How to pick the best cable modem
Finding a cable modem that’s compatible with your local cable provider can be a pain.
You have to make sure the cable modem you want is compatible with your local cable company, or Internet service provider. You want a modem that’s among the best for multiple demands of HD streaming and gaming.
Our top pick for a cable modem, the Arris SURFboard SB6183, can solve those problems pretty quickly.
It’s compatible with most cable companies and Internet Service Providers in the United States. And its snappy performance will complement whatever kind of high-speed, multi-device requirements your household may demand from it.
A cable modem that supports streaming to multiple devices is becoming more of a standard requirement these days.
Whether or not you’re a cord cutter, you may have times in your home where someone is watching Netflix in one room, and playing a PlayStation 4 game in another.
The last thing you want is choppy reception.
- Ideal for HD multimedia streaming
- Download speeds up to 686Mbps
- Compatible with major U.S. cable providers
- Supports IPv4 and IPv6
- Two-year warranty
We’ve said this before in our reviews, but it’s worth repeating. Cable modems, WiFi routers and WiFi extenders serve as the foundation of our home entertainment. Those three pieces of equipment often have more impact on Internet performance than the ISP you choose.
Cable modems are often quickly forgotten about in a closet or cubby-hole soon after installation by a local cable provider. They really shouldn’t. When I bought my first cable modem, the overall performance of my home network dramatically improved.
People are demanding better and better performance from their Internet service. No matter if you are a cable subscriber or cord cutter, you may stream a lot of content from platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Our quick guide to picking the best cable modem will help you sort out what to choose for your home.
What kind of cable modem do I need for Comcast, Time Warner Cable, etc.?
Many cable providers require DOCSIS 3.0, which stands for Data Cable Over Service Interface Specification. It’s a fancy term about how cable delivers high-speed Internet.
You will basically only care about having a DOCSIS 3.0 modem because your local cable company like Comcast, or ISP will require you to have one.
DOCSIS 3.0 performs a bit faster than the prior generation of modems using DOCSIS 2.0. And you want something faster that also performs better than modems that came out a few years ago.
If you have a DOCSIS 2.0 modem around your house and would like to use it, check with your local cable provider first. DOCSIS 2.0 modems are considered retired or at an “end of life” status by most cable companies and ISPs.
You will also want a router with Gigabit network ports. If you don’t, you will be limiting yourself quite a bit and possibly throwing away money down the road. If you ever wanted to use an ISP that offered Gigabit speed, you would need to buy another new modem.
Higher downstreaming means less congestion
DOCSIS 3.0 modems generally support at least 8 channels for downstreams and four channels for upstreams. That’s plenty of channels for most people. But let’s put it this way, if an interstate has more lanes, then it can better handle possible congestion.
That’s the strength of our top pick, the SB6183, because it supports up to 16 channels instead of the standard 8 for downstreams. Those are the very channels that are bringing Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime into your home.
With 16 channels, you have enough of a data highway – so to speak – to handle both traffic jams and a faster service if you ever upgrade your service plan.
You could make the same argument for the Netgear CM500. Arris SURFboard modems appear to be more popular at the moment and carry a two year warranty. The CM500 has a one year warranty. So if you are choosing between the two, it just may come down to a matter of price.
Do I use a cable modem with DSL, fiber? What if I have Comcast Triple Play?
Don’t buy cable modem if you are using fiber, DSL or if you are also using your cable provider for telephone service. DSL and fiber use different kinds of connectors than what you’ll find on a cable modem.
If you are a cable subscriber that bundles your phone service, you will need a cable modem with a phone port. You should check to see if your ISP or cable provider allows you to buy your own.
Comcast subscribers can use the ARRIS TG862G-CT cable modem if they subscribe to Triple Play or have phone with their service. It has two voice lines and operates on 802.11n bandwidth.
There are some folks who will get a Comcast bundle because it got them a better overall deal on their cable. But they won’t even use the landline. They just want the lower price on cable. Here’s the rub. Even if you don’t use Comcast’s phone service, you likely won’t be allowed to use a modem without telephone capabilities. And, your monthly rate will go up once the deal is over.
SURFboard SB6183, Our top pick for a cable modem in 2016
The SURFboard SB6183 is the best cable modem for HD Multimedia Streaming. It’s also the best cable modem in the Surfboard Modem 400 series for high-performance online gaming. So you if you have an Xbox One, PlayStation 4 or PC designed for high graphics games and online play, you’ll want our top pick, the SB6183 for your next modem.
The SB6183 is a DOCSIS 3.0 modem that has download speed of up to 686Mbps. That download speed is twice as fast as the SB6141, which we still like as our budget pick. SURFboard modems also come with a two-year warranty and simple setup instructions.
The Netgear CM500 is our runner-up pick because it can handle speeds up to 680Mbps and has a 16 by 4 channel setup. The CM500 basically has the same features as our top pick, and works with many of the top cable and ISP providers nationwide.
Best router for Gigabit speeds in 2016
If you live in a place like Austin, Texas or Wilson, North Carolina, then you are among the elite cities that offer residential gigabit speeds. The High Speed Geek site has a handy list of the 50 cities that now have Gigabit internet, and a coming soon list.
If you’re living in one of these places, the SURFboard SB6190 is worth considering. The SB6190 also works with Comcast/XFinity, Time Warner, Cox and Spectrum.
It’s designed to handle Internet speeds up to 1.4Gbps with 32 download channels and 8 upload channels.
Such high speeds networks aren’t available everywhere in the U.S., but the list is growing year by year.
Do you need a modem and a router?
Since we’re talking about a much faster cable modem, let’s circle back for a moment. It’s worth mentioning our axiom about your modem and WiFi router being the foundation of your home entertainment again. Upgrading a cable modem in the hopes of saving money and getting better Internet speeds is only one piece of the puzzle. If you buy a high performing router like the SB6190, you will also want an equally powerful WiFi router to broadcast your signal to devices in your home.
Having a great cable modem and a lesser performing WiFi router isn’t going to give you peak performance.
For example, Amazon is currently advertising that many of the customers are buying the SB6190 along with the ASUS RT-AC88U wireless router. That WiFi router is one of the most powerful on the market. It’s among our top picks for a wireless router, but not our first choice mainly because of its price. You can read more here for our review on the best wireless routers.
SURFboard SB6141 on Comcast, Time Warner Cable
The Arris SURFboard SB6141 has been our top choice for a cable modem, but Comcast and Time Warner Cable appear to be phasing it out to an “end of life” status.
If you already own a SURFboard SB6141, and it’s working fine, don’t panic. It’s still a highly recommended modem that has a strong performance for streaming and gaming. We’ve used the SB6141 for many months and it’s still a great router. But if you are in the market for a new router, you should be aware of how some companies like Comcast are phasing it out.
Cable modem vs WiFi router
We don’t recommending buying a combination modem/router setup. Generally speaking, having separate devices gives you much better performance than modems that double as routers. The other problem is that if the router suddenly breaks, but the modem is fine…guess what? Yep, you’re replacing the whole dang thing.
Does getting a cable modem save money?
Yes, it saves you quite a bit every year for as long as it works. No matter what cable company you get Internet from, whether it’s Comcast, Spectrum or Cox, you’re paying a rental fee for your cable modem. That monthly fee ranges from $5 to $10 per month.
Owning your own cable modem gives you a level of protection from unpredictable increases in fees. Believe it or not, the incoming Trump administration could pave the way for cable companies driving up your bill.
The Federal Communications Commission and the war over net neutrality will likely be rehashed over the next few years. For consumers, that means all the failed efforts by Republicans to kill off rate regulation are back on with the full force of Congress behind them.
Skeptical about what I’m saying? Good. Look no further than our earlier reporting on House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky) and his cozy relationship with the telecom industry.
Even months before the election, Yahoo News reported that Comcast was aggressively advertising use of its own “approved” modems to customers through their Internet connection. In fairness, companies like Comcast also have portions of their web site to help customers find and use their own cable modems. But make no mistake, they would prefer you to rent it from them. The business interests of large companies like Comcast, Verizon and other cable and Internet providers will likely reign over consumers for the next four years.
Controlling how much these companies can charge you each month is entirely under your control, and entirely up to you.
The monthly savings may not seem like much at first. But consider the annual total of saving $60 to $120 year. You will likely enjoy having a performance boost in your Internet speed as an added benefit too.