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?
- How fast is Wi-Fi 6?
- Wi-Fi 6E: The answer to spectrum shortage
- Will I be able to download a movie much faster with Wi-Fi 6?
- Apart from higher speed caps, what else makes Wi-Fi 6 better than Wi-Fi 5?
- How about battery life?
- Does Wi-Fi 6 have better range?
- Do existing Wi-Fi clients work with Wi-Fi 6?
- Should I buy a Wi-Fi 6 router now?
- The takeaway
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 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, though, most Wi-Fi 6 routers I’ve reviewed can deliver a sustained speed close to 1 Gbps, some even faster, when used with a 2×2 Wi-Fi 6 client.
So tier-by-tier, Wi-Fi 6 can provide up to about thrice the speed of Wi-Fi 5. Most of the time, though, due to different factors, well, you should expect about 50 percent improvement.
And no, Wi-Fi 6 is not necessarily always faster. Indeed, a top-tier Wi-Fi 5 connection can be faster than a mid-tier Wi-Fi 6 one.
Wi-Fi 6 speeds: 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 160 MHz channel, which is very wide and encompasses multiple narrower channels.
These channels are only available in the 5 GHz frequency band, and there are just a few of them — two in the U.S –, and both require a part of the Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) spectrum.
DFS shares airspace with radar and always takes the back seat. A Wi-Fi broadcaster auto switches its DFS channels when radar signals are present, causing brief disconnections. Many existing clients don’t support DFS through all Wi-Fi 6 ones do.
In shorts, the 160 MHz channel width is premium real estate that’s not available for those living close (within tens of miles) to an airport.
Not enough 160 MHz channels
For backward compatibility and hardware constraint, Wi-Fi 6 also uses narrower channels, including 80 MHz, 40 MHz, and 20 MHz. Many routers, like the AmpliFi Alien, don’t even support the 160 MHz channels at all. In fact, you should expect your Wi-Fi 6 router to use the 80 MHz channel width in most cases.
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, or about 50 percent faster than that of Wi-Fi 5, which is 433 Mbps.
So, again, here’s an interesting fact: Considering there are plenty of 4×4 (1733 Mbps in 80 MHz) 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 a mid-tier Wi-Fi 6 ones.
So, the lack of support for the 160 MHz channel bandwidth is generally not a good thing, but networking vendors have figured out a way to 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.
(Technically, if clients of different tiers all used the 80 MHz channel width, then these 8×8 routers might have some advantages since they are geared toward this configuration. But 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. (And 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 that’s 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 160 MHz 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 160 MHz 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 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, 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.
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. 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?
The reason is Wi-Fi range ties to the nature of the frequencies, 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.
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. 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. 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.