For years, I’d received a lot of questions regarding Dual-band vs Tri-band in Wi-Fi routers and mesh systems. Folks were super undecided between broadcasters, such as the Netgear RAX200 vs RAX120 or the Asus GT-AX11000 vs RT-AX89X.
Then 2021 came along, and we saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E. With it, first, we had a new type of Tri-band as the 6GHz band jumped into the mix.
And then, as the world moved from 2021 to 2022, for the first time, we had the Quad-band option, such as the Netgear Orbi RBKE960, the Asus GT-AXE16000, or the TP-Link AXE300. And those are not going to be the last.
That said, it’s an understatement to say things are confusing. But take my word that in the end, the difference between Dual-band vs Tri-band (the original one) is the most significant. So far, it’s the only time an extra band is involved.
That said, I’ll explain here the differences between these band combos and run through a bit of history in Wi-Fi bands. It’ll be a long read, but it’s worth it.
In case you’re in a hurry, though, here’s the gist: It generally doesn’t hurt to go the most bands possible, but most of the time, investing in an additional 5GHz band is not money well-spent in a single router or a wired Wi-Fi mesh system. However, in a fully wireless mesh setup, a Tri-band is likely a must.
OK, let’s start with dual-band.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on October 28, 2019, and last updated it on January 14, 2022, to include additional relevant and up-to-date information.
Table of Contents
Dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz +5GHz): It’s all about compatibility
Dual-band goes back to the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard — or Wi-Fi 4 as it’s known nowadays. This standard first became commercially available in 2009.
Things were still simple then, and dual-band routers came into existence because we needed them.
Indeed, initially, Wi-Fi — called “wireless networking” at the time via the 802.11b (Wireless-b) and 802.11g (Wireless-g) standards — started with only the 2.4GHz frequency band, which was, and still is, too ubiquitous.
Besides 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.
5GHz was first available in 802.11a standard, or Wireless-a, for a short period as a single-band solution that could even slowly replace 2.4GHz.
While the 802.11a standard was first published at about the same time as 802.11b — both in 1999 — the latter was more successfully commercialized. By the year 2000, 802.11b was quite popular, whereas there was no Wireless-a product until 2002 as far as I remember.
Then, for a brief moment, we had selectable Dual-band routers — those that do either 2.4GHz or 5GHz at a time.
But due to its shorter range, the then not-so-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 the 802.11n standard, we’ve always had the Dual-band concept: The co-existence of 5GHz and 2.4GHz.
By the way, again, 802.11n was first introduced in 2009 as “Wireless-N,” and then it was called “Wi-Fi.” In 2018, the name was standardized as Wi-Fi 4.
A Dual-band Wi-Fi router delivers both performance and backward compatibility. Everyone was happy and remained so for about half a decade.
The original Tri-band concept: It’s all about the perceived extra bandwidth
Things started to change in 2014 as hardware vendors brought about the first Tri-band concept. It started with the 802.11ac standard, or Wi-Fi 5 as we know it today.
To understand the idea behind Tri-band, though, we first need to know how a router’s bandwidth works. The Asus RT-AX89X, for example, is a Multi-Gig Dual-band AX6000 router.
Multi-Gig because it has two 10Gbps network ports (in addition to a load of Gigabit ports). AX is short for the 802.11ax standard (or Wi-Fi 6). And 6000 is the rounded combined bandwidth of the router’s 4800Mbps speed on the 5GHz band and 1148Mbps on the 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 RT-AX89X is 4800Mbps. (That is when we have a 4×4 client. With a 2×2 client, you get 2400Mbps at best.)
But that’s only when there’s just one client. If you have two clients connecting and active simultaneously, each gets only half of that bandwidth. If you have ten simultaneously active clients, each now connects at around 480Mbps, or 48Mbps if you have 100 clients.
The real-world speeds are always much lower than that. And remember, the Tri-band concept started with Wi-Fi 5 which has a lower ceiling speed per band than Wi-Fi 6.
The additional 5GHz band
Again, a Wi-Fi client can only connect to a single Wi-Fi band at a time. Furthermore, on that band, a broadcaster (a router or access point) can only deliver signals using a single fixed channel at a time.
A Wi-Fi band is like a road where channels are lanes and streams are vehicles.
On the same road, wider lanes can handle larger vehicles. Vehicles with larger cargo spaces (2×2, 3×3, 4×4, etc.) can carry more goods (data) per trip (connection).
A Wi-Fi connection takes place on a single channel (lane) of a single band (road) at a time. But multiple adjacent channels can be combined into a larger one. So more channels and bands always translate into more options to deliver better data flow.
A Wi-Fi band generally has multiple channels — the number changes depending on how wide the channels are. But in any case, when a band is working using a particular channel, the rest of its channels are not used.
To overcome that, in 2014, chip makers decided to add another 5GHz Wi-Fi band by splitting the 5GHz spectrum into two groups — upper channels and lower channels — and giving one to each. And with that, we have Tri-band broadcasters.
So, a traditional, or original, Tri-band router includes two 5GHz bands and one 2.4GHz band — that’s 2.4GHz + 5GHz + 5GHz. It’s kind of a cheat way for the router to be able to operate two 5GHz channels simultaneously, out of the 5GHz spectrum.
In other words, it has supposedly double the bandwidth on the 5GHz frequency, compared to a dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) router. With that, let’s take a closer look at Wi-Fi channels, especially on the 5GHz band.
5GHz band: Channels allocation, DFS vs Non-DFS
Generally, a Dual-band Wi-Fi broadcaster (2.4GHz + 5GHz) has two distinctive sets of channels. One belongs to the 2.4GHz band and the other to the 5GHz band.
Depending on your locale and hardware, the number of available channels on each band will vary.
In the US, the 2.4 GHz band includes 11 usable channels (from 1 to 11) and has been that way since the birth of Wi-Fi. Things are simple in this band.
On the 5GHz frequency, things are complex — we have DFS and regular (non-DFS) channels. On top of that, the last portion of the band — the 5.9GHz section — is generally reserved for other applications.
(DFS channels can be problematic and are the main reason we now have Wi-Fi 6E.)
Here is the breakdown of the channels on the 5GHz frequency band at their narrowest form (20MHz):
- The lower part of the spectrum includes channels: 36, 40, 44, and 48.
- The upper part includes channels: 149, 153, 161, and 165.
- In between the two, we have the following DFS channels: 52, 56, 60, 64, 100, 104, 108, 112, 116, 120, 124, 128, 132, 136, 140, and 144. (Channels from 68 to 96 are generally reserved exclusively for Doppler RADAR.)
In a dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) broadcaster, the 5GHz band gets all the channels above (#1, #2). It’ll also get #3 if the broadcaster supports DFS.
In a traditional Tri-band broadcaster (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 5GHz), the first 5GHz band (5GHz-1) will get the lower channels (#1), and the 2nd 5GHz band (5GHz-2) gets the upper channels (#2).
If the broadcaster support DFS then the 5GHz-1 gets up to channel 64, and the rest (100 and up) goes to 5GHz-2. If it supports the new 5.9GHz portion of the 5GHz spectrum generally has three additional channels to its upper part, including 169, 173, and 177.
The splitting of the 5GHz spectrum ensures that the two narrower bands (5GHz-1 and 5GHz-2) do not overlap each other.
As a result, while the total bandwidth of the 5GHz spectrum remains the same in a traditional Tri-band broadcaster, we have the option of using two portions of this band simultaneously.
In return, each portion (5GHz-1 or 5GHz-2) has fewer channels to choose from, especially if you want to use the 80MHz or 160MHz channel widths. Consequently, your options might actually be more limited than when the entire 5GHz spectrum is used as a single band.
In short, on paper, an original, or traditional, Tri-band router supposedly has double the bandwidth on the 5GHz frequency compared to a dual-band router of the same grade. And networking vendors love this. A higher number means a better marketing tool.
Extra on router bandwidth: Wi-Fi vs Wired
It’s worth noting that the real-world Wi-Fi speeds are much lower than the standards’ theoretical numbers.
For example, typical 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 (at 80MHz) connection might have a negotiated speed of 1200Mbps. But in my testing, the sustained rate registered around 800Mbps, at best.
That’s because using radio to transmit data, Wi-Fi is susceptible to interference and has a lot of overhead.
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 1000Mbps.
In other words, the net rate of a wired connection is about the same as its ceiling speed. The wires inside a network cable are shielded from the elements and work unhindered.
Also, in a router (or switch), the network ports don’t share the bandwidth. Each port delivers its total rated bandwidth even when all ports are active. So, if you copy data from one Gigabit device to another, the speed between them is still 1 Gbps.
Wi-Fi: Partial bandwidth and always Half-Duplex. Data moves using a portion of a band (spectrum), known as a channel, in one direction at a time. You can think of Wi-Fi as the walkie-talkie in voice communication.
Wired: Full bandwidth and (generally) Full-Duplex. Data travel using the entire cable’s bandwidth and in both ways simultaneously. That’s similar to a phone call in voice communication.
Wi-Fi beats wired in terms of convenience and hardware design options. Wired beats Wi-Fi in everything else.
But wired networking has one major disadvantage: you need to use wires. And that alone means it can’t beat Wi-Fi.
Before continuing, we need to address the big elephants in the room, namely, the new Tri-band and, most astounding yet, the introduction of Quad-band. Again, both thanks to Wi-Fi 6E.
Let’s start with the new Tri-band.
Tri-band with Wi-Fi 6E (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz): It’s the new Dual-band
In early 2021 the first Wi-Fi 6E routers came into existence. This new Wi-Fi standard extends Wi-Fi 6 and has a brand-new 6GHz frequency band.
And just like the move from single band to dual-band that took place more than a decade ago, now we’re doing the same, except it is a move from Dual-band to Tri-band, as a necessity.
That’s right. A Wi-Fi 6E device will need to have these three bands (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz) to work with all Wi-Fi devices, new and old. And that’s great, except it makes the Tri-band notion confusing.
That’s because traditionally, a Tri-band router (be it a Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 one) has an additional 5GHz band purely to add extra bandwidth. It does not need this band to work with existing devices.
I wrote about Wi-Fi 6E in great detail in this post. But the gist is that the 6GHz band can easily deliver the top speed of Wi-Fi 6 since it doesn’t need to use DFS. In return, it has lesser signal coverage compared to the 5GHz band.
Still, the hardware vendors jumped on the chance to promote new hardware as “ideal” for a wireless mesh system by selectively combining the range of the 5GHz band and the signal strength of the 6GHz band. (You can’t have both.)
In reality, in a fully wireless configuration, all existing Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems proved mediocre in my testing compared to traditional Tri-band systems because they didn’t have a dedicated backhaul band.
And that fact was the reason Quad-band came into existence.
Quad-band Wi-Fi 6E (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz): It’s basically the same as the original Tri-band
In late 2021, Netgear introduced its first Wi-Fi 6E mesh system, the Orbi RBKE960 series. It’s also the first Quad-band system on the market.
Well, the company used the original Tri-band concept — again, that’s 2.4GHz + 5GHz + 5GHz — and added a new 6GHz band to it.
As a result, the RBKE960 proved to be one of the best among Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems in my testing in a fully wireless configuration. You can still use a 5GHz band (the 5GHz-2) as the dedicated backhaul band, just like any other Tri-band Orbi set plus the support for the 6GHz band on the fronthaul.
But that also means Quad-band is basically the new Tri-band since the extra 5GHz band is where it matters. And in a wireless mesh setup, this Quad-band configuration has the same drawbacks as any Tri-band mesh system, namely the fluctuating and relatively slow backhauling, which depends on how you arrange the hardware — more below.
How about 2.4GHz+5GHz+6GHz+6GHz?
With the upcoming Wi-Fi 7, there will likely be a new Quad-band configuration in the near future that includes one 2.4GHz, one 5GHz, and two 6GHz bands.
We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
And that brings us back to our endearing original idea of this post: Dual-band vs Tri-band.
Dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) vs traditional Tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 5GHz): The reality
As far as I know, the first original Tri-band router is the Netgear R8000 Nighthawk X6 that came out in 2014. I remember reviewing it in my past life and having difficulty figuring out how to demonstrate the need for the second 5GHz band.
Frustrated yet curious, I got one for my personal use and ended up putting it in storage without ever figuring out the advantages of the additional 5GHz band — in a single router. I still have that router today, in 2022.
And that’s just the way it is. In real-world usage, you’ll probably see no difference between Dual-band vs Tri-band in standalone Wi-Fi routers, or even in a mesh system with wired backhaul.
That’s because, in any real-world environment, it’s always hard for a broadcaster to find the best channel to broadcast in real time, and having more bands (two instead of one) might make the matter worse. And on the receiving end, clients generally don’t know which is the “better” band to use. So one band might be full while the other is empty.
But even if everything works as intended, chances are you don’t have that many active clients anyway.
Connected clients vs active clients
As mentioned above, a router shares its Wi-Fi bandwidth between active devices. You can have hundreds of connected clients but only the active ones count.
The faster a 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, the connection of your computer (or mobile device) is likely no longer active since it has fully downloaded the webpage. 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.
The numbers I mentioned in the RT-AX89X example above applied only to top-tier Wi-Fi 6 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 client, its speed already caps at 867 Mbps, even when it’s the only connected client. If you use 2×2 Wi-Fi 4 devices, this number is now 450 Mbps at most. So on and so forth. Also, some clients use the 2.4GHz 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.
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 RT-AX89X router’s 5GHz band alone can theoretically handle some 200 Wi-Fi concurrent clients streaming 4K content. Add another few dozen clients on the 2.4GHz band.
The actual number of possible simultaneous streaming clients is fewer in real-world usage, but still, any dual-band Wi-Fi 6 (or even Wi-Fi 5) router can deliver a lot more than a small household would ever need.
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. (And when you get Gigabit-class Internet, the faster-the-connection-the-shorter-the-active-time rule mentioned above applies.)
Click the Go button below 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 300Mbps, which is quite decent. When you have ten Wi-Fi clients accessing the Internet simultaneously, using the same application, each of them will be allotted 30Mbps.
And even if you have just one client, 300Mbps 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 make you a bit poorer.
When the extra 5GHz band is useful
There are a few instances where an extra 5GHz band — that’s Tri-band (Wi-Fi 5 / Wi-Fi 6) or Quad-band (Wi-Fi 6E) — makes sense.
First, you need to have many 5GHz clients to consider using this type of broadcaster. And then, make sure you have at least one of the following to make the investment worthwhile.
Wireless mesh setup
Wireless mesh is by far the best use of the extra 5GHz band. That’s when you use multiple hardware broadcasters that link to one another wirelessly — no network cable is involved.
In this case, generally, a Tri-band (or Quad-band Wi-Fi 6E) system will dedicate one of the two 5GHz bands as the dedicated backhaul, which has the sole job of linking the broadcasters, leaving the other bands — 5GHz + 2.4GHz + 6GHz (when applicable) — free to serve clients. Among other things, this setup helps reduce or even eliminate 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, or Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E, broadcasters.
Getting a system with an additional 5GHz band and using it wired backhauls can be wasteful since you still might not use its extra 5GHz band at all. That’s the case with all Netgear Orbi.
Keep in mind that this post talks mostly about standalone routers. While many routers from Asus or Synology can work as members of a mesh system, most standalone routers can’t. They only work as a standalone broadcaster. To these, the mesh motion is irrelevant.
A super-fast broadband connection
If you have a Gigabit-class broadband connection, then a router with an additional 5GHz can also be fitting in maintaining the high broadband speed to more clients simultaneously.
But, again, keep in mind that online applications generally require only so much bandwidth to work well — much less than 1Gbps in most cases. And the faster it is, the less time a device remains active.
The only time faster is always better is when you download a large file.
Having many bands always helps with compatibility. You can set one 5GHz band to support top speeds and the other band to work in compatibility mode for legacy clients. It’s helpful when you have clients of multiple Wi-Fi tiers or standards.
Heavy local Wi-Fi network usage
A router with an additional 5GHz band is also helpful if you have an extensive network that uses Wi-Fi instead of wired connections for local tasks. It allows for more local bandwidth.
These include network backups, file sharing, and photo/video editing. Another thing is if you use Wi-Fi to connect virtual reality headsets, a dedicated 5GHz (or 6GHz) band sure will help tremendously.
In this case, make sure all clients use the fastest Wi-Fi tier.
As you might notice by now, in Wi-Fi for general usage, you don’t need any additional band in a standalone broadcaster or a wired backhaul mesh system. In some cases, this extra band helps, but is still not a must-have. A router with one band for each frequency will always suffice.
On the other hand, I don’t see any instance having more bands — that use different parts of wireless spectrums — would hurt.
So, in the end, it comes down to cash. If you can afford it, go ahead and proceed with a router with the most bands. Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to turn things up to eleven.