The Future of Wi-Fi Technology: All Your Questions, Answered

What is Wi-Fi 6? What makes it special? Do you need to upgrade?

wifi six
Gear Patrol

If the events of the past year have left you in search of better home Wi-Fi, you’re not alone. An emerging standard called Wi-Fi 6 may be part of the answer. Here's everything you need to know.

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is a set of ground rules for how your gadgets communicate. This update focuses on giving your home more bandwidth, space for data to move. That means more devices on your network can operate at max speed, all at once. And that’s just the beginning. The next version, called Wi-Fi 6E, will let devices use a brand-new wireless spectrum. Expect it in 2021.

Why haven't I even heard of Wi-Fi 5?

That's easy: it didn’t exist until Wi-Fi 6. The Wi-Fi Alliance, in charge of writing the Wi-Fi rules, used to use a more awkward naming scheme. What is now called Wi-Fi 5 was known as 802.11ac when it was released in 2014. The name Wi-Fi 6 was ginned up to save us all from having to talk about 802.11ax.

What makes Wi-Fi 6 better than the Wi-Fi I already have?

Wi-Fi 6 supports data-transfer speeds that are up 40 percent faster than Wi-Fi 5, but that’s not actually what will make your life better. The flagship Wi-Fi 6 feature is efficiency. Its ability to expand the bandwidth of your home network and divide it up into more slices means more gadgets in a small space can run at top speed simultaneously.

eero Pro 6

When is Wi-Fi 6 coming?

Right now. Pretty much all smartphones, laptops and tablets released from 2020 on will have chipsets that support Wi-Fi 6. Routers that are Wi-Fi 6 certified are starting to come out as well. Devices started adopting it back in late 2019 and many gadgets, like all current-generation iPhones, already support it. Wi-Fi 6E, which goes even further, will start to get hammered out in 2021.

How do I get it?

If you want to get the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, you’ll need support on both ends: the phone or tablet or computer that’s using the Wi-Fi and the router that’s dishing it out. A network is only as fast as the slowest device in the loop. Higher-quality routers have the ability to make two networks at once — one for the speed demons and one for the slowpokes.

Should I upgrade?

No, not yet. Many of the older gadgets you own won’t support and won’t even need the potential maximum speeds Wi-Fi 6 offers. What’s more, Wi-Fi 6E, coming in 2021, will provide an even bigger improvement, and you’re better off waiting for that to take hold.

Does Wi-Fi 6 have anything to do with 5G?

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are designed to similar ends — faster data-transfer speeds and support for more devices simultaneously — but they’re two completely separate technologies. Wi-Fi 6 is a better way to connect to the internet indoors and 5G as a better way to connect to cellular networks when you're out and about. Devices that support Wi-Fi 6 won’t necessarily support 5G, but if it has 5G, it almost certainly has Wi-Fi 6.

A version of this story first published in a recent issue of Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today.

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