Ping rate and latency are terms often thrown around to differentiate between the various internet service providers, but how much difference does latency actually make to your online experience?
In some respects, your internet providers’ network latency will be more important to the overall performance than your download or upload speeds.
And for people who play online video games, who make video conference calls using platforms like Zoom, or who use their internet connection to make phone calls (like with FaceTime), your latency is absolutely critical.
So, let’s look into what these terms mean and how it affects what you do with the internet.
How your internet connection works
To better understand ping and latency, it’s useful to first know a little about what happens when you use the internet.
Most activities you do online use bits of data stored in various places around the world known as servers.
Whenever you interact with the internet in some way, like opening an email, searching Google for cool places to eat nearby, or scrolling through your social media feed, your device needs to go grab those bits of data from the servers and return it to you to display the page and its elements.
Your internet connection serves as a superhighway that transports that request from your device to the server where the data is held then back to your device. It does this using a massive network of underground cables that connect at various points to transmit your request to the right place.
What is 'ping rate' and how is it different from latency?
“Ping” is the test performed to measure latency. It tests to find out how long it takes for your internet connection to take your request and get it to the appropriate server.
This, however, is only a one-way trip and doesn’t capture the full picture of the entire journey. But it is a pretty fast and reasonably good way of measuring your network’s latency.
“Latency”, then, is the measurement in time (usually milliseconds) that it takes to complete the entire round trip from your device, grabbing the data from the appropriate server, and back to you again.
So when people talk about latency, low latency is good because it means that the round trip didn't take very long and your internet service provider's network performance is fast.
High latency is bad and could be the cause of delays that can mess with things like reaction times in video games or those annoying pauses and freezes in video calls. (There are other possible things that could be behind this, including your router, or packet loss, but latency is another common culprit)
These days, the terms “ping” and “latency” are commonly used interchangeably. Even though one is the test and the other is the measurement in time, in common usage, the two are generally understood as meaning the same thing.
What's 'jitter' then?
When you’re looking at your ping or latency value, you’ll sometimes also come across the term ‘jitter’. Jitter may also be referred to as Packet Delay Variation (PDV) or ping variations.
Doing a single ping test gives you an idea of what the one-way trip looks like one time only. Your jitter is a measure of multiple ping tests and shows how much difference there is between each ping test.
Ideally, you’d want to see minimal jitter because that would show that your connection is stable and reliable.
If you think of latency like a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney and back, then jitter is if you did this same round trip multiple times, recorded how long each trip took, then looked at the overall difference in time each of these trips took.
If each round trip is fairly similar in time (i.e. low jitter), then it would look like you have a pretty reliable route, decent roads, and consistently minimal traffic.
Who cares about latency?
If you regularly interact with the internet, you should probably care about latency.
However, for many everyday things you do online, you’re not likely to notice higher latency as this data-collecting round trip generally happens incredibly fast.
There are four areas where you’re most likely to notice the difference in latency speeds:
- Online gaming, particularly in games that require fast reaction times like first-person shooters
- Video conferencing using platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet
- Voice or video phone calls using your internet connection, like FaceTime
- Live streaming, like watching live events online or live streaming on social media platforms like Twitch or Facebook Live
The reason that latency particularly matters in these instances is because they all happen in real-time.
When you watch a show or movie on a streaming service like Netflix, for example, your connection generally runs ahead of where you’re at while watching it.
But when you watch or play something live, there’s no way for your internet connection to get ahead, so that’s where you’ll start seeing how latency impacts your experience.
For example, say you’re playing a first-person shooter game that requires a fast reaction time. When you shoot at an enemy, success relies on your ability to react quickly and then for that reaction to travel the round trip from your computer to the server and back for your game to record your reaction and hit that enemy.
A high latency round trip means that your game takes longer to register your reaction. If several milliseconds pass before the request completes its round trip, your game won’t know you’ve pressed the button yet, so you’re at a higher risk of missing your target.
A low latency round trip means that little time passes between your reaction and when your game records your reaction, so your chances of success are better.
This is why latency may be a more important number for you to use to compare internet providers than internet speed.
How much does latency really matter?
Ultimately, you may not notice your latency. If you only use the internet for watching entertainment on streaming platforms or web browsing, then higher or lower latency probably won’t massively impact you.
However, as we’re increasingly working and studying from home these days, and as Australians have now become one of the highest spenders on video games in the world, for many households, latency really matters.