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Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Why the New Never Immediately Renders the Old Completely Obsolete

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It's mid-2020, and you wonder which router to get between Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6. That's a good question. And it will continue to be one for years.

Wi-Fi 6 (or 802.11ax)—the sizable upgrade to the existing Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)—has been commercially available for a few years now. Since then, I've reviewed a couple of dozens or so.

Generally, most of them were great, but I also speak from experience when I say it's still OK to keep your Wi-Fi 5 router. In fact, it might still be so even when new standards are available.

That's not to deny the fact it also makes sense to get a Wi-Fi 6 router today. But the idea here is there's no need to rush to upgrade for the foreseeable future. You can wait till your current router dies or even buy a new one of the top hardware specs.

Dong's note: I first published this post on December 29, 2018, and updated it on July 22, 2020, with additional relevant information.

Ubiquiti UniFi Dream Machine vs. AmpliFi Alien Wi-Fi Routers Front
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: You can't tell them apart by looking at the hardware.

Yes, it’s a good idea to get a Wi-Fi 6 router right now

Again, to be clear, this post is not meant to hate Wi-Fi 6 or the cutting-edge. In fact, if you're thinking of getting one, here are a few bullet points on why you should do that.

  • There are many Wi-Fi 6 clients on the market, including new phones and laptops, and there will be more as time goes by.
  • You can upgrade many existing computers to Wi-Fi 6.
  • There are many excellent Wi-Fi 6 routers and mesh options, including relatively affordable ones.
  • For the most part, it doesn't hurt to have Wi-Fi 6, and in certain situations, there is a lot to gain.

With that out of the way, let's find out why Wi-Fi 5 is still more relevant than ever.

Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: The reasons you should hold on to the former anyway

Depending on your situation, a Wi-Fi 6 router might not be the best choice yet. Sometimes it might even create problems while producing no better experience.

That said, if you've been using a Wi-Fi 5 router and thinking of upgrading just because you want to stay up-to-date, don't fall for the pressure. Keep the following in mind before pulling the trigger.

No high-end Wi-Fi 6 clients

That's correct. All Wi-Fi clients on the market right now are of the 2x2 performance tier, which caps at 2.4 Gbps. This is going to be the case for a long time—in fact, there might never be higher-grade clients.

While that seems high, keep in mind that Wi-Fi 6 routers don't always use 160 MHz channels due to hardware constraints or compatibility reasons. Instead, many end up using the 80 MHz or narrower ones.

The ditching of the 160MHz channel width is not necessarily a bad thing since it enables you to avoid using the DFS spectrum, which is generally the cause of brief Wi-Fi interruption now and then when you live near a radar station.

But in terms of performance, 2x2 Wi-Fi 6 clients generally cap at just 1.2 Gbps, which is slower than top-tier 4x4 Wi-Fi 5 clients, which can connect at 1.73 Gbps or even faster. In testing, I've seen many high-end Wi-Fi 5 routers outperform mid-tier Wi-Fi 6 ones.

Asus Blue Cave Wi-Fi 5 router
The 3-year-old Asus Blue Cave Wi-Fi 5 router is still a great router to get today.

Wi-Fi 6 can mean serious incompatibility with legacy (2.4Ghz) clients

Like all previous Wi-Fi standards, Wi-Fi 6 needs to work in the compatible mode to support legacy clients, including those of 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4), 802.11g, 802.11a, and 802.11b standards.

Even then, all of these clients still need to have updated software drivers to work (well) with Wi-Fi 6 broadcasters. The problem is not all of them will get this kind of update—vendors would want you to buy a new product instead.

As things progress, new Wi-Fi 6 routers will no longer support older Wi-Fi security technologies, such as WEP or WPA. Examples of these routers are the Linksys MR9600 or MR7350. More will follow suit.

On the other hand, most legacy devices don't work with the latest and more secure security standards. As a result, old gadgets like the iPhone 5 (and earlier) might not work with a new Wi-Fi 6 router at all.

In addition, in my testing, it's been quite clear that legacy clients perform at slower speeds with Wi-Fi 6 routers than they do on a router of an older standard. Specifically, a Wi-Fi 4 client will likely connect faster (for its hardware specs) when working with a Wi-Fi 4 or Wi-Fi 5 broadcaster.

So if you have a lot of legacy clients, it's a good idea to stay with a Wi-Fi 5 solution until you replace them all. This is especially true with 2.4GHz IoT devices, like IP cameras and simple SmartHome devices.

Linksys MR9600 Router 11
The Linksys MR9600 is one of the first Wi-Fi 6 routers that won't work with many legacy clients.

There’s no practical use of Wi-Fi 6’s speed for now (and far in the future)

Faster is generally always better, but at some point, it makes no difference. Wi-Fi 6 will be like that, at least for years to come.

That's because even when we can finally get high-speed clients and, therefore, enjoy real multi-gigabit Wi-Fi connections, chances are we still won't experience any difference.

In networking, the final speed between two devices is always that of the slowest party involved. Currently, Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbps) is the standard connecting most hardware parts of a home network, so Gigabit is about as fast as you can get.

Another fact is most residential broadband connections cap at a much slower than Gigabit. But even when we have Gigabit-class Internet, it's not necessarily what we need anyway. A broadband speed of around 50 Mbps is enough to satisfy almost any online application—in a single-use, that is.

That said, no matter how fast your Wi-Fi is, chances are you'll still only need, and in fact connect at, speeds slower than 1 Gbps, anyway. And Wi-Fi 5 is already fast enough to deliver all that.

So, again, if you've been happy with your Wi-Fi 5 router, stay with it for a while longer. There's no need to upgrade.

Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Why it still makes sense to get a new Wi-Fi 5 router today

And even if you need a new router right now. Chances are, a Wi-Fi 6 one is not a must-have. While I understand the desire to stay "future-proof," the following facts might make you change your mind.

The Asus RT-AX88U (left) is almost identical to the RT-AC88U.
The Asus RT-AX88U (left) is almost identical to the RT-AC88U.

A newer standard means higher costs

Generally, you need to pay around $100 more for a Wi-Fi 6 router with the same feature set as a Wi-Fi 5 counterpart. You can look at this as Wi-Fi 5 counterparts will be more and more affordable as time goes on.

Prices fluctuate, but for example, right now, the Asus RT-AX88U Wi-Fi 6 router costs some $350, while the RT-AC88U can be had for just $235. And the two are almost identical. They have more in common, including real-world performance, than they do in differences.

Though affordable entry-level Wi-Fi 6 routers exist, they are not faster or have more features than Wi-Fi 5 counterparts of similar cost.

Mature, stable, and affordable, Wi-Fi 5 is still the mainstream

Almost a decade since the first Wi-Fi 5 commercial router became available, the standard has now fully matured. Hardware equipment now has fewer bugs, if at all, resulting in fast and reliable performance.

On top of that, the availability of Wi-Fi 6 means Wi-Fi 5 hardware is now more affordable. What's most important is that even today, more mobile devices with Wi-Fi 5 are being released than those using Wi-Fi 6. The standard is still the mainstream and will be relevant for much longer.

Wi-Fi 5 is forward-compatible

You don't need a Wi-Fi 6 router to use Wi-Fi 6 clients. All of them work with Wi-Fi 5 routers just fine and at quite impressive speeds.

Indeed, all Wi-Fi 6 clients I've worked with could achieve sustained speeds of up to 800 Mbps when connected to a top-tier Wi-Fi 5 router. That's plenty fast. In fact, I can hardly think of any consumer applications that require higher speeds.

You’re not alone

If you decide to hold up on upgrading right now, you're in good company. There are a lot of users like you. I myself have been using a mix of Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5 broadcasters, despite having more than enough hardware to go with the former in full.

Most importantly, many hardware vendors generally don't jump on the latest-greatest bandwagon. They often wait until the standard is mature before releasing supporting hardware, which brings us to the next and final point.

Wi-Fi 6E (and beyond) is around the corner

That's right! Wi-Fi 6E is by far the biggest reason to wait a bit longer before upgrading. (That's not to mention Wi-Fi 7).

As an extension of Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E brings about more than 160 MHz channels to help complete the standard's promise of multi-gig speeds. It's slated to be available by early 2021, which is great news. The problem is Wi-Fi 6E is not backward compatible at all.

That said, if you upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 now, chances are you'll have to do that again soon to remain "future-proof." For this reason, it makes a lot of sense to stay with Wi-Fi 5 until Wi-Fi 6 gets its own house in order.

Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: The takeaway

In most cases, it doesn't hurt to get a Wi-Fi 6 router right now. You should generally get what you need when you need it, regardless of the technology. As long as it serves you well, money saved is money well spent.

So, if you feel like you have to board the Wi-Fi 6 train now because your existing well-functioning router is "getting dated," then don't! Considering the current state of Wi-Fi 6, it will probably take another 3 to 5 years to fully mature.

The truth is you can never stay "future-proof." There will always be Wi-Fi 7 and 8 etc., down the line. It's a losing battle.

Come to think about it, Wi-Fi 5 has been in use for almost a decade, and it's still very relevant and ubiquitous today. That's not to mention the fact you might even have some good old Wi-Fi 4 devices. I do. You will have plenty of time to enjoy Wi-Fi 6, don't worry about missing out on it right now.

That said, if you're still using a cheap, low-end, or even a mid-tier Wi-Fi 5 router (or especially a Wi-Fi 4 router), it's time to ditch it and get a top-tier Wi-Fi 5 one. Not necessarily because you have to, but rather because it's now an excellent time for this kind of upgrade. If you're inclined to do so, here's my list of recommendations.

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46 thoughts on “Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Why the New Never Immediately Renders the Old Completely Obsolete”

  1. Now that it’s 2022, has your opinion changed?

    Considering routers are an investment these days, AC88U or TUF AX5400 given the same price? Currently, only 2 WIFI6 clients but this will obviously change going forward. This is to replace an N600 Asus N18U, so I tend to leave these running for a while.

    Please advise and thanks in advance!

    • That depends on the speed you need, i.e. your Internet. If the current ones are still working, I’d say keep them. But for the same price, I’d go with the TUF, unless you need more ports.

  2. Hello Dong,
    I have an Asus RT-AC56U, that have no more firmwares updates
    do you think it is time for me to upgrade to an wifi 6 or wifi 6e.
    I am looking at the tp-link ax6000.

  3. Hello, Doug!
    Which of these routers would you recommend for a 1450 sq foot apartment? Tp-Link Archer C80 or Ax10?
    The price difference is just $10.

  4. Hi Dong,

    Which Asus router would you recommend for a small office with 4-5 PCs, 120 m2 of area, no walls. I’m on budget and need split Asus router because it has free protection and since I already have Asus router mesh at home I know UI and how to set it up. My priority here is to get protection, adequate speed so all office members can handle video meetings and I’m on a budget. Thanks

  5. Dong, thank you for this excellent writeup. Your site has really helped me understand some of the complexities of Wi-Fi tech. I do have two questions this article doesn’t seem to answer, though:

    1. My home is wired with gigabit ethernet, and is large enough to warrant more than just a single Wi-Fi router. I have been considering a dual-band mesh system using ethernet for the backhaul. But I know that just buying multiple access points is also an option. Does the dual-band mesh with ethernet backhaul offer any advantage over just using multiple access points, or are they basically the same thing?

    2. None of my wireless clients support more than 2×2 MIMO. That being the case, is there any advantage to getting a router that supports 4×4 5Ghz streams? That is, can a 4×4 router or access point talk to two 2×2 clients at the same time, or is a 4×4 router only useful for connecting to 4×4 clients?

    Thanks again for sharing your expertise.

      • Thank you for the links. I had not read the first one about Mesh vs Access Points, and it does indeed answer my first question.

        However, I’m still confused about my second question. Is there any advantage to having a router capable of 4×4 5Ghz if none of my clients support 4×4 MIMO? Does it help when connecting to multiple 2×2 clients simultaneously, or is 4×4 capability wasted in my case? Obviously, I know they’re compatible. I’m just wondering if it’s worth the extra cost to get a system capable of 4×4.

  6. Hi Dong, nice article. Yes it makes sense to stay with Wifi 5. I am currently using Asus RT-AC3200 with TP Link RE200 repeater. If only Asus had upgraded RT-AC3200 to support AiMesh, I would have purchased supporting AC to make a mesh. Interestingly RE200 repeater is OneMesh ready. I was tempted to go with TP Link Deco X60 to make use of the RE200. But being spoilt by Asus features, I decided to go with the Asus Zenwifi Mini for now. Once Asus releases AXE88U (Wifi 6E version), I will buy to make it primary. On a side note, I also wondered if Samsung Smartthings wifi mesh system is a better buy for someone who has lots of smart home devices. Please consider reviewing their mesh router too. Thanks.

  7. Hello Dong, I hope this finds you and the family safe and healthy.
    In my August 3 query I gave you some background, 300mps from my ISP, Asus RT-AC86U, D-Link extender to push it out to the deck, about 20-25 smart home devices on the network, 2 seniors on Samsung Tablets (wifi5), we don’t do any gaming.

    I’ve been watching for a good price on the Orbi RBK852 that you recommended, it sounds awesome.
    I also read with great interest this morning your latest review of the Rt-AX86U and wondered how that would perform as the main router with my old AC86U as a mesh node for now until we actually have any new wifi6 clients on the network. Would this help with all the smart home devices? Eventually I would add a wifi6 mesh node once we have clients that can make use of it but does the AX86U lose it’s wifi6 functionality in mesh mode like the RT-AX92U two pack that you previously warned about?
    Or should I still be keeping my eye on the OrbiRBK852.
    Darryl in Calgary

    • Since you already have the RT-AC86U, I think it’s a better idea to turn it into a mesh system, Darryl. So yes, I’d recommend getting the RT-AX86U. Note though, I haven’t tested it in a wireless setup (I’m using it now as my main router but my nodes are all wired as you can see in the screenshot of the review) but it will likely work out well. You might want to try putting Merlin firmware on the RT-AC86U first though that’s not a must.

  8. Thanks so much for the quick reply and advice. I’m learning a lot by looking at your other reviews.


  9. Dong,
    I hope that you can help me with some advice. I’m 68 years old and although i try to get up with technology wifi and routers still have me a bit confused. I would like to extend my home wifi to get better coverage out on my back deck. I currently have an Asus rt-ac86u in the far corner of my house from the deck and a d-link extender in the corner of the house closest to the deck and between the main network and the -ext network we get pretty good wifi out side but it often gives us trouble. The house and deck area is over 4000sqft, there is only two of us ever using the wifi ar one time streamjng or just web surfing, we have about 20 smart home devices for light switches and doorbell, we have 300mbps from Shaw here in Calgary (I tested it as per your description). I also spdnd a lot of time on two pc’s that are wired to the router and there are 2 NAS units wired in as well. I bought a pair of rt-ax92us but took them back without even trying them after reading your article and yiur nite about the wifi6 issue. I want the best coverage possible and to stay as future proof as possible. Should I be looking at wifi6? Do those smart home devices really count when people talk about the number of devices on a network?
    I would really appreciate your thoughts. Cost is not really an issue.
    Calgary canada

    • I assume you have not run network cable in your home and need a wireless system, Darryl. In this case, I’d recommend the Orbi RBK852. Leave the router unit where the RT-AC68 is and the satellite where the D-Link extender is. (Standalone extenders are generally no good, don’t use them.) Also check out this post for more information on mesh systems.

      And yes, all devices are counted as devices no matter how big or small, simple or complicated.

  10. FYI: Actually decided to go the Synology route. Setup the RT2600 as a standalone router while I’m waiting on the MR2200ac to be delivered. Incredible! Could probably get away with just the RT2600 as a standalone. I’m in a 2200+ sq. ft. 2-story house. Great performance, great coverage. Even outside in our backyard. Super impressed! Thank you for all of your wisdom and expertise!

  11. Hi Dong, thanks for the great articles. I’m hanging on before I move to wifi 6, but the issue I want to solve with it is perhaps slightly different than most: I live in a rented apartment with thick concrete walls, so I can’t really do any wiring and the wifi strength isn’t great. Owing to the layout and constraints, with my fiber 1G internet connection I actually get about 150Mb/s via wifi in my home office and around 50Mb/s using Ethernet-Over-Power, neither of which are ideal. Other than a phone I don’t have any wifi 6 clients, but I do have 10G ethernet on a bunch of devices. I was thinking that if I could have a wifi 6 solution that has a multi-gig wired connection, I could put a satellite/access point in my home office and use the wifi 6 as a backbone. Do you a) think this is a good idea, b) have any suggestions as to which system would suit? Thanks a lot. Dan.

  12. Thanks. Right. I know ZenWiFi will be awesome. Just thought, maybe unnecessary overkill at this point if I’m not really able to take advantage of any noticeable benefits. I guess I could save a few bucks going the Synology route and be more than adequately covered and probably just as happy. Thanks again.

  13. Wish I had read this earlier. We’ve depended on an AirPort Extreme for the past several years which has served us well. But now being at a point where AE is no longer supported, needing better coverage, an increasing number of wifi clients in the house, wanting to “future proof”, etc., I pulled the trigger and purchased Asus ZenWifi AX Mesh System. I had actually had toyed with the idea of just sticking with wifi 5 and actually replacing AE with a Synology Mesh setup. But then I thought, “no you’re at a point of where it makes sense to upgrade to wifi 6 and it will be more cost efficient in the long run, so if you’re going to do it, do it right.” But now reading “Why it still makes sense to get a new Wifi 5 router” and waiting until Wifi 6 gets its own house in order, I’m rethinking my approach and going back to the Synology Mesh idea for now. Still waiting on Asus to be delivered so I’m sure I can return it with full refund. Any thoughts? Thanks.

    • The Synology mesh is great, Mark. I just installed one as a new set for a friend. But the ZenWiFi should work fine, too. I mean as long as it works it doesn’t really matter 5 or 6.

    • I recently purchased Zenwifi XT and I can tell you it rocks. Thanks to Dong and its excellent research I choose Asus, at the beginning I considered eero, Velop or Orbi. I am happy XT is a device that can fully be configured locally plus the excellent optional Asus app, in comparison to top tier Orbi the XT is reasonably priced. XT as wifi 6 offers excellent speed and coverage, when reconsidering Wifi 5 you might think about Zenwifi CT? You might get this much cheaper than XT. Maybe XT as the newer respectively successor will be supported for a longer time with firmware updates than CT, I can just speculate or assume. XT has a clear advantage over my Fritz, a system mainly used in middle europe.

      • Thanks for sharing your XP, Florian. And yes, I know those Fritz boxes. I’ve worked on a couple of them the last times we visited friends in Germany and the U.K. 🙂

  14. I can’t agree more. For example, my new MacBook Pro 16-inch’s wifi chip is a 3×3 supporting 802.1ac. Which means the maximum connection rate is can handle is 1.3Gbps. But obviously real-world speeds will be much lower. Effectively, if you have a router that supports 802.11ac, 3×3, 256-QAM, and 80MHz, that should be plenty. Of course that depends on the number of devices, usage (e.g. gaming, 4K streaming, etc.), layout of your home, etc. But for most people, those specs are sufficient.

    If you want to future-proof, upgrading to a 4×4 stream would be ideal.

  15. But what if you NEED a new router now? Does it make sense to go ahead and pay a little more for one that will (should) be more future proof? It appears that the best reviewed routers are still over $150, such as an ASUS RT-AC86U. I don’t plan on buying anything new that has Wifi 6, such as a laptop or a phone, in the next year and a half. So would the best purchase be the RT-AC86U or would it be a NETGEAR AX3000 for example, just a little bit more?

  16. People keep chasing higher and higher router speeds, and in reality, that changes nothing. The weak link in wireless is the MIMO level support of your wireless devices. Virtually all client devices are stuck at 2×2 MIMO (battery and power issues), and THAT is the single largest factor that limits speed.

    Comparing ‘same’ to ‘same’, for a single wireless client, 802.11ax is ONLY 10% faster. That is it. No more. 802.1ax only shines in highly dense environments (schools, stadiums, etc). So unless you are throwing a party at your house, no, your house is not a ‘dense’ environment.

    I find the reviews for 802.11ax routers (like on Amazon) claiming ‘amazing’ results absolutely hilarious. As there are no 802.11ax clients now, your brand new expensive router is running in 802.11ac mode — and you could have achieved the same ‘amazing’ results with a much cheaper router.

    Even Cisco is saying “The bottom line is until Wi-Fi 6 / 802.11ax clients reach critical mass, the benefits of 11ax are minimal and will have low impact.”

    • WPA3 is a bit irrelevant in this case since all Wi-Fi 6 routers will support WPA2 and WPA. The majority of existing clients can’t work with WPA3 yet.


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