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 it 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.
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. There will be Wi-Fi 7 in the future.
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?
The speeds of Wi-Fi 6 have been a big hype and there’s a large gap between the theoretical and the real ones.
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 broadcasters, with new ones coming out almost monthly.
They include quad-stream (4×4) routers, 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 even higher specs.
On the receivers’ 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 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 2×2 connection has a ceiling speed of 2.4 Gbps, and a quad-stream one tops at a 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, most Wi-Fi 6 routers I’ve reviewed can deliver sustained speeds of around 1Gbps when used with a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 client.
So tier-by-tier, Wi-Fi 6 can provide up to about three times the speed of Wi-Fi 5. Most of the time, though, you should expect about 50 percent improvement due to different factors.
And no, Wi-Fi 6 is not necessarily always faster. Indeed, a top-tier Wi-Fi 5 connection can be speedier than a mid-tier Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6 speeds and DFS channels: The devil is in the details
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 a 160MHz channel. As the number suggests, this is an extensive channel that encompasses multiple narrower ones.
Available on the 5GHz frequency band, these 160MHz channels are special since there are just a few of them across the entire frequency, and all require (part of) the Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) spectrum.
DFS shares airspace with radar and always takes the back seat. Specifically, a Wi-Fi broadcaster auto switches its DFS channels when radar signals are present, causing brief disconnections. Many existing clients don’t support DFS, but all Wi-Fi 6 ones do.
Extra note on DFS
When you force a router to use the DFS channels, such as when you set it to operate in the 160MHz channel width, it will take a longer time — between 1 and 10 minutes — to initiate its DFS-related 5GHz band. The exact wait time depends on your environment.
Consequently, you’ll notice that your high-end Wi-Fi 6 router might take a long time to boot up or apply certain Wi-Fi settings, resulting in the band appearing unavailable — the 5GHz Wi-Fi network is not there or you can’t connect to it.
Keep this in mind when you’re tweaking your network. Patience is a virtue.
In shorts, the 160MHz channel width is premium real estate that’s generally not ideal for those living close (within tens of miles) to an airport or a weather radar station.
The use of sub-160MHz channels
For backward compatibility and hardware constraint, Wi-Fi 6 also uses narrower channels, including 80MHz, 40MHz, and 20MHz.
Many routers, such as the AmpliFi Alien, don’t even support the 160MHz channels, partly to avoid the need for DFS channels and the potential sporadic disconnections. In fact, you should expect your Wi-Fi 6 router to use the 80MHz channel width most of the time.
In this case, the speed will reduce accordingly by a factor of two. For example, via an 80MHz channel, a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 connection now caps at 1.2Gbps or 600Mbps per stream, or about 50 percent faster than that of Wi-Fi 5, which is 433Mbps.
So, again, here’s an interesting fact: Quad-stream (4×4) Wi-Fi devices, which have a cap speed of 1733 Mbps in 80MHz, actually deliver faster real-world speeds than 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 counterpart.
(I’m talking about general base standard here. There are a lot of special QAM-related techniques that can increase Wi-Fi speeds in theory when compliant devices are being used exclusively together.)
The marketing ploys
So, the lack of support for the 160MHz channel bandwidth is generally not a good thing, but networking vendors have figured out a way to make it sound good.
Quite creatively, they call their 80MHz-at-best Wi-Fi 6 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.
(Again, technically, things are more complicated than that. For example, if clients of different tiers all used the 80MHz channel width, these 8×8 routers might have some advantages since they are geared toward this configuration. Realistically, the Wi-Fi airspace is anything but conforming, and you always have clients using different channel widths.)
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 determines its cap speed, not its bands or their total number of streams.
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, with a single client. That’s because a Wi-Fi router shares its wireless bandwidth between connected clients. (By the way, in a wireless mesh installation, the RT-AX92U is actually just a 2×2 Wi-Fi 5 solution.)
Wi-Fi 6 speeds are a complicated matter
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, again, 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 capable of working on the new 6 GHz frequency band. The purpose of Wi-Fi 6E is to address the spectrum shortage — you’ll get more natural 160MHz channels out of the new frequency.
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 160MHz channels. None of them is part of the DFS spectrum.
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 likely 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 can 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, it’s probably safe to say that none of the existing Wi-Fi 6 routers or clients can be upgraded via firmware or software to support Wi-Fi 6E.
So, one thing is for sure, the adoption of Wi-Fi 6E will be slow. 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 for a long while. For more, I detailed Wi-Fi 6E in this post.
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.
Extra: 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 applicable to different vehicle types.
We’d have the following:
- 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 load’s size or type. So you use a pickup truck for a big-screen TV, but just a scooter when you need to pick up a letter. All Wi-Fi 6 routers support MU-MIMO, by the way.
- 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?
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 the final Wi-Fi speed fast enough for almost any application at hand. (It’s the matter of degrees here.)
Indeed, the purpose-built tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems I’ve tested all delivered exceptional Wi-Fi coverage. Examples of these are the ARRIS mAX Pro, the Netgear Orbi RBK82, or the Ubiquiti Alien Kit.
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 wireless mesh Wi-Fi systems, much more so than does Wi-Fi 5.
Do existing Wi-Fi clients work with Wi-Fi 6?
The short answer is yes, Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible and will, in theory, support all existing Wi-Fi clients. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated.
Due to other requirements, such as security, efficiency settings, channel width, and so on, many existing clients will need new software drivers to work (well) with Wi-Fi 6 routers.
And for those that are too old, such as 802.11g, 802.11a, or even some 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) 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.
For the most part, you can set your Wi-Fi 6 router to work in a compatible mode. However, in this case, it won’t deliver fast speeds to Wi-Fi 6 clients. It’s a bit of a dilemma.
In my testing, in many cases, legacy devices proved to work better (had faster Wi-Fi speeds) when working legacy routers, than with Wi-Fi 6 routers.
Should I buy a Wi-Fi 6 router now?
Yes, if you have mostly Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 clients. You can upgrade many existing computers to Wi-Fi 6, by the way.
Wi-Fi 6 routers have more than just Wi-Fi speed. These routers tend to be beefy devices with more useful features. Here are the links to the regularly-updated lists of top Wi-Fi 6 routers and mesh systems I’ve been reviewing.
But Wi-Fi 6 is not a must-have, yet, either, especially considering Wi-Fi 6E is around the corner. 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. But it also pushes the envelope hard on the 5GHz band.
My guess is it will take Wi-Fi 6 clients a few more years to become as popular as Wi-Fi 5 counterparts. And then it’ll require even more years for us to have real needs or the full experience of Wi-Fi 6.
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.