The first Wi-Fi 6 routers became available on the market in early 2019 — mine was the Asus RT-AX88U. Since then, the new wireless standard for your local network has proved to be quite confusing, especially if you want to match a router’s marketing specs and what it can realistically deliver.
I’ll try to explain all about Wi-Fi 6, and possibly a bit more, in this post. By all, I mean just the parts that matter, not the technical details or the hype. Already in the know? This post is a good refresher.
Dong’s note: I first published this piece on January 10, 2019, and updated in on April 29, 2020, with additional relevant information, including the new Wi-Fi 6E.
What is Wi-Fi 6?
It’s a new and trendy name, and a great idea, coined by the Wi-Fi Alliance in late 2018, for us to call what otherwise is known as the 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard.
As for what the name conveys, here’s the gist: Wi-Fi 6 is the latest among Wi-Fi standards. Not all modern mobile devices use it yet, and you will still find new devices with the older standard, the Wi-Fi 5 (or 802.11ac).
The 6 designation is numerical — it’s the 6th generation of Wi-Fi. For the same token, tracking backward, we have 802.11ac as Wi-Fi 5, 802.11n as Wi-Fi 4, and so on.
In reality, the new naming convention goes back only to Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), mostly because previous standards are largely obsolete. In other words, don’t bother with Wi-Fi 3, Wi-Fi 2, etc.
How fast is Wi-Fi 6?
To know the real-world speed of a Wi-Fi standard, we need a broadcaster (like a router) and a client (like a laptop). Both have to be of the same standard and performance tier, determined by the number of streams a single Wi-Fi band can handle.
Quad-stream vs. dual-stream
So far, there have been a lot of Wi-Fi 6 routers. They include quad-stream (4×4) ones, such as the Netgear RAX200, Asus RT-AX89X, or TP-Link AX6000, and mid-tier dual-stream (2×2) broadcasters, like the Netgear RAX40, TP-Link Archer AX3000, or Asus RT-AX3000. In the future, there might be Wi-Fi 6 routers with higher specs.
On the client-side, though, we’ve had only dual-stream (2×2) devices — like the Intel AX200 adapter card. As a result, for now, 2×2 speeds are the best we can get out of Wi-Fi 6.
And it will be a while before you find 4×4 (or faster) Wi-Fi 6 clients. That’s because 2×2 is already plenty fast. Most importantly, this tier has the right balance of wireless speeds and energy consumption and therefore is the most suitable for mobile devices.
A new height of base wireless speed
Generally, Wi-Fi 6 has a base speed of 1.2 Gbps (1200 Mbps) per stream. Hence, a dual-stream connection has a ceiling speed of 2.4 Gbps, and a quad-stream one tops at whopping 4.8 Gbps.
In the world of wireless data transmissions, the real-world sustained rates are always much lower than the ceiling, theoretical ones. And that’s also the case of Wi-Fi 6.
So far, though, most Wi-Fi 6 routers I’ve reviewed can deliver sustained speed around 1 Gbps and even faster when used with a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 client. So tier-by-tier, Wi-Fi 6 can deliver up to four times the speed of Wi-Fi 5.
Note though that a top-tier Wi-Fi 5 connection can be faster than a mid-tier Wi-Fi 6 one. That’s because the speeds of Wi-Fi 6 depend on a few other factors.
Wi-Fi 6 speeds: What you should expect
The rates mentioned about — 2.4 Gbps for a dual-stream and 4.8 Gbps for a quad-stream — only apply to when the devices connect using the 160 MHz channel.
Not enough 160 MHz channels
For backward compatibility, and other reasons — spectrum shortage (more below), hardware constraint, and so on — Wi-Fi 6 also uses narrower channels, including 80 MHz, 40 MHz, and 20 MHz. Some routers, like the AmpliFi Alien, don’t even support the 160 MHz channels at all.
In this case, the speed will reduce accordingly by a factor of two. For example, via an 80 MHz channel, a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 connection now caps at 1.2 Gbps or 600 Mbps per stream.
So, again, here’s an interesting fact: Considering there are plenty of 4×4 (1733 Mbps) Wi-Fi 5 routers and clients on the market, in many cases, you’ll get faster real-world speeds out of high-end Wi-Fi 5 connections than non-160MHz Wi-Fi 6 ones.
So, the lack of support for the 160 MHz channel bandwidth is not a good thing, but networking vendors have figured out a way make it sound good. They, quite creatively, call their 80 MHz routers 8×8 ones (instead of 4×4). Because 8 x 600 = 4 x 1200. Got it? The problem is there are no such 8×8 clients.
Another thing with Wi-Fi 6 is, for the first time, we have routers that use different Wi-Fi tiers, and standards, for each band. The Asus RT-AX92U, for example, is a tri-band Wi-Fi 6 router that has one 2×2 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi 4 band, one 2×2 5 GHz Wi-Fi 5 band, and another 4×4 5 GHz Wi-Fi 6 band.
For marketing purposes, networking vendors add up all these bands’ streams into a single (large) number. Asus calls the RT-AX92U an 8-stream (8×8) router.
Furthermore, they combine the bandwidth of all of the router’s bands into a single (huge) number. As a result, you’ll find AX6000, AX11000 routers, and so on.
That said, these numbers only mean the potentials collective bandwidth of a router when all of its bands are used. Since a Wi-Fi connection takes place on a single band at a time, the fastest band of a router ditermines its cap speed, not the number of bands or the total streams of all bands it has.
So, the Asus RT-AX92U above is actually a 4×4 Wi-Fi 6 router that can deliver up to 4.8 Gbps to a 4×4 client, or 2.4 Gbps to a 2×2 clients. And that’s only true when it works as a single router. In a wireless mesh installation, it’s actually just a 2×2 Wi-Fi 5 solution. Read its full review to find out why.
Wi-Fi 6 speeds are a complicated matter
Indeed. To deliver real Wi-Fi 6 speeds, the router needs to have at least one multi-gig LAN port. Otherwise, the Wi-Fi connection’s real-world speed will cap at 1 Gbps, no matter how fast its wireless rate can be.
That’s because, in a wireless-to-wireless connection, where you transfer data from one Wi-Fi device to another, the router shares its bandwidth accordingly. For example, when you copy data between two 2×2 (2.4 Gbps) Wi-Fi 6 devices using the same band, the speed between them will cap at just 1.2 Gbps.
So, a good Wi-Fi 6 router, strictly in terms of speeds, needs to have 4×4 specs (or higher) on a single band, a couple of multi-gig network ports. Most importantly, it needs to support the venerable 160MHz channel bandwidth.
And that brings us to a new and potentially exciting version of Wi-Fi 6, the Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6 speeds compared with older standards
Wi-Fi 6E: The answer to spectrum shortage
In early 2020, the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced the Wi-Fi 6E terminology to call Wi-Fi 6 devices that’s capable of working on the new 6 GHz frequency band.
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E
Initially, Wi-Fi 6 is available in the traditional 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. With the use of the extra-wide 160MHz channels, 5 GHz runs out of space fast.
The 6 GHz frequency band addresses this shortage by providing more contiguous spectrum blocks. Specifically, using this band, Wi-Fi 6E-capable devices will have access to an additional fourteen 80MHz channels or seven 160 MHz channels.
That said, Wi-Fi 6E devices will not need to resort to narrow channels and therefore can consistently deliver true Wi-Fi 6 speeds mentioned above.
There are catches
But you won’t get too excited when you’re aware of Wi-Fi 6E’s innate shortcomings.
First of all, the 6 GHz frequency band has a shorter range than 5 GHz, (which in turn has a significantly shorter range than 2.4 GHz.) And, most importantly, also requires support from the client-side to work.
Wi-Fi 6E hardware won’t be available until late-2020 at the earliest. In some rare cases, existing Wi-Fi 6 routers and clients might already have the hardware needed and will be able to support it via firmware or driver updates.
Asus, for example, told me that it’d release firmware supporting Wi-Fi 6E for most of its routers, at least in beta, before the year is out.
Update: Initially, Asus told me in early January 2020 that it was planning to upgrade some of its existing Wi-Fi 6 routers to Wi-Fi 6E. But soon later, the company walked back on that notion. So the information on the hardware requirements is still sketchy.
One thing is for sure, the adoption of Wi-Fi 6E will be slow if hardware changes are necessary. My take is if this standard doesn’t work with existing Wi-Fi 6 clients, which seems to be the case, it’ll be close to useless in the foreseeable future.
Will I be able to download a movie much faster with Wi-Fi 6?
Not necessarily! Here’s why: Downloading a movie (or Netflix streaming for that matter) depends on the Internet speed, which has little to do with Wi-Fi. They are two different things.
Wi-Fi is the alternative to network cables — it allows for a local network without wires. So, the increased speed of Wi-Fi 6 is only meaningful locally, within your home or office.
In other words, assuming all of your devices are Wi-Fi 6-enabled, you’ll be able to print, perform network Time Machine backups, or stream from a local NAS server, etc., much faster.
As for the Internet, currently, the majority of residential broadband services offer speeds significantly below that of Wi-Fi 5, which is already plenty fast. Consequently, if you use Wi-Fi 6, you’ll experience no improvement at all in Internet access.
In networking, the final speed of a connection is always that of the slowest party involved. Right now, in most cases, the Internet is that party. It’ll be a few years or even a decade — when 5G cellular and Gigabit-class broadband are ubiquitous — before we need Wi-Fi 6 to deliver the Internet in full.
Apart from higher speed caps, what else makes Wi-Fi 6 better than Wi-Fi 5?
Efficiency. Wi-Fi 6 features orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA).
In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6 can slice its wireless signals into many perfectly sized chunks and, therefore, can simultaneously feed more clients of different Wi-Fi specs and keep them all happy — without slowing down that is.
Potentially, Wi-Fi 6 can maintain fast individual connections even in a crowded air space, where there are many and many clients.
MIMO vs. MU-MIMO vs. ODFMA
You might have heard of MIMO (multiple inputs, multiple outputs), and MU-MIMO (multi-user MIMO), which are other techniques of increasing Wi-Fi efficiency. It’s quite hard to explain MIMO, MU-MIMO, and ODFMA without invoking technical jargon.
That said, let’s go with this analogy. Imagine a Wi-Fi band is like a freeway, then channels are lanes. We have this:
- MIMO is when you use multiple trucks of the same size, no matter what the load is. That’s better than using just a single vehicle that has to go back and forth, but not great since you always have to use large trucks to make sure you can take care of any load.
- MU-MIMO is when you use multiple vehicles of different types depending on the size or type of the load. So you use a pickup truck for a big-screen TV, but just a scooter when you need to pick up a letter.
- ODFMA is when you cut a load of any type or size into small standard pieces that can fit perfectly in any vehicle.
Note that none of these techniques increase the bandwidth of a Wi-Fi band. They only help it work more efficiently, especially in a mixed environment, where devices of multiple Wi-Fi standards and speeds grades are present.
Also, thanks to the use of more advanced quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) — the way radio frequencies are manipulated –Wi-Fi 6 has much higher ceiling speeds than Wi-Fi 5.
So, ultimately, Wi-Fi 6 beats Wi-Fi 5 mostly in speed.
How about battery life?
Battery life applies mostly to the client-side. And yes, Wi-Fi 6 clients will generally get better battery life. That’s partly thanks to the higher speed — a client will take much less time, compared to older Wi-Fi standards, to deliver the same amount of data, hence uses less energy.
However, what significantly helps cut down the use of energy is Wi-Fi 6’s new feature called target wake time (TWT). TWT automatically puts the Wi-Fi adapter into sleep mode when it’s idle, no matter how brief, and wake it back up when need be.
This method is similar to making a car automatically shut down its engine at a traffic stop and instantly start up when you hit the gas.
Does Wi-Fi 6 have better range?
The reason is Wi-Fi range ties to the nature of the radio frequencies in use, namely the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz. (And the new Wi-Fi 6E sure will have a shorter range than the other two.)
However, if you get a Wi-Fi 6 mesh system, it’s a different story. In this case, thanks to faster speeds, you can place the hardware units significantly farther away from one another (than those of Wi-Fi 5) and still get excellent net Wi-Fi speed.
In other words, Wi-Fi 6’s fast ceiling speed compensates for the signal loss and overheads in the wireless connection between hardware units. As a result, you’ll still get fast connection speed at the far end.
So yes, Wi-Fi 6 works well for mesh Wi-Fi systems, in a wireless setup, much more so than does Wi-Fi 5.
Do existing Wi-Fi clients work with Wi-Fi 6?
Yes, Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible and will, in theory, support all existing Wi-Fi clients.
However, keep in mind that due to other requirements — such as security, efficiency settings, 160MHz channel — many existing clients will need newer software drivers to work well with Wi-Fi 6 routers.
And for those that are too old, such as 802.11g or 802.11a clients, chances are there won’t be new drivers for them.
Also, Wi-Fi 6E will only work with Wi-Fi 6E-capable clients. It will not work with legacy clients (Wi-Fi 5 and older) at all. But all Wi-Fi 6 router will include a 2.4 GHz band that works with all existing clients on the market.
Routers that don’t allow access to in-depth settings will handle the compatibility on their own. So, if you have only Wi-Fi 5 (and older) clients, there’s no need to worry about turning off Wi-Fi 6 on the router.
Should I buy a Wi-Fi 6 router now?
Yes, if you have some Wi-Fi 6 clients or have upgraded your computers to one.
Wi-Fi 6 routers have more than just Wi-Fi speed. These routers tend to be beefy devices with more useful features. Here’s the list of top Wi-Fi 6 routers and mesh systems I’ve reviewed.
But Wi-Fi 6 is not a must-have, yet, either. For most of us, a good Wi-Fi 5 routers will work just fine. You can find more reasons to wait on this post.
In the end, it’s mostly the question of finance. It doesn’t hurt to get a Wi-Fi 6 router right now if you can afford it.
Wi-Fi 6 is indeed significant in terms of efficiency and speed. It’s a bit over-the-top that existing infrastructure and the Internet will take a while to catch up.
My guess is it will take Wi-Fi 6 clients a few more years to become as popular as Wi-Fi 5 counterparts currently are. And then it’ll require even more years for us to have real needs for the Wi-Fi 6 speed.
The move to Wi-Fi 6 is inevitable, but it will take a while. In the meantime, it’s OK not to ditch your Wi-Fi 5 router just yet.