If you have what’s known as a dual-band router, it doesn’t mean you can stream Metallica at the same time as The Beatles: it means your Wi-Fi devices can connect to one of two bands. Those bands are 2.4GHz and 5GHz and, like Metallica and The Beatles, they have very different characteristics.
So which should you connect your devices to? The answer isn’t always straightforward, but let’s try and help you find the right solution for your home Wi-Fi – and find out why there’s now a third option in the mix.
The 2.4GHz band
The 2.4GHz band is The Beatles of this now over-stretched metaphor – it’s been around for ages and it’s massively popular.
Too popular, in fact. The 2.4GHz band isn’t only used for Wi-Fi traffic, it’s used for everything from baby monitors to cordless phones to wireless video cameras. Plus, there are still quite a few older laptops and routers knocking around that only work with 2.4GHz and not 5GHz. Consequently, it’s the more congested of the two.
That can be a problem if you’re trying to stream 4K Netflix to the TV in your bedroom and there’s tons of other wireless traffic – not only from your own network but from neighbours’ Wi-Fi networks too. Which is why router manufacturers started making routers that operate in the less congested 5GHz band.
The 5GHz band
The 5GHz band operates at a different frequency to 2.4GHz, meaning that the two bands can co-exist without interfering with one another.
As many fewer devices support 5GHz, the airwaves tend to be much clearer. This reduces the risk of a flood of traffic disrupting your Stranger Things streams.
There’s even better news in that the maximum speeds achievable over 5GHz are much faster than 2.4GHz. We’re not going to dive into exactly how fast, because all manner of factors come into play, but if you were looking for the fastest possible connection, you’d normally go for 5GHz.
There is, of course, a catch. 5GHz uses shorter radio waves than 2.4GHz, meaning it has more trouble passing through walls, windows, bookcases and all the other awkward obstacles that comprise a modern home. Consequently, it’s less reliable.
Here at Collins Towers, the 2.4GHz band has no problem reaching my office in the garage (passing through two brick walls), but the 5GHz band is wobbly. Hence, I generally connect any device in the office to 2.4GHz to guard against connection dropouts.
2.4GHz vs 5GHz: which to choose?
The first thing to ascertain is whether you have a choice in the first place. Most dual-band routers will, by default, automatically assign devices to one band or the other for the sake of simplicity.
This approach has a pro and a con. The pro is that you don’t need to think about it. The con is that you probably will need to think about it, because quite often devices that use the 2.4GHz band can’t communicate directly with devices on the 5GHz band, even though they’re connected to the same network.
Worse, you won’t have a clue which band each device is connecting to without diving into your router’s settings, nor (in most cases) can you force a device to connect to a particular band.
As a result, it’s normally best to set up your router so that each band is assigned its own wireless network name (its SSID), so it effectively looks like two different routers when you’re connecting devices. In our house, they’re called BarrysRouter and BarrysRouter5 so we know which is which. (They’re not really called BarrysRouter, as that would be spectacularly egotistical, but I’m not spilling the real name of my router on a public site in case you’re a nasty piece of work.)
Like Yoko Ono, you can normally split the bands via the router’s management menu – if you’re a BT customer, follow the instructions here to access it.
2.4GHz vs 5GHz: just answer the question, will you?
So, with all the caveats noted above and with your router assigning each band a different SSID, here’s what I’d do.
Leave most everyday devices on the 2.4GHz band. Your phones, your tablets, your smart speakers, your fancy thermostats and doorbells. They generally won’t need the very highest speeds and they will benefit more from the greater reliability at range of the 2.4GHz band.
Where you have devices that will need very high speeds and the best possible performance – such as 4K streaming devices or games consoles – put them on 5GHz. That way, they won’t get interference from other devices in your home and have the best possible chance of getting uninterrupted, high-speed data.
Bet you wish you’d never bothered asking now, don’t you?
What’s the 6GHz band?
Buckle up, because there’s another option to throw into the mix. Newer routers based on Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 offer a third band, 6GHz.
The 6GHz band brings several significant benefits. Firstly, it offers even more capacity than the 5GHz band. This means it can accommodate a greater number of devices at higher speeds, making it a game-changer for congested networks in dense residential or commercial environments.
Moreover, the 6GHz band is less crowded than the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands because it’s new and not yet widely adopted. In addition, many older devices and other types of equipment do not operate in this band, which reduces the likelihood of interference.
Like the 5GHz band, the 6GHz band also has a shorter range and doesn’t penetrate walls as effectively. However, when combined with Wi-Fi 7’s other technologies, it can offer high-speed, low-latency connections, making it ideal for demanding applications such as 4K video streaming, virtual reality and games streaming.
Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 routers are still pretty rare at the time of writing in spring 2023. You likely won’t have one yet if your router is supplied by a broadband provider. But if you’re thinking of upgrading your home router, you should definitely be looking for a Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 7 model to future proof you for the next few years.