It’s more than a year now since Wi-Fi 6 routers first became available on the market — mine is the Asus RT-AX88U. Since then, the new wireless standard for your local network has proved to be quite confusing, especially when you try to match a router’s marketing specs and what it can realistically deliver.
I’ll try to explain all that, and 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 February 16, 2020, with additional relevant information, including the new Wi-Fi 6E.
What is Wi-Fi 6?
It’s a new and trendy name, and frankly, a great idea, coined by the Wi-Fi Alliance late 2018, 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 still entirely new, not all modern mobile devices use it yet, many still have the older standard, Wi-Fi 5 (or 802.11ac). And that’s fine since, in most cases, you won’t even notice the difference.
The name 6 is just numerical — it’s the 6th generation of Wi-Fi we’re talking about here. For the same token, tracking backward, we have 802.11ac as Wi-Fi 5 and 802.11n as Wi-Fi 4, and so on. In reality, the new naming convention goes back only to Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) since older standards are obsolete. In other words, don’t bother with Wi-Fi 3, Wi-Fi 2, etc.
So how fast is Wi-Fi 6?
To know the actual speed of a Wi-Fi standard, you’ll need a broadcaster (like a router) and a client (like a laptop) of the same standard and performance tier, determined by the number of streams a single band can handle.
Currently, there are quad-stream (4×4) Wi-Fi 6 broadcasters (like the Netgear RAX200) but only dual-stream (2×2) clients (like the Intel AX200 adapter card) so we can get at most just half the speed of those routers.
It will be a while before you find 4×4 (or even faster) Wi-Fi 6 clients. That’s because 2×2 is already plenty fast. Most importantly, it has a good balance between wireless speeds and energy consumption. If you notice, the majority of Wi-Fi 5 mobile devices use the 2×2 tier of that standard.
Generally, Wi-Fi 6 has the base speed of 1.2Gbps (1200Mbps) per stream. Hence, a dual-stream connection has the ceiling speed of 2.4Gbps, and a quad-stream is 4.8Gbps. Now that’s crazy fast.
The real-world sustained speeds are always much lower than the ceiling speeds. But all Wi-Fi 6 routers I’ve reviewed can deliver speed faster than 1Gbps when used with a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 client. So tier-by-tier, Wi-Fi 6 is some four times the speed of Wi-Fi 5.
Important note on Wi-Fi 6 speeds — what you can realistically expect
The rates mentioned about — 2.4Gbps for a dual-stream and 4.8Gbps for a quad-stream — only apply to when the devices connect using the 160MHz channels.
For backward compatibility, and due to spectrum shortage (more below) as well as hardware constraint in certain situations, Wi-Fi 6 also uses narrower channels, including 80MHz, 40MHz, and 20MHz. Some routers don’t even use the 160MHz channel width at all.
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.
So, the lack of support for the 160MHz channel bandwidth is not a good thing, but some networking vendors take advantage of this and, quite creatively, call their non-160MHz routers 8×8 ones (instead of 4×4). Because 8 times 600 gives the same result as 4 times 1200. Got it? The problem is there’s no such 8×8 client and likely never will be.
Another thing with Wi-Fi 6, for the first time, we have routers that use different tiers for each frequency band. The Asus ZenWiFi AX, for example, is a tri-band Wi-Fi 6 router that has a 2×2 2.4GHz band, a 2×2 5GHz band, and a second 4×4 5GHz band.
Again, for marketing purposes, networking vendors add up all these streams into a single (large) number. So you’ll find 8-stream, 12-stream routers and so on. Furthermore, they also add up the bandwidth of each band into a single (huge) number — you’ll find AX6000, AX11000 routers, and so on.
That said, these numbers don’t mean much because a Wi-Fi connection takes place on a single band at a time. That said, when shopping, look at a Wi-Fi 6 router’s fastest band and use that band’s specs to determine the real ceiling speed. So, with its current specs, the ZenWiFi AX above is actually a 4×4 Wi-Fi 6 router, not an 8×8 one.
Also, to see the real Wi-Fi 6 speeds, the router needs to have multi-gig ports. Otherwise, the Wi-Fi connection’s real-world speed will cap at 1Gbps, 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. As a result, when you copy data between two 2.4Gbps (currently the fastest available) Wi-Fi 6 devices using the same band, the speed between them caps at just 1.2Gbps.
So, a good Wi-Fi 6 router, strictly in terms of speeds, needs to support the venerable 160MHz channel width, has 4×4 specs (or higher) on a single band, and a couple of multi-gig network ports. Whether or not you need a router like that is a different question entirely.
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 6GHz frequency band.
Initially, Wi-Fi 6 is available in the traditional 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. With the use of the extra-wide 160MHz channel width, 5GHz runs out of space fast.
The 6GHz addresses this Wi-Fi spectrum shortage by providing more contiguous spectrum blocks. Specifically, a Wi-Fi 6E-capable router will have access to an additional fourteen 80MHz channels and seven 160 MHz channels.
That said, using the new band, Wi-Fi 6 devices will be able to work at higher speeds without suffering from congestions. As a result, they’ll be able to consistently true Wi-Fi 6 speeds mentioned above.
The catch is 6GHz has a slightly shorter range than 5GHz, which in turn has a significantly shorter range than 2.4GHz. It 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 cases, existing Wi-Fi 6 routers and clients might be able to support it via firmware and 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 2020 that it was planning to upgrade some of its existing routers to Wi-Fi 6E but soon later walked that notion back. 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, it’ll be close to useless in the foreseeable future.
So, I’ll be able to download a movie much faster with Wi-Fi 6, right?
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 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 speed.
In networking, the final speed of a connection is always that of the slowest party. 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 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.
Also, thanks to the use of more advanced quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) — the way data travels over radio frequencies –Wi-Fi 6 has much higher ceiling speeds than Wi-Fi 5.
So, the short answer is nothing much since ultimately, it’s all about the wireless 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, partly thanks to the higher speed. The client will take much less time, compared to older Wi-Fi standards, to deliver the same amount of data, hence uses less energy, comparatively.
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.
How about Wi-Fi 6 range, is it better?
If you’re using a single router, the answer is maybe just a little bit. In my experience, Wi-Fi 6 routers’ coverage is pretty much the same as that of Wi-Fi 5 counterparts. The Asus RT-AX88U, for example, has about the same range as that of the RT-AC88U.
The reason is the Wi-Fi range ties to the nature of the radio frequencies in use, namely the 5GHz and 2.4GHz. 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, the speed of Wi-Fi 6 is so fast that 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.
Indeed, the first purpose-built tri-band Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems I’ve tested — including the ARRIS mAX Pro, the Netgear Orbi RBK852, and the Ubiquiti Alien Kit –, all delivered exceptional Wi-Fi coverage.
In other words, Wi-Fi 6’s fast ceiling speed compensates for the signal loss and overheads in the back-haul link, 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, much more so than does Wi-Fi 5.
How about existing Wi-Fi clients, do they 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 clients. It will not work with legacy clients at all. But all Wi-Fi 6 router will include a 2.4GHz band that works with all existing clients on the market.
For example, all Asus Wi-Fi 6 routers allow for turning off the 802.11ax HE frame support feature, to make it work with some clients.
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.
OK, so should I buy Wi-Fi 6 equipment 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. So, it’s mostly the question of finance. It doesn’t hurt to get one 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.