Dual-band vs. Tri-band Wi-Fi and that Burning Bandwidth Question

Netgear RAX200 vs RAX120 B
Dual-band vs. Tri-band Wi-Fi: You can’t tell the dual-band Netgear RAX120 (left) and the tri-band Netgear RAX200 apart, appearance-wise, and, in most cases, in terms of Wi-Fi performance.

I’ve received many questions about dual-band vs. tri-band Wi-Fi routers lately, especially since the reviews of the Netgear RAX200 / RAX120, and Asus GT-AX11000 / RT-AX88U. Questions along the lines of “which to get if money is not an issue?”

So, I’ll explain the differences between them, as standalone routers, in this post. But if you’re in a hurry, here’s the gist: It doesn’t hurt to go with a tri-band router, and in some cases, you can even say you need one. But most of the time, investing in tri-band is unlikely money well-spent.

OK, let’s start with dual-band.

Dual-band Wi-Fi: Why do we have it?

Dual-band goes back to the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard (called Wi-Fi 4 nowadays). Things were still simple then, and dual-band routers came into existence because we needed them.

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Indeed, initially, Wi-Fi started with only the 2.4GHz frequency band, which was, and still is, too ubiquitous. Apart from Wi-Fi devices, cordless phones, Bluetooth gadgets, and home appliances (like microwaves) also use this frequency. It’s saturated.

Available to too many applications, 2.4GHz generally suffers heavily from interferences. Soon after the introduction, it quickly proved unreliable for Wi-Fi in urban areas and has remained that way.

That’s when the 5GHz came into play. This frequency band, for the most part, is dedicated to the use of Wi-Fi and has much higher wireless speed.

For a short period, 5GHz was available in 802.11a Wi-Fi standard and offered as a single-band solution as the counterpart of — that could even slowly replace — 2.4GHz. But due to its shorter range, the then not-so-super-fast speed, and the fact that there were many 2.4GHz-only clients, 5GHz couldn’t manage to survive on its own — nobody wanted a 5GHz-only router.

As a result, starting with Wi-Fi 4, we’ve always had dual-band: The co-existence of 2.4GHz and 5GHz. A dual-band Wi-Fi router delivers both performance and backward compatibility. Everyone is happy.

Tri-band: It’s all about the bandwidth

To understand the idea behind tri-band, we first need to know how a router’s bandwidth works. Take the Asus Blue Cave, for example; it’s a Gigabit dual-band AC2600 router.

Gigabit means its network ports (four LANs and one WAN) cap at 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps). AC is short for the 802.11ac standard (or Wi-Fi 5). And 2600 is the rounded combined bandwidth of the router’s 1733Mbps speed on the 5GHz band and 800Mbps on 2.4GHz band.

Since a Wi-Fi client can only connect to a router using one band at a time, the best wireless connection you can get out of the Blue Cave caps at 1733Mbps.

But that’s only when there’s just one client. If you have two clients connecting and being active simultaneously, each gets only half of that bandwidth. If you have ten simultaneously active clients, each now connects at only around 170 Mbps; or 17 Mbps if you have 100 clients. You get the idea. And generally, a home router can host up to 253 clients.

A tri-band router generally includes two 5GHz bands and one 2.4GHz band, or 5GHz + 5GHz + 2.4GHz. In other words, it has double the bandwidth on the 5GHz frequency, compared to a dual-band (5GHz + 2.4GHz) router.

To increase the bandwidth, in 2014, chip makers decided to add another 5GHz band and splitting the use of the 5GHz channels into two groups — upper channels and lower channels — and giving one to each band. As a result, the total number of channels remains the same, but each channel has more bandwidth. More here.

A tri-band router now has double the bandwidth on the 5GHz, compared with a dual-band like the Blue Cave above. And networking vendors loved this. A higher number means a better marketing tool.

Router bandwidth: Wi-Fi vs. Wired

It’s worth noting that the wireless speed mentioned above is the theoretical rate. In my experience, a 1733 Mbps Wi-Fi connection in real-world usage delivers a sustained speed of around 1000 Mbps.

Using radio to transmit data Wi-Fi is susceptible to interfaces and therefore has a lot of overheads.

And that’s why wired connections are generally superior in terms of throughputs. A Gigabit connection via a network cable has a sustained speed of almost 1000 Mbps.

In other words, the net rate of a wired connection is about the same as its ceiling speed. Among other things, the wires inside a network cable are shielded from the elements and can work unhindered.

Also, in a router (or switch), the network ports don’t share the bandwidth. Each port delivers its full rated bandwidth even when all of the ports are active. So, if you copy data from one Gigabit device to another, the speed between them is still 1 Gbps.

But wired networking has one major disadvantage, you need to use wires. And that alone means it can’t beat Wi-Fi.

Dual-band vs. tri-band Wi-Fi: The reality

The first tri-band router, as far as I know, is the Netgear R8000 Nighthawk X6. I remember reviewing it in my past life and having a hard time figuring out a way to demonstrate the need for the second 5GHz band.

Frustrated yet curious, I got one for my personal use — I still have it. I still couldn’t find any clear advantages of having the other 5GHz band for several subsequent years. I gave up and put the router in storage.

My Netgear R8000 Nighthawk X6 router straight out of storage. It’s one of the first tri-band routers on the market.

And that’s just the way it is. In real-world usage, you’ll probably see no difference between dual-band vs. tri-band Wi-Fi routers. The first reason is that chances are you don’t have that many active clients anyway.

Connected clients vs. active clients

As mentioned above, a router’s Wi-Fi bandwidth is divided between active clients — those that are sending or receiving something. You can have hundreds of connected clients but only the active ones that count.

The faster a Wi-Fi connection is, the shorter a client remains active — it needs less time to finish transmitting the same amount of information. For example, as you’re reading this, likely, your computer (or mobile device) is no longer active since the post has been fully downloaded. So, in a typical home, chances are you’ll have just one or two active clients at any given time.

And even when you have lots of active clients, how taxing they are on the Wi-Fi pipe also depends on their tier of Wi-Fi, the application they use, and the Internet speed.

Wi-Fi tiers

The numbers I mentioned in the Blue Cave example above were that of the highest 4×4 Wi-Fi 5 clients. In most homes, though, chances are you’ll use clients of different Wi-Fi speed grades and standards.

For example, if you use a 2×2 Wi-Fi 5 clients, its speed already caps at 867 Mbps, even when it’s the only connected client. If you use a 2×2 Wi-Fi 4 clients, this number is now 450 Mbps at most. So on and so forth. Also, some clients use the 2.GHz band and put no load on the 5GHz frequency at all.

So, not all active clients use the max amount of bandwidth available at the router’s end, even when working at capacity.

Applications

And Wi-Fi clients tend not to work at capacity. That’s because most applications only need a certain amount of bandwidth. You can make more available to them, but that won’t translate into a better user experience. It’s the law of diminishing returns.

Take movie streaming, for example, a 4K stream requires 25 Mbps and won’t use more than that. So the Blue Cave router’s 5GHz band alone can theoretically handle some 70 Wi-Fi concurrent clients streaming 4K content. Add another 32 clients on the 2.4GHz band.

The actual number of possible simultaneous streaming clients are fewer in real-world usage, but still, any dual-band Wi-Fi 5 router can deliver a lot more than a household would ever need.

Internet speed

The broadband speed is likely the main factor that renders tri-band overkill. That’s because we use Wi-Fi mainly as a bridge to the Internet. And since Wi-Fi and Internet are two different things, faster Wi-Fi doesn’t necessarily translate into speedier Internet access.



Click the Go button above and do a test right now, and you’ll get an idea of how fast your Internet currently is. (If you want to make sure, check out this post on how I conduct Wi-Fi and Internet testing.)

Let’s say your broadband is 150 Mbps, which is quite decent. When you have ten Wi-Fi clients accessing the Internet at the same time, using the same application, each of them will be allotted with 15 Mbps.

And even if you have just one client, 150 Mbps is still much lower than how fast Wi-Fi can be in general. That said, no matter how much more bandwidth you add to your Wi-Fi, you can’t access the Internet any faster.

The point is, chances are the broadband connection will be used up way before you have to worry about your local Wi-Fi’s speed. Consequently, getting more Wi-Fi bandwidth doesn’t do anything other than making you a bit poorer.

When a tri-band router is useful

There are few instances where a tri-band router makes sense.

Clearly, first, you need to have many 5GHz clients even think of using a tri-band router. And then, make sure you have at least one of the following to make the investment worthwhile.

AmpliFi Alien Front
The Alien is one of a few Tri-band routers on the market that’s mesh-ready.

Wireless mesh setup

This is by far the best use of tri-band.

But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page as to what a wireless mesh system means. That’s when you use multiple hardware broadcasters that link to one another wirelessly. In other words, you don’t use network cables to hook them up.

In this case, generally, a tri-band system will dedicate one of the two 5GHz bands as the dedicated backhaul, which has the sole job of linking the broadcasters. This leaves the other two bands (the other 5GHz +2.4GHz) free to serve clients. Among other things, this setup helps reduce or even eliminate the signal loss.

It’s important to note, though, that using a network cable to link broadcasters is by far the best way to get a non-compromising mesh system. In this case, you only need to use dual-band broadcasters. In fact, getting a tri-band system with wired backhaul can be wasteful since one of its 5GHz bands might not be used at all.

Keep in mind that this post talks mostly about standalone routers. While many routers from Asus or Synology can work as a remember of a mesh system, most standalone routers can’t. They only work as a, well, standalone router. To these, the mesh motion is irrelevant.

A super-fast broadband connection

If you’re one of those lucky who has a Gigabit-class broadband connection, then a tri-band router is also useful in maintaining the high broadband speed to more clients at the same time.

But, again, keep in mind that online applications generally require only so much of bandwidth to work well —  much less than 1 Gbps in most cases. The only time faster is always better is when you download a large file.

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Compatibility

You can set one 5GHz band to support top speeds and the other to work in compatibility mode for legacy clients. It’s helpful when you have clients of multiple Wi-Fi tiers or standard.

Heavy local Wi-Fi network usage

If you have an extensive network that uses Wi-Fi, instead of wired connections, for local tasks, a tri-band router is helpful, too. It allows for more local bandwidth. Examples of these include network backups, file sharing, photo/video editing. In this case, make sure all clients, including desktops, use the fastest Wi-Fi tier.

Dual-band vs. tri-band Wi-Fi: The takeaway

As you can see, strictly from Wi-Fi’s point of view, generally, you don’t need tri-band in a standalone router. In some cases, a tri-band router helps, but still not a must-have. A good dual-band router will always suffice.

But, on the other hand, I don’t see any instance a tri-band router would hurt, either. So, in the end, it comes down to cash. If you can afford it, I’d say go ahead and proceed with one. It’s always nice to be able to turn things up to eleven.

23 thoughts on “Dual-band vs. Tri-band Wi-Fi and that Burning Bandwidth Question”

  1. Hi Dong,

    First off – thanks for being about the only one online that posts useful information that seems trustworthy 🙂 I’ve just moved into a new 300m2 house, where the living room is half separated from the rest of the house. I have a CAT6a cable running from basement (where my 1000/1000 fiber internet comes in) to two points in the ground floor and 1 going to the first floor. Now i rushed out and bought 2 x AC11000 routers, and figured it would be fantastic even with just one. However, when i replaced my AC68U with the first one, I found the WIFI signal in the Livingroom was less than before… So i never unpacked the 2nd one and sent both of them back(also because they are so big and ugly that I don’t think my wife will ever approve of having it out in plain sight). Now I’m left thinking that maybe i should go with a Lyra or Zenwifi Setup with ethernet backhaul so that I can have one unit on each floor. . What would you recommend?

    Reply
    • I hear you, Mads, but move to an Asus and you’ll see what you’ve been missing out. Since you have wired your home, you can go with the XD4. The setup you mentioned is not good since you mixed routers of two different standards, tiers, and bands. More here.

      Reply
  2. Hello. Great article. This might be a stupid question so I am sorry in advance. I am newly researching dual vs tri band systems. I have a small house, aprox 2500 sq/ft, but a lot of devices (2 xboxes, 2 nest thermostats, 6 lap tops, 4 iPads, 4 iPhones, many amazon dots, 4 smart tv’s, Wife working from home, and 3 kids doing school from home due to COVID). I have been looking at the Eero mesh unit (3 pack). Would this help get service on my 2nd floor and help speed things up in general. My main router is on the 1st floor. The internet that I have is Gigablast from COX.

    Reply
  3. Hi Dong! Just discovered your site while trying to understand a bit more about tri-band versus dual band routers. You are a wonderfully coherent resource, BTW, and am continuing to look at other posts.

    I didn’t know that third band was generally useless – good takeaway. We have used the R8000 trouble free for some time. We have since added lots of devices in the house – several cameras, 3 TVs running streaming services only, doorbells, smart gadgets – and decided its time to upgrade the very old range extender I am relying on while working upstairs (maybe one with ethernet ports). I am looking at one of the dual band (instead of tri-band) Netgear extenders – probably one of the EX7XXX versions. Any thoughts on one versus another, as I would hate to shell out $200 on something with features I don’t need? Do I need to stick with Netgear for an integrated “user experience” and integration in the Netgear phone app?

    Reply
    • The third band is NOT useless, Lisa, it’s not necessary in many cases. I think you should read the post again, it’s about nuances. And no, using an extender is always a bad idea but if you have to use one, it’s best that you use a tri-band one. More here.

      Reply
  4. Hi, firstly I wanted to say what a great site this is and thank you for your hard work.

    So my question is, do you know why the two 5GHZ bands on triband routers have different signal strength? I have bought the Netgear RAX200 and the ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 but they both show the same issue. The first 5GHZ bands on each are on channel 60 and they have a much poorer signal strength than the second 5GHZ bands which are on channel 100.

    I have tried all combinations of channel widths but it seems to make no difference. I have also used a wifi analyser to check that there is no channel interference from other wifi networks.

    In fact the first 5GHZ signal strength is so poor in most of the house it make me wonder if its even worth having a triband router at all and whether so save some money and just get a dual band one…

    Not sure if it makes a difference but I am in the UK.

    Reply
    • There are many of factors involved, David, and that varies from one location to another. The channel that’s fast for you might be slow at a different home and vice versa. Wi-Fi speeds always fluctuate a great deal compared to network cables. More on that in this post and better yet, this one.

      Reply
  5. Hi Dong, My situation is this. At our lake house we have a TV on the dock running Roku. We have a satellite wifi system from a local provider. In house TV’s work great. Dock Tv freezes up. Which MESH system would you recommend? I was looking at the Linkeys tribute band that covers 4000 square feet, but my router is a NetGear dual band. what is your advice?
    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    • Saw your question on FB, too, Myra. The distance between the TV and the router (not your house) that matters. You just need to move the router close to the TV. Or get an extender/mesh point closer to it. Any mesh system will be better than what you have right now. But try the ZenWiFi CT8 Also, read this post, I can’t tell you which because I’m not there.

      Reply
  6. Hi Dong, I used to ask you questions on cnet long ago. I am not sure if this has been asked, but can one simulate a “Tri-band” router situation by using 2 dual band routers such as the Asus top routers of RT-AC88U and RT-AX88U where
    the more powerful router is the main router/master router and the other is a client/satellite using an ethernet cable
    connecting the LAN (and not necessarily using aiMesh). Or could that even be a quad-band router since it will have
    two 5GHz bands and two 2.4GHz bands across the two routers tethered by a gigabit ethernet cable.
    Note, the 2 5GHz bands will use separate SSIDs and wi-fi traffic will be routed to each to balance wi-fi connections
    and speeds or to have faster clients access one and legacy wi-fi clients access the other.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • I remember you, Terrance. Glad you’re here! That’s a very interesting question. The quick answer is no since they share the same channels. You’d only create unnecessary interferences. Coincidently, I’m writing a post on this subject. Stay tuned.

      Reply
  7. I got the nighthawk ax6 ax4300 from Costco today and then I saw your post. The price was like $160 and my budget was under $250 so before I open this do you have something better in that price point or do you think this would be ok.

    Reply
  8. Ok so I have 2 boys playing Xbox and they are composing of lagging. My router is 10 years old so ima upgrade to something but I can’t figure out my best bet. Tri band or wifi 6. I have 6 ring cameras, a door lock that connects to wifi. 5 wifi plugs, Apple speaker and two Alexa speakers, a home thermostat that is wifi, a sprinkler timer that’s wifi, I stream music all the time through my wifi receiver and two Apple TV’s that stream and two TVs that stream through wifi also. Internet is not great here so at most I’m getting 60gbs. So if you could help me decide on something that would be able to run most of this cause it’s not all running but the kids are totally playing call of duty, grand theft auto, and fortnight.

    Reply
  9. I live on a farm I want to be able to stream CCTV cameras wirelessly to the barn about 350ft. I also want to have 4-5 wireless cameras around the house and stream to two 4k TVs also have a synology nas that I use for streaming on the internet & at home.
    Thanx Tom

    Reply
  10. Thanks for the reply, Dong! I do appreciate the features of the RT2600ac (not least of which the 4 LAN ports), so I’ll have to think about the pros and cons of using the RT as base and 2x MR as satellites, vs 3x MR.

    Reply
  11. Hello! I’m wondering about the effectiveness of using a primary router with just dual-band while having mesh satellites with tri-band (such as with a Synology RT2600ac + MR2200ac combo that you have previously recommended)? The MR2200ac has that 3rd radio for a dedicated backhaul, but the RT2600ac only has the two radios, so will the effectiveness of the system be reduced compared to having both primary router and satellite be tri-band? I

    I currently have an Orbi RBK50 with a single satellite, but I actually need one more satellite to get my network to two desktops in a living room. So I’m considering the pros and cons of adding an additional RBS50 satellite or switching to a Synology system with router and two satellites (I can repurpose the Orbi system for a family member). A dedicated backhaul is important for lowest lag to the two desktops. Curious what you would recommend.

    Reply
    • You can use an MR2200ac as the main router in a Synology setup, Ken. When using the RT2600ac as the main router, the band used for backhaul will also serve the client. As a result, the more client connects to it at the same time, the less effective its backhaul connection is since the bandwidth is shared.

      Reply

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