A beginner’s guide to Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6

Internet & Streaming

Contrary to popular belief, “Wi-Fi” isn’t actually short for anything. It was coined as a less confusing term for the basic IEEE 802.11 protocol.

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Comparing Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6

Computer technology can feel a lot like magic. But while Wi-Fi might seem mystical, it’s only as complex and effective as it is today because it’s built on several generations of increasingly advanced protocols.

Wireless LAN connectivity was referred to as the 802.11x standard for over two decades. Near the end of 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the organization responsible for solidifying Wi-Fi standards, announced the release of Wi-Fi 6 and followed it up with the eventual rebranding of 802.11n and 802.11ac as Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5, respectively.

Wi-Fi 5 has worked great for consumers over the last several years and will continue to do so, but Wi-Fi 6 introduces some less-than-obvious improvements and sets up the technology to remain fast, efficient and secure for years to come.

Wi-Fi 5: How does it work?

Many of Wi-Fi 5’s most effective features are progressive refinements of things introduced in earlier versions of the protocol. 

Faster speeds

The first widely adopted Wi-Fi protocol was 802.11b. It supported a theoretical peak bandwidth of 11 megabits per second and operated on a set of frequency bands around 2.4 gigahertz. By comparison, Wi-Fi 5 offers speeds of up to 3.5 gigabits per second, or more than 300 times faster than 802.11b.

Dual-band connectivity

One prominent feature is dual-band connectivity, which opens up bands in the 5GHz range in addition to the 2.4GHz set. Transmissions in the 5GHz spectrum have a significantly longer range in the open air but can get blocked by solid objects like walls and even people. The 5GHz bands also open up significantly more bandwidth than the 2.4GHz range. With the advent of Wi-Fi 5, some ambitious manufacturers took it a step further and offered tri-band routers, which boast a single 2.4GHz and two 5GHz bands.

MIMO

One other technology that Wi-Fi 5 greatly enhanced is called “multiple input, multiple output,” or MIMO. The initial version of MIMO could send multiple streams to and from a device essentially at the same time. Wi-Fi 5 expanded that to multi-user, multiple input, multiple output, which allows a router to communicate with more than one device at a time using MIMO. This noticeably decreased the amount of latency you’d experience with multiple devices connected to the same network.

Beamforming

Beamforming is another feature that Wi-Fi 5 solidified. Essentially, it uses a set of antennas with slightly different attributes to let signals reach around corners to help eliminate dead spots. 

Increased channel bandwidth

Wi-Fi 5 also uses increased channel bandwidth compared to older versions. It can move more data on both frequency bands.

Wi-Fi 5 pros

With a theoretical maximum of over 3.5Gbps, it has enough bandwidth for the fastest home internet connections. It offers low latency even with multiple users connected to a network, as well as a better effective range, both indoors and out. It’s widely available on just about all modern smartphones, laptops and tablets.

Wi-Fi 5 cons

Wi-Fi 5 may have some shortcomings in commercial use cases, but few home users will ever notice any issues.

Best Wi-Fi 5 routers

TP-Link Archer A7

TP-Link Archer A7

This router is relatively basic and affordable, yet it’s very capable. It can accommodate most users’ home internet speeds and handle multiple devices connected at once without too much trouble. It offers dual-band connectivity and is backed by a two-year warranty.

Sold by: Amazon

Amazon Eero Mesh System

Amazon Eero Mesh System

Designed for homes with thousands of square feet to cover, this mesh system is a popular and reliable option. It takes less than 10 minutes to set up and offers advanced settings for monitoring and controlling internet access for individual users and devices.

Sold by: Amazon

Netgear Nighthawk R7350

Netgear Nighthawk R7350

With advanced MU-MIMO technology including a 4X4 configuration on the 5GHz band, this is one of the most powerful home Wi-Fi 5 access points. It utilizes Quality of Service optimization to ensure that the most important connections, like video conferences and online games, always have minimal latency.

Sold by: Amazon

How Wi-Fi 6 is better than Wi-Fi 5

The 802.11ax standard, or Wi-Fi 6, nearly triples the bandwidth of Wi-Fi 5. It also has a theoretical maximum of over 9Gbps, which may sound impressive but doesn’t make much of a difference for home users.

The more important improvements are in the details. 

MU-MIMO makes it ideal for networks that regularly have more than four devices connected.

Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access divides the available frequency bands and assigns them to specific data streams. This greatly decreases latency and increases instantaneous bandwidth to individual devices. Combined with refined MU-MIMO technology, this makes Wi-Fi 6 access points suitable for use in extremely crowded environments where dozens of clients are connected to a network at once.

Target wake time tells devices to enter standby so the access point can respond. This slashes the amount of energy needed for each transmission and saves your battery.

Wi-Fi 6E introduces a set of frequencies in the 6GHz. This massively increases the peak bandwidth of compatible networks.

Wi-Fi 6 pros

The advantages of Wi-Fi 6 over the previous version are its ability to accommodate dozens of users without significant slowdowns and its use of target wake time to reduce the client’s energy usage. It’s also worth noting that once all your devices use Wi-Fi 6, they take full advantage of MU-MIMO and Beamforming technology. Another upshot is that there’s a substantial selection of Wi-Fi 6 routers and many come at reasonable prices.

Wi-Fi 6 cons

The biggest thing holding Wi-Fi 6 back is that for it to really be effective, most devices connected to a Wi-Fi 6 network must themselves support Wi-Fi 6. Any Wi-Fi 5 devices connected to a Wi-Fi 6 network will see no improvement. 

Best Wi-Fi 6 routers

TP-Link Archer AX10

TP-Link Archer AX10

This Wi-Fi 6 access point costs well under $100 yet is fully certified for all of the protocol’s advanced features. With 1,500Mbps of peak bandwidth spread across its dual bands, it can accommodate gigabit internet packages without difficulty.

Sold by: Amazon

Amazon Eero 6 Mesh System

Amazon Eero 6 Mesh System 

As the successor to one of the most popular whole-home mesh systems, you can be certain this well-designed package is easy to configure and highly reliable. It does a great job of providing up-to-date security and effective parental controls. It’s also ideal for homes with their own private media servers.

Sold by: Amazon

TP-Link Archer AX90

TP-Link Archer AX90

If there are a few or even several avid gamers in the house and you’ve invested in a premium internet package, this beast of a router is worth considering. Its tri-band operation offers bandwidth and latency mitigation that are high-ranking, and it’s not even the most expensive option on the market.

Sold by: Amazon

Should you use Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6?

Plenty of brand new devices come with Wi-Fi 6 radios, so if you update your electronics frequently, eventually you’ll end up adopting Wi-Fi 6 whether you mean to or not. Or, if it’s finally time to upgrade your router, you might as well consider a Wi-Fi 6 model because there are plenty of great choices on the market.

For real-world use, though, most home consumers won’t notice a significant difference between the two, and you won’t notice any difference if your smartphones and computers don’t have the latest wireless chipsets. If you aren’t planning on upgrading anything soon, there’s no need to rush out and buy a new Wi-Fi 6 router.

 

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

 

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