For the past two years, we’ve re-emphasized how important an Internet connection is to our daily lives. At the same time, some of us have never experienced such slowdowns and erratic performance as we have in the past two years, coupled with overloads on our previously capable home networks. Measuring the performance of Internet networks can help us stay efficient, entertain ourselves, and stay less frustrated.
Several tools can help you measure or monitor your Internet and network performance, many of which are free. One is even built into macOS Monterey.
Monitoring versus measuring, internet versus network
Checking your network status is always complicated by your position relative to the internet. Within your network, the speed of your Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection may limit your Internet bandwidth.
If you have 1 Gbps ethernet throughout your home and your connection to the rest of the world is 1 Gbps or less – probably still for almost everyone – connecting via ethernet will give better test results over your internet connection than using Wi-Fi, which can be variable.
Many network tools measure (a single snapshot) or monitor (running samples) data going in and out of a single computer. This includes all data that travels within your local network and is sent to and received from the Internet. This includes macOS’ Activity Monitor (in Applications > Utilities), Peak Hour, and iStat menus. Peak Hour has the unique ability to also sample bandwidth data from routers and broadband modems that broadcast the information (more on that later).
You can also get some information about your network connection from the system’s Wi-Fi menu. Some routers and broadband modems allow you to log in and view throughput data or perform various network tests.
However, to measure how much throughput you have to and from the Internet — the actual actual performance of your connection — you need to use a testing tool that communicates with a server elsewhere and then reports on the speed of those interactions. Such tools include Speedtest and the macOS Monterey command line tool networkQuality.
Monitor your connection
Often, your most pressing network need is not how fast your connection is, but whether it works at all or works well. As my household’s 24/7 one-man IT team, I often hear cries of dismay throughout the house when something causes our internet to stutter or go down — temporarily or for an extended period of time.
Having a tool that runs continuously or that you can launch on demand to test your current connection can help pinpoint the problem and get you to check your ISP’s status page, reboot a Wi-Fi gateway or call to arrange service. These tools provide different levels of insight and help.
macOS’s built-in Activity Monitor has a Network tab, with a data diagram at the bottom that starts tracking network traffic to and from your Mac when it starts up. This can help you start the journey to see if your Mac is the problem, an individual app, or the network.
Activity Monitor is located in Applications > Utilities. Click the Network tab, located at the top right, next to the Search icon (the magnifying glass).
iStat menus ($11.99) allow you to put current network data rates in your menu bar. Click on the bar and see a small graph of recent activity; hover over the chart and view a larger one with selectable historical data. (We recently recommended iStat menus in Mac Gems.)
PeakHour (normally $9.99; currently $4.99) displays a graph and throughput data in your menu bar and can be retrieved from network resources outside of your Mac. Some routers, like the TP-Link model I use, allow PeakHour to run continuous network management queries over the local network and receive continuous snapshots of throughput for all data entering and leaving your network. You can also use PeakHour to set up latency monitors on sites like Google’s Public DNS, which can reveal broader internet problems.
Measure your internet speed
You can choose one of several tools to perform Internet throughput tests.
Ookla’s free Speedtest checks latency (see below) and upstream and downstream throughput for a few seconds and then averages. The creator sells aggregated anonymized test data to ISPs and others. Available as a Mac or iOS/iPadOS app.
macOS Monterey’s NetworkQuality
The command-line tool networkQuality first appeared in Monterey and lets you run a simple command from the Terminal to test its performance. The networkQuality tool will give a clear result if you just enter networkQuality in Terminal and press Return. (Yeah, that camel hat) Q must be capitalized.) While it’s running, you’ll see a line like this:
current download capacity: 139.731 Mbps - current upload capacity: 154.199 Mbps
When completed, the tool will print the following text (with your numbers):
RPM stands for “round-trips per minute”, a measure closely related to latency. Latency tracks how long in seconds it takes for a data packet sent by one tool to be received by a service on the other side, generate a response, and then return it by the tool. A latency of a few to a few tens of milliseconds (ms) is ideal for interactive communication and games. Closer to 100ms and responsiveness will be low and video calls or gameplay may stutter or become choppy.
RPM is another way to think about latency, as it is the sequential number of operations that can be performed per minute. Measuring RPM requires a longer test than the one typically used for latency. So latency can show you the average of the round trip speed over a few seconds and RPM provides a total number of data round trips done in succession for a minute. If your network or internet connection has a lot of hiccups and packet drops, RPM provides better insight than a latency snapshot.
Macworld contributor Jason Snell created a way to see networkQuality output in your menu bar with a third-party utility that lets you add items.
Many sites offer web-based throughput tests, including Ookla’s Speedtest, Netflix’s Fast (which has an interest in helping you figure out if you’re streaming effectively), and Google and Measurement Lab (to support Google Stadia). Several ISPs have speed tests, but almost all of them have their technology licensed from Ookla.
If you are experiencing network throughput issues, you can go through a series of quick troubleshooting steps based on how you isolated the problem.
Is it your Mac? You may be able to isolate it using the monitoring and measurement tools above. Check if you are connected via WiFi. Use the Network Preferences panel to make sure you see a green dot next to your network connection. Turn Wi-Fi off and on again to reset the status. Restart your Mac if necessary.
Is it a router in your network? Try logging into each router and checking its status. Many manufacturers offer a single tool for Wi-Fi and connection gateways that allows you to see network status, such as TP-Link’s Tether and apps for configuring Amazon Eero and NetGear Orbi. Restart one or more routers if they are not responding.
All your devices and routers are responding, but you can’t reach the internet? Log into your broadband modem, if you have access, and see what it reports. If you can’t access the modem, that could be a problem. Otherwise, use a cellular connection to check your ISP’s status page and go through the troubleshooting. Some ISPs offer a tool that allows you to reset your connection through a website without having to spend an hour on hold, answering questions that are often terribly outdated about your Mac and network devices.