Cable Modem Buyers Guide 2020
Find cable modems that are compatible with your ISP, internet download speeds, budget, and more.
Cable modem buyers guide summary
- Decide if buying a modem is more cost-effective than leasing one from your internet provider.
- Don’t buy a DSL or fiber modem if you have cable internet. Cable internet works only with cable modems.
- Stick with new modems from reputable brands like NETGEAR, ARRIS, or Motorola—don’t risk extra hassle with a used modem
- Make sure the modem is at least DOCSIS 3.0 compatible. DOCSIS 3.1 modems are future-proof, but they cost more.
- Choose a modem that supports your internet download speed.
- Double-check that the modem you want works with your cable internet provider.
- Don’t forget that you’ll need a Wi-Fi router too
Buying the right cable modem is a simple process, but some of the lingo gets technical. If you’re confused, don’t worry—we’ll cover everything in detail below.
Best cable modems by speed
Rather than choosing a cable modem based solely on price, consider the download speeds each modem is designed to support. Go for one that is best for the speed of your internet package. With the wrong modem, you’ll get only a fraction of the internet speed you’re paying for.
Best for up to 100 Mbps
Best for up to 300 Mbps
Best for up to 1 GB
For an in-depth guide to internet speeds, check out our article “What Is a Good Internet Speed?”.
Interested in your internet speed options? Find and compare internet service provider (ISP) speeds in your area by entering your zip code below.
Best cable modem brands
When choosing a cable modem, remember that not every modem will work with every cable internet company. The top brands work with most cable internet providers, while the “brands to avoid” are less likely to support your service.
Top cable modem brands
NETGEAR, ARRIS, and Motorola support most cable internet providers and offer a variety of modems for all different speeds. Even if you don’t choose one of our suggested models, you’ll likely find what you need from one of those three brands.
Cable modem brands to avoid
You probably won’t encounter these unpopular brands when you’re shopping for a cable modem, but be careful if you do. Primarily sold from unreputable sources as used products, these modems might still be registered to someone else’s internet account, rendering them unusable for you.
Important cable modem specs
Finding a good cable modem is actually pretty simple once you’re looking at reliable brands. There are just two specs to pay attention to: DOCSIS standards and channel bonding.
What does DOCSIS stand for?
DOCSIS stands for “Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification.” Each new DOCSIS standard has increased how quickly information travels from your Internet Service Provider to your home and back.
Current DOCSIS Standards
The most widespread DOCSIS standard today is DOCSIS 3.0. It allows up to 32 download channels at once and for download speeds up to 1,216 Mbps—that’s over 1 GB.
Some service providers offer DOCSIS 3.1, depending on where you live and the package you sign up for. It’s capable of 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) download speeds and 1 Gbps upload speeds.
For reference, the highest download speed currently available for home internet is only 2 Gbps (Xfinity’s Gigabit Pro plan) and is extremely limited by availability and existing infrastructure.
If you don’t have DOCSIS 3.1 but want a future-proof modem, there are a few backward-compatible DOCSIS 3.1 modems on the market. Be warned: they’re pricey.
What is channel bonding?
Information flows between you and your cable internet provider on channels. Channel bonding combines multiple channels to let more information through at once, just like how more lanes on a highway allows more cars to drive at the same time.
What do the numbers by “channels” mean?
The numbers refer to how many channels are for downloading information versus uploading information. For example, a modem with 8×4 channels can use eight channels to download your favorite shows but only four channels to upload photos to Facebook.
Since we usually download a lot more information from the internet than we upload, the number of download channels will always be larger than the number of upload channels.
Channel bonding and internet speeds
Modems often advertise higher download speeds than we’ve listed below. However, our suggestions can help you get the most out of your modem by avoiding a clash between your internet speed and your modem’s capabilities.
|Channels||Download Channels||Upload Channels||Max Speed of Internet Service Plan|
Common cable modem mistakes
To save yourself from potential modem missteps, read these tips before you buy.
Be sure buying a modem is the right choice for you
- Your internet provider includes your modem for no extra charge.
- You don’t plan to have cable internet for long.
- You’ve bundled internet with phone service.
Because you’ll save the most money when you pay nothing for a modem, the first reason is obvious. And if you’re planning to switch from cable internet to fiber or DSL in a few months, you might end up paying more for a cable modem that you’ll never use again if you purchase one outright.
With cable phone service, you need a special modem with a telephone jack to make both cable internet and phone work for your home. Unfortunately, most phone-supporting modems on the market are crummy. You’re better off using your cable internet provider’s modem, so don’t bother buying your own.
Check that your modem works with your internet provider
Sticking to the specs we mentioned above is a safe bet to make sure your modem will work with your cable internet service. But if you want to double-check, some cable internet providers suggest specific modems over others or match compatible modems with internet packages.
Don’t forget a Wi-Fi router
Internet information travels to and from your home in an encrypted form, and you need your modem to translate that information so you can view it on your computer and other devices. But it takes a Wi-Fi router for you to access it wirelessly.
You can go for modem/router combinations if you want to avoid clutter. But buying a separate router allows you to update each device separately as needed. For an easy solution, get started with one of the popular items below.
Modem/Wi-Fi Router Combination
Now that you know the lingo, buying a modem will be easy. Choose a DOCSIS 3.0 modem with enough channels to support your internet plan. Stick to reliable brands like NETGEAR, ARRIS, and Motorola, and never risk buying a used modem.
With the right speed plan and modem, cable internet can compete with the blazing speeds of fiber internet. See which cable internet providers are in your neighborhood—enter your zip code below:
Best cable modems FAQ
What modem should I buy?
You should buy a modem that is compatible with your ISP, maximizes your internet plan download speeds, and is made by a reliable brand like NETGEAR or ARRIS.
What kind of modem do I need?
The kind of modem you need depends on your ISP, the download speeds of your internet plan, and whether or not you want Wi-Fi in your home. If you want Wi-Fi, you’ll need a modem/router combo.
What does a modem do?
A modem is essential in connecting internet to your home. Basically, it’s the translator between the internet and your home devices. It decodes the information your internet service provider sends you, and it also encodes the information you send back.