Best Modems

Updated August 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
Bottom Line
Pros
Cons
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

59 Models Considered
44 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
228 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best modems

Last Updated August 2019

Cable modems – the devices that bring the internet to our homes – are easy to forget about because once they’re set up, they don’t need much care and feeding. That’s probably why so many people rent their modems from their internet service provider (ISP). But if you’ve rented a modem for more than a year, you’ve already spent more than the cost of owning one outright, so you can definitely save money by buying one.

Although modems are straightforward devices, picking out the right one can be a little tricky because you need to find one that’s compatible with your ISP and fast enough to deliver the download speeds you pay for. But buying your own cable modem is always a smart decision: you’ll save on monthly rental fees and, in some cases, you can even get models with added functionality, such as a built-in wireless router for WiFi.

Here’s everything you need to know about picking the right modem: the specs it needs to have, the brands to trust, and how much you’ll pay to find the right one for you. If you’re ready to buy a cable modem, take a look at our top recommendations.

Always buy modems from reputable vendors, and avoid sellers or websites you’ve never heard of. There are a lot of no-name, knock-off modems that aren’t worth the money. Brands like Arris, Cisco, NETGEAR, Linksys, Motorola, and TP-Link have strong reputations based on track records of delivering quality modems.

Key considerations

Before you start shopping, answer these questions. It will make it much easier to find the right model more quickly.

Do you get gigabit service from your ISP?

Most ISPs offer “high-speed” internet, and in reality, that means “megabit” internet that typically gets as fast as 400 megabits per second (Mbps). That’s plenty fast for most users, and can even support tasks that use a lot of data, like streaming 4K video. That said, the next generation of internet speed – gigabit internet, is here – and it’s ideal for homes with high data needs (like streaming multiple 4K videos at the same time, playing games online, or downloading especially large files). If you need basic high-speed internet, get a DOCSIS 3.0 modem; but if you’ve signed up for gigabit service, you’ll need a DOCSIS 3.1 modem.

Do you plan on using a separate wireless router?

On its own, a cable modem delivers wired internet service, so you’ll need to take extra steps if you want the signal to be available wirelessly (that is, if you need WiFi, which you probably do). If you’re a fan of simplicity, you might be interested in getting a combo unit that’s got both a cable modem and a wireless router inside. That can be pretty convenient, but wireless routers evolve faster than modems, so there’s a decent chance you’ll need to buy a new wireless router before you buy a new modem. If you prefer to have WiFi that can keep up with the latest standards, buy a separate wireless router.

Do you get landline phone service from your ISP?

Many customers subscribe to all-in-one bundles from their ISP and get internet, TV, and phone service as a package deal. If you get phone service from your ISP for your landline, you’ll need to get a modem with telephony service to replace it.

Gold standard of DOCSIS 3.1 modems


Motorola has quietly been one of the top modem manufacturers for decades – Its modems work well and last forever. Motorola’s latest modem, the MB8600, marries the company’s legendary quality with the ability to handle the fastest internet speeds available. It doesn’t get any better, or simpler, than this. If you’ve signed up for gigabit internet speeds, this is the modem to buy.

Modem features

Although modems are fairly simple devices, there are still two key features that matter. Keep an eye on the following things as you’re comparing different models.

ISP compatibility

The single most important question to ask about any modem is, “Will it work with my internet service provider?” Most ISPs only work with specific models, so you’ll need to investigate compatibility ahead of time. Most modem product pages list which ISPs they work with, and most ISPs also publish lists of modems that are compatible with their service. Before you make your final purchase, be sure the modem you’re buying is explicitly listed as being compatible.

Data speeds

Different modems support different internet speeds, but the key thing to know is that all current modems either support the basic high-speed internet standard (DOCSIS 3.0) or the new gigabit speeds (DOCSIS 3.1) that some ISPs offer. Before you start shopping, log in to your ISP subscription account and check to see what speed you’ve signed up for; then make sure the modem you buy can handle that data speed.

DID YOU KNOW?

Modems don’t generate a lot of heat, but they still require a decent amount of breathing room — many look like cheese graters because they have so many ventilation holes. Make sure your modem has at least a few inches of space on either side to prevent any overheating or performance issues.

Modem prices

Basic: If you just need a basic high-speed internet modem, you’ll spend between $50 and $100. Models in this price range are reliable performers for basic high-speed internet plans. They don’t come with a lot of extra features, but if you just need fast internet in your home, you can’t go wrong with a modem from this bracket.

Gigabit: If you need a modem that supports gigabit speeds, expect to spend between $100 and $350. On the low end of the range you’ll find good, modem-only DOCSIS 3.1 options; if you spend more, you’ll get additional features like a USB port for adding shared network storage or a built-in wireless router. If you subscribe to gigabit internet speeds, or you’re planning to soon, you need to look in this range to find the best option.

The perfect modem for everyday internet

The ARRIS SURFboard is actually the modem that most ISPs rent to customers, so if you’re looking for the simplest replacement possible, this modem is perfect. It works with most major ISPs, supports megabit speeds (but not gigabit), and it’s one of the most affordable modems available.

Tips

  • Write down your cable modem’s serial number and MAC address first. Even if you own your cable modem, you still need to register it with your internet provider, and they’ll need either the serial number or the Media Access Control (MAC) address to do that. You can usually find both on the bottom of your cable modem, typically printed on a sticker. Write them both down, and keep them handy, because there’s a decent chance you’ll be asked for them a few times.

  • Return a rented cable modem to your ISP in person and get a receipt. Some ISPs will offer to accept your cable modem in the mail – they’ll even send you a prepaid box for shipping. In general, going the shipping route is asking for trouble. You’ll get charged for the box, and once the ISP receives the rented modem, it can take its time processing – or in some cases losing – the device. If possible, return your cable modem to one of your ISP’s in-person locations, and ask for a written receipt just in case the company continues to charge you for it.

  • Check the grade of any included Ethernet cable. Not all network cables are created equal, and sometimes the one that comes with hardware isn’t fast enough. Check the side of your Ethernet cable to see how fast it is. If it says Cat5, it won’t be fast enough, but if it says Cat5e, Cat6, or even Cat6E, you’ll be fine. If you need to buy a replacement cable, buy either Cat6 or Cat6E. It will be fast enough for both current and future applications.
EXPERT TIP

Modems often list the download speeds they’re capable of, but your ISP controls how fast downloads go. Before you shop, check your monthly internet bill to get a sense of how fast your current service is.


Staff  | BestReviews
EXPERT TIP

If you want to set up a landline to make calls over the internet but don’t want to pay your ISP’s exorbitant fees for the service, sign up for a third-party voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service like Ooma or Magicjack.


Staff  | BestReviews

Other products we considered

NETGEAR has always made solid networking technology, and its modems are no exception, which is part of why we love the CM1000 Gigabit-Compatible Modem. It’s a DOCSIS 3.1 modem, which means it’s fast enough to support gigabit speeds from your ISP, but the real killer feature is the setup: it’s compatible with the self-activation services of many ISPs, making it one of the few models that doesn’t require a lengthy phone call to activate. If you’re on the hunt for a combo modem/wireless router unit, check out the NETGEAR Nighthawk X4S. It’s a DOCSIS 3.1 modem, so it supports gigabit speeds, and it also supports 802.11ac WiFi for ultra-fast wireless downloads. NETGEAR wireless routers aren’t cheap, so it makes sense that the X4S is pretty pricey, but for this amount of power and speed, it’s worth every penny.

Even if you’re an experienced tech guru, you’ll still need to call your ISP when you’re installing a new modem — you’ll have to answer a series of automated questions to get to the right people, and once you do, they’ll have to register the modem to your account.

FAQ

Q. Are cable modems difficult to install?
A.
No, but you’ll probably need to call your ISP even if the setup is easy. Cable modems are simple to install: once you’ve found the port in your home, you’ll connect it to your cable modem with a single coaxial cable, plug in the modem to a power outlet, and you’re done. Once set up, you’ll need to call your ISP to register the modem to your account, but that typically only takes one phone call to complete.

Q. How long do cable modems last before they need to be replaced?
A.
Cable modems don’t have any moving parts, and they’re incredibly durable, so they can last up to a decade or longer. Most cable modems become outdated before they physically fail, so in all likelihood you won’t need to replace yours until a new, faster modem speed standard becomes available.

Q. Are DOCSIS 3.1 modems backwards-compatible with DOCSIS 3.0 modems?
A.
Yes. DOCSIS 3.1 modems are built for gigabit-speed connections, but they can also work with slower megabit-speed connections as well. If you’re planning on upgrading to gigabit speeds in the future, a DOCSIS 3.1 modem might be a good purchase now. Just be forewarned that they usually cost at least $100 more than their DOCSIS 3.0 counterparts.

The team that worked on this review
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