Broadband Hardware

What is Wi-Fi 6 and when is it coming?

what is wi-fi 6

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Wi-Fi 6 is set to hit the mainstream in 2019, which raises several key questions. What is Wi-Fi 6? What benefits does Wi-Fi 6 bring? Should you upgrade your router? Here, we attempt to make sense of it all.

First of all, what is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is a term used by companies such as Intel and the Wi-Fi Alliance to identify phones, laptops and tablets that work with the very latest Wi-Fi standard: 802.11ax.

Here’s a simple table:

Old nameNew name
802.11axWi-Fi 6
802.11acWi-Fi 5
802.11nWi-Fi4

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest standard and promises to be faster, perform better when there are lots of devices sharing a connection, and consume less power.

Some Wi-Fi 6 routers and laptops have already started shipping, but we’re yet to see tablets or phones with Wi-Fi 6 inside. And to date, no Apple products have shipped with Wi-Fi 6 at all.

To add to that “not quite here yet” feeling, there isn’t a cast-iron guarantee that the available Wi-Fi 6 kit will interact happily with each other. For that, we’ll have to wait until the “third quarter of 2019” when the Wi-Fi alliance will produce its Wi-Fi Certified 6 programme.

If you see two products with the above logo then you know they’ll definitely connect at the highest possible speed. Until then, there’s no guarantee (although they will still connect okay… we hope).

What are Wi-Fi 6’s key benefits?

  • Up to four times faster download speeds than Wi-Fi 5
  • Lower power demands
  • Handles IoT (internet of things) devices more sensibly
  • Works over a longer range, including outside

The biggest improvement Wi-Fi 6 brings is in congested networks – that is, all of them. Back in the day, we had two, three, perhaps four products on a network. Now there could be dozens.

With Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), all those devices fight for bandwidth. Like young children “sharing” a PlayStation. “My go.” “No, it’s my go.” Then the tears…

Wi-Fi 6 makes it possible for devices to share the connection rather than wait in turns, and that means – Intel claims – that the “average throughput per user” will improve by “at least four times in dense or congested networks”.

We should also see peak transfer speeds increase by almost 40%.

Much of Wi-Fi 6’s benefits won’t be obvious. It will have a lower power draw, so your phones and laptops will last that fraction longer, and will also improve the handling of all the random little items (video doorbells, smart lighting, etc) that sit on our networks.

In short, everything should be faster and more reliable, and should also work over a longer range. That includes outdoors, where current Wi-Fi standards struggle.

Should I wait for Wi-Fi 6?

While we welcome all the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, it’s not such a huge breakthrough that you should delay purchases. At this point, you’re better off making sure that your new devices support 802.11ac (or Wi-Fi 5, as the powers-that-be would like us to call it now).

However, if you’re thinking about investing a couple of hundred pounds in a new router then Wi-Fi 6 may be worth the wait.

CES saw D-Link, Netgear and TP-Link announce Wi-Fi 6 routers hardware, but note that “announcing” isn’t the same as putting on sale: for instance, the Wi-Fi 6-compatible Netgear Orbi system isn’t available until the summer.

RELATED: What are the actual broadband speeds you’re likely to receive?

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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