- If you have a high-speed plan with your ISP, moving up from a 2.0 modem means you’ll be able to reach higher download and upload speeds (in bursts, anyway) than you would with an older device.
- Buying your own modem—especially a newer one—makes you portable to any cable provider you have available to you, and lets you use the latest available technology on any of them.
- Owning your own cable modem allows you to log in and manage it, and observe whether issues with your connection are due to connectivity or power problems upstream. You can even diagnose your ISP’s issues and report them when you call for support.
- If your ISP hasn’t upgraded to DOCSIS 3.0 yet, upgrading to a 3.0 modem will futureproof you for the eventual transition, even if it doesn’t translate to a significant performance increase yet.
- All of these pros and benefits only really apply if you haven’t upgraded in a long time, and only if your current modem isn’t already a DOCSIS 3.0 model.
- If you have a low-speed, entry-level plan with your ISP, your speed cap may be low enough that you won’t notice the difference with a new modem at all. Those low-speed plans aren’t as widely available as they used to be, but it’s something to consider if your access plan boasts a 5Mb/s download speed cap.
- If you’re happy with your current setup, and don’t really see a need to improve it, the performance boosts may not be worth the cash to you, especially considering some of the best cable modems can run around $100, and our favorite model (and The Wirecutter’s favorite) is just shy of $85 at Amazon.
- Depending on your ISP, they may be willing to upgrade your modem for you—without you having to buy one yourself. You still have to contend with the rental fee, but for some of you, it might make sense to do so.
If you’re still on the fence, call your cable provider and ask. They should be able to tell you whether your current cable modem is worth upgrading (and they’ll even offer to lease you a replacement).. If they can’t tell you (or if you, like me, have no faith at all in your ISP’s phone support to answer a simple question) just Google your model and see how old it is, whether the manufacturer is still making it (or even supporting it), and what people are saying about it. You should be able to tell if it’s so old no one’s making it or talking about it anymore. If everything you read is people upgrading from your model, it’s time to do the same.