Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6, which should you get? That’s a good question.
It’s been more than two years since Wi-Fi 6 (or 802.11ax) — the sizable upgrade to the existing Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) — became commercially available. Since then, I’ve reviewed dozens of routers and mesh systems of the new standard.
So when I say it’s now still OK to hold on to your Wi-Fi 5 router, you know I speak from experience. 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.
Yes, it’s a good idea to get a Wi-Fi 6 router right now
Again, just to be clear, this post is not meant to hate on Wi-Fi 6. In fact, if you’re thinking of getting it, 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.
- You can upgrade many existing computers to Wi-Fi 6.
- There are many excellent Wi-Fi 6 router 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 2×2 performance tier which caps at 2.4 Gbps.
While that seems high, keep in mind that Wi-Fi 6 routers don’t always use 160 MHz channels due to hardware constraints or compatible 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, a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 clients generally cap at just 1.2 Gbps, which is slower than top-tier 4×4 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.
Wi-Fi 6 can mean serious incompatibility
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 a 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 move forwards, new Wi-Fi 6 routers start to 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.
On top of that, in my testing, it’s been quite clear that legacy clients perform at slower speeds with a Wi-Fi 6 routers than they do on a router of an older standard. Specifically, a Wi-Fi 4 client likely will connect at a faster rate (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.
There’s no practical use of Wi-Fi 6’s speed for now
Faster is generally always better, but at some point, it makes no difference. Wi-Fi 6 will be like that, at least for a few more years.
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.
The reason is in networking, the final speed between two devices is always that of the slowest parties involved. Currently, Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbps) is the standard that connects 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 faster 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.
Wi-Fi 6 requires higher cost
Generally, you need to pay around $100 more for a Wi-Fi 6 router that has the same feature set as a Wi-Fi 5 counterpart.
The Asus RT-AX88U, for example, 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 there are affordable entry-level Wi-Fi 6 routers out there, they are not faster, nor do they have more features than Wi-Fi 5 counterparts of similar cost.
Mature, stable, and affordable, Wi-Fi 5 is still the mainstream
It’s been almost a decade since the first Wi-Fi 5 commercial router was released, 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, even today, more mobile devices with Wi-Fi 5 are being released than those that use 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 the fact I have more than enough hardware to go with the former in full.
Most importantly, many hardware vendors haven’t joined the bandwagon, either. Ubiquiti, Synology, or TrendNet, just to name a few. As far as I know, many don’t have plans to release their next-generation networking gear until next year, which brings us to the next and final point.
Wi-Fi 6E is around the corner
That’s right! Wi-Fi 6E by far the biggest reason why you should wait a bit longer before upgrading.
As an extension of Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E brings about more 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. And my take is generally you should get what you need when you need it, regardless of the technology. As long as it serves you well, it’s 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,” 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 much 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.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on December 29, 2018, and updated it on July 22, 2020, with additional relevant information.