For the official Wi-Fi performance numbers for reviews on this website, I generally need a computer-based client. So, for the latest Wi-Fi standard, I need a Wi-Fi 7 computer. Without one, there's no real-world testing.
Sure, some phones support the new wireless standard, and I have a few, including a Pixel 8 Pro currently on the way. But phones have limited bandwidth needs, and you can only perform tests on them via apps, which are generally inaccurate since the Internet and Wi-Fi are two different things.
For that reason, since Intel announced its Wi-Fi 7 chips, I've been bugging hardware vendors about when I can get a motherboard or a laptop with built-in Wi-Fi 7 or if there's an add-on Wi-Fi 7 adapter.
Finally, that happened, and now I just got myself a real Wi-Fi 7-enabled computer. Or did I?
Building a Wi-Fi 7 computer can be a daunting task
Of all the vendors I got in contact with, Asus was the one that managed to make available the first Wi-Fi 7-enabled motherboard, the ROG Strix Z790-E II, and the company graciously offered to send me a loaner!
The board arrived on the last Friday of October. Thank you, Asus!
This is a great board. Besides built-in Wi-Fi 7, it also has USB 3.2 Gen 2x2, PCIe 5, four M.2 NVMe slots, each with its own heat sink and built-in Q-latch lock -- you won't need to fumble with a little screw --and many other good stuff. It even has an onboard power button which is great for an open testbed.
I recommend it if you have $500 to spare.
Other parts and their costs
But to build a computer, I'll still need a load of other parts. The board is just the beginning.
Specifically, I bought the following necessities:
- Intel Core i5-12600K CPU: $250
- 16GB Samusng DDR5 RAM: $70
- RAID Max Power Supply: $50
- 2TB Crucial T700 NVMe PCIe 5 SSD: $270 (the non-heatsink version -- the board already has built-in heatsinks for all of its M.2 slots.)
Assembling the CPU, RAM, and SSD on the motherboard board is relatively easy, and the process took me less than 5 minutes.
So far, I've spent over $700 on hardware (tax included), plus $200 for a Windows 11 Pro license.
And then, I needed a chassis to mount the board and the power supply. For a test client machine, I decided to opt for a portable open case and picked this one:
- HAIHUANG DIY Test Bench ATX Computer Case: $66
It's an excellent case, but, in hindsight, it was a bad first-time decision.
A case-of-the-Monday case
What you won't notice from the pictures is that this computer case arrived completely unassembled.
It includes nine metal bars of different lengths and just shy of a million other little metal and plastic pieces to hold them together. Many of them need to be installed in the correct order -- else you'd need to dismantle the whole thing to put a particular piece in its right spot.
The package was like a mean Lego set, and the instruction, which I had to scan a QR quote to view on my phone screen, literally says in part, "Please use your brain". That's after I already used my brain to figure out how to display the English version (it was originally in Chinese.)
After hurting my nervous system, my hands, my eyes, and mostly my ego pretty badly, I did manage to put the computer together properly -- the case turned out to be perfect for my needs. It only took me almost four hours.
It was a learning experience. If I ever get a second unit, which I might, it'd likely only take me about 30 minutes or even shorter.
The thing is, it was four hours I didn't have. Those were the last days of October. We had three little kiddos excited for Halloween and lots of decorations to put up, etc. This kind of untimely project could tear a family apart!
But, hey, I did it!
We had a fun Halloween and still are together.
A Wi-Fi 7 Windows computer that makes no difference
It was quite exciting to get the new computer running. I installed Windows 11 Pro version 23H2 -- the hardware fully supports it, so I didn't need to use any tricks like on unsupported hardware -- activated Windows and updated all the drivers to the latest.
Then came the moment of truth.
I connected the machine to the Asus RT-BE96U I was testing for an upcoming review and a few other Wi-Fi 7 routers I had, and it worked right away.
Alas! That was when I recognized a few sort-of-unexpected things.
- First, the motherboard has an Intel BE202 embedded. This chip only supports the 160MHz channel width -- per the standard, it can negotiate at around 2.9Gbps at best.
- Second, because Wi-Fi 7 is not ready, the latest Intel driver only allows it to negotiate at 2.4Gbps -- 2402Mbps, to be precise -- the same as the Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E client.
- Finally, the MLO feature is not supported on the client until the next release of Windows -- namely, Windows 11 24H2 or Windows 12, depending on how Microsoft makes up its mind.
If you're new to Wi-Fi 7, check out this primer post on the Wi-Fi standard, or open the cabinet below for a few highlights.
Wi-Fi 7 highlights
1. The all-new 320MHz channel width
The first is the new and much wider channel width, up to 320MHz or double that of Wi-Fi 6/6E.
This new channel width is generally available on the 6GHz band, with up to three 320MHz channels. However, Wi-Fi 7 can also combine portions of the 6GHz and 5GHz bands to create this new bandwidth -- more in the Multi-Link Operation section below.
Details of Wi-Fi channels can be found here, but the new channel width generally means Wi-Fi 7 can double the base speed, from 1.2Gbps per stream (160MHz) to 2.4Gbps per stream (320MHz).
So, in theory, just from the width alone, a 4x4 broadcaster 6GHz Wi-Fi 7 can have up to 9.6 Gbps of bandwidth -- or 10Gbps when rounded up. But there's more to Wi-Fi 7's bandwidth below.
Depending on the configuration, Wi-Fi 7 routers and access points will be available in different speed grades, including those offering bandwidths higher or lower than 10Gbps on the 6GHz band.
Wi-Fi 7 also supports double the partial streams, up to 16. As a result, technically, a 16-stream (16x16) Wi-Fi 7 6GHz band can deliver up to over 40Gbps of bandwidth, especially when considering the new QAM support below.
Like Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, initially, Wi-Fi 7 will be available as dual-stream (2x2) and quad-stream (4x4) broadcasters and dual-stream clients. Going forward, the standard might have 8x8 broadcasters and single-stream or quad-stream clients.
Again, you need a compatible client to use the new 320MHz channel width. Existing clients will connect using 160MHz at best. In reality, the 160MHz will likely be the realistic sweet-spot bandwidth of Wi-Fi 7, just like the 80MHz in the case of Wi-Fi 6.
2. The 4K-QAM
QAM, short for quadrature amplitude modulation, is a way to manipulate the radio wave to pack more information in the Hertz.
Wi-Fi 6 supports 1024-QAM, which itself is already impressive. However, Wi-Fi 7 will have four times that, or 4096-QAM. Greater QAM means better performance for the same channel width.
As a result, Wi-Fi 7 will have a much higher speed and efficiency than previous standards when working with supported clients.
Wi-F 7 vs Wi-Fi 6/6E: The realistic real-world speeds
With the support for the wider channel width and higher QAM, Wi-Fi 7 is set to be much faster than previous standards.
The table below summarizes what you can expect from Wi-Fi 7's real-world organic performance compared to Wi-Fi 6E when working on the 6GHz.
|Wi-Fi 6E||Wi-Fi 7|
|Max Channel Bandwidth|
|Number of Available Channels||7x 160MHz or 14x 80MHz channels||3x 320MHz or 6x 160MHz channels|
|Max Number |
of Spatial Streams
(theoretical on paper / commercially implemented)
|8 / 4||16 / 8 (estimate)|
|1.2Gbps (at 160MHz)|
600Mbps (at 80MHz)
|≈ 2.9Gbps (at 320MHz)|
≈ 1.45Gbps (at 160MHz)
|Max Band Bandwidth|
(theoretical on paper)
|Commercial Max Band Bandwidth Per Band|
|Available Max Real-word Negotiated Speeds(*)||2.4Gbps (via a 2x2 160MHz client)|
1.2Gbps (via a 2x2 80MHzclient)
|≈ 11.5Gbps (via a 4x4 320MHz client)|
≈ 5.8Gbps (via a 2x2 320MHz client or a 4x4 160MHz client)
≈ 2.9Gbps (via a single stream 320MHz client or a 2x2 160MHz client)
≈ 1.45Gbps (via a single stream 160MHz client or a 2x2 80MHz client)
(*) The actual negotiated speed depends on the client, Wi-Fi 7 specs, and environment. Real-world sustained rates are generally much lower than negotiated speeds. Wi-Fi 6/6E has had only 2x2 clients. Wi-Fi 7 will also use 2x2 clients primarily, but it might have 4x4 and even single-stream (1x1) clients.
Considering the 2x2 implementation and the sweet-spot 160MHz channel width, generally, it's safe to conservatively expect real-world rates of the mainstream Wi-Fi 7 (160MHz) to be about 20% faster than top-tier Wi-Fi 6E (160MHz).
3. Multi-Link Operation
Multi-Link Operation, or MLO, is the most exciting and promising feature of Wi-Fi 7 that changes the norm of Wi-Fi: Up to Wi-Fi 6E, a Wi-Fi connection between two direct devices occurs in a single band, using a fixed channel at a time.
In a nutshell, MLO is Wi-Fi band aggregation. Like Link Aggregation (or bonding) in wired networking, MLO allows combining two Wi-Fi bands, mostly 5GHz and 6GHz, into a single Wi-Fi network (SSID) and connection. The bonded link delivers higher bandwidth and reliability.
Generally, MLO will help increase the efficiency of Wi-Fi 7's range, allowing a broadcaster to deliver faster speed over longer distances than previous standards.
It can be a game-changer in a wireless mesh network by fortifying the wireless link between broadcasters -- the backhaul -- both in terms of speed and reliability. While that doesn't apply to systems with wired backhauling, MLO can make seamless handoff (or roaming) truly seamless.
On top of that, MLO allows each band to intelligently pick the best channel and channel width in real-time -- it can channel-hop, just like Bluetooth, though likely less frequently.
For clients, in more ways than one, MLO is the best alternative to the existing so-called "Smart Connect" -- using the same SSID (network name) and password for all the bands of a broadcaster -- which doesn't always work as smartly as expected.
But MLO is not all perfect -- a few things to keep in mind:
- MLO only works with Wi-Fi 7 clients. Older clients, such as Wi-Fi 6 or 6E, will still use a single band at a time when connecting to a MLO SSID. (As mentioned, a computer needs to run at least Windows 11 version 24H2, set to release in late 2024, to support MLO.)
- MLO requires the WPA3 encryption method and generally won't work with Wi-Fi 5 or older clients.
- The reach of the combined link (of 5GHz and 6GHz) has a range as far as that of the shorter band.
By default, the 6GHz band has just about 75% of the range of the 5GHz when the same broadcasting power is applied. That said, MLO can only be truly meaningful with the help of Wi-Fi 7's next feature, Automated Frequency Coordination.
4. Automated Frequency Coordination
Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) applies only to the 6GHz band, which is the fastest yet the shortest range compared to the 5GHz and 2.4GHz. AFC is an optional feature, it's not required for the general function of a Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster.
At any given time, there can be existing applications already using the spectrum. For example, fixed satellite services (FSS) or broadcast companies might have already had called dibs on certain parts of the 6GHz band. A new Wi-Fi broadcaster must not impact those existing services -- a concept similar to DFS channels in Wi-Fi 6 and 5.
That's when the AFC feature comes into play. The idea is that all new 6GHz broadcasters check with a registered database in real-time to confirm their operation will not negatively impact other registered members. Once that's established, the broadcaster creates a dynamically exclusive environment in which its 6GHz band can operate without the constraint of regulations like the case of Wi-Fi 6E and older standards.
Specifically, the support for AFC means each Wi-Fi 7 broadcaster can use more broadcasting power and better flexible antenna designs. How much more? That depends.
But it's estimated that AFC can bring the broadcasting power up to 36 dBm (from the current 30 dBm max) or 4 watts (from 1 wat). The goal of AFC, at least initially, is to bring the 6GHz band's range to be comparable with the 5GHz band -- about 25% more.
When that happens, the MLO feature above will be truly powerful. But even then, Wi-Fi 7's range will remain the same as that of Wi-Fi 6. Its improvement is that its 6GHz band now has a longer reach than in Wi-Fi 6E.
Before you get all excited, this feature requires certification, and its availability is expected to vary from one region to another. It likely won't be available in the US before late 2024.
All hardware released before that is said to be capable of handling AFC, which, when applicable, can be turned on via firmware updates.
A crude AFC analogy
Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) is like checking with the local authorities for permission to close off sections of city streets for a drag race block party.
When approved, the usual traffic and parking laws no longer apply to the area, and the organizers can determine how fast traffic can flow, etc.
Wi-Fi 7’s other improvements
On top of that, Wi-Fi 7 will also have other improvements, including support for Flexible Channel Utilization (FCU) and Multi-RU.
With FCU, Wi-Fi 7 handles interference more gracefully by slicing off the portion of a channel with interference, 20MHz at a time, and keeps the clean part usable, as opposed to the case of Wi-Fi 6/6E, when there's interference, an entire channel can be taken out of commission. FCU is the behind-the-scene technology that increases the efficiency of Wi-Fi, similar to the case of MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
Similarly, with Wi-Fi 6/6E, each device can only send or receive frames on an assigned resource unit (RU), which signiﬁcantly limits the ﬂexibility of the spectrum resource scheduling. Wi-Fi 7 allows multiple RUs to be assigned to a single device and can combine RUs for increased transmission efficiency.
So after spending about $1000 on parts -- it would have been over $1500 if I had to buy the motherboard -- and hours of hard labor, I ended up with a real Wi-Fi 7 computer that's about as good as any Wi-Fi 6E machine, through no fault of anyone.
But the effort wasn't completely futile. At least we all now know two things:
- Many Wi-Fi 7-enabled motherboards will use the Intel BE202(*), which has only half the channel width (hence bandwidth) as the Intel BE200. And
- No matter which chip you get, from the client's perspective, you won't get a real Wi-Fi 7 experience until the standard is certified, which is sometime next year.
In a way, I, like usual, took one for the team. Speaking of which, I'm in the process of getting a different motherboard that features the Intel BE200, which is expected to be even more expensive than the ROG Strix Z790-E II. I need one to complete the testing. Until then, all these Wi-Fi 7 routers won't review themselves.
Who knows, Asus might come to my rescue again.
Update: I later replaced the motherboard with an ASUS ROG Maximus Z790 Formula and finally had a desktop computer with a built-in Intel BE200 adapter. And Wi-Fi-wise, the new machine performed the same as when you use an add-on adapter card.
As lamented in every previous Wi-Fi 7 review, the standard is not ready. Despite the many broadcasters, upcoming and already released, and now the availability of clients, everything is still in draft.
At this stage, the new standard only works to a certain extent -- it's basically Wi-Fi 6E with a bit more. Its real potential will not be realized until well into 2024.
But there's no rush, as it never is with Wi-Fi. Networking is about getting connected at the speed you need in real-time and never about which standard is being used, especially when what you're using, namely Wi-Fi 6 or 6E, is already more than enough.