NEW YORK—First things first: what is Wi-Fi 6? In a network nutshell, it’s the next-gen wireless technology that was previously known as 802.11ax until the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to rename it more succinctly. Wi-Fi 6 supersedes 802.11ac (now known as Wi-Fi 5), which most current routers run.
The broad idea of this rechristening is to make the name of the standard easy to understand, so rather than bombarding you with a meaningless string of numbers and letters, you get something akin to 3G, 4G and 5G with phones.
Besides a new naming convention, though, what does Wi-Fi 6 actually offer to the consumer? Unsurprisingly, you’ll get faster wireless speeds—that’s a given, really—but more to the point, it’s designed to deliver much better Wi-Fi performance in device-crowded environments, along with other efficiency benefits.
Want to know more about this incoming wireless standard and what it might mean for your home or office? Read on for the full lowdown plus all the latest news and speculation on this exciting step forward for Wi-Fi.
According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, the non-profit overseer of the Wi-Fi world, Wi-Fi 6 will be out “later in 2019.” By all accounts, that will most likely be toward the very end of the year (assuming no serious slippage is encountered). A certification program was announced in January to ensure that Wi-Fi 6-labelled devices meet the relevant specified standards, and this scheme is expected to start imminently, in the third quarter of 2019.
At this point, you might be thinking “wait a minute: aren’t there already Wi-Fi 6 routers out there [albeit most of them are still labelled 802.11ax]?”
And you’d be right—there are indeed, but with caveats. Some routers that support Wi-Fi 6 and are already on shelves include the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 and AX4, TP-Link’s Archer AX6000 and the Asus RT-AX88U (indeed Asus even has a Wi-Fi 6-toting mesh router offering imminent).
However, remember that these early devices are based on the draft standard of Wi-Fi 6, which isn’t yet finalized (and won’t be till later in the year). So bear in mind that these routers may miss out on some features that fully certified Wi-Fi 6 devices are required to carry, depending on whether the spec that manufacturers must adhere to is changed much between now and the official launch of the new standard.
From what we’ve heard, any potential differences will be minor, but we won’t know specifics until the Wi-Fi 6 launch officially happens.
Furthermore, even if you do own a router that supports (draft) Wi-Fi 6, you’ll also need Wi-Fi 6-compatible client devices on the other end of the connection to benefit from the new Wi-Fi standard. And early adopting pieces of hardware are even thinner on the ground, at least right now; one example is Samsung’s Galaxy S10 smartphone.
That said, a number of laptops supporting Wi-Fi 6 from all the major vendors were announced at CES, and it shouldn’t be long before some of these arrive (for starters, we are expecting Alienware notebooks imminently).
After the official launch of Wi-Fi 6 late in 2019, going forward into 2020, you can expect an increasingly rapid spread of both supporting routers and client hardware, all of which will be certified to the fully finalized Wi-Fi 6 standard.
DEVICES AND PRICING
To give you an idea of the cost of Wi-Fi 6 supporting devices, let’s take a quick look at some of the prices of the aforementioned routers that have been produced adhering to the draft Wi-Fi 6 spec.
TP-Link’s Archer AX6000 currently weighs in at around $350, and the Asus RT-AX88U is pitched at about $325. Netgear’s Nighthawk AX8 can be had for around $300, with the Nighthawk AX4 coming in at around $200, which is pretty much as cheap as it gets right now.
We will, of course, see more walletfriendly Wi-Fi 6 routers coming into play as time goes on.
As for Wi-Fi 6 client devices, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 currently starts at an eye-watering $899.
SPEC AND PERFORMANCE
Wi-Fi 6 operates over 2.4GHz and 5GHz (and more frequency bands in the future), unlike Wi-Fi 5, which is 5GHz only, and it will be faster than its predecessor as you’d expect. Exactly what sort of speed increase we’ll ultimately get isn’t fully clear (and will vary in different scenarios anyway).
In theoretical terms, Wi-Fi 6 boosts peak speeds by 37% compared to Wi-Fi 5 (when using a single device). While you doubtless won’t achieve all of that gain—it’s a bit of a “how fast is a piece of string tied to the bumper of a moving car” scenario—you could see a substantial chunk of it, and a very telling uplift in terms of raw performance.
However, unlike previous iterations of Wi-Fi standards, this new offering isn’t focused on purely boosting headline speeds. Rather, Wi-Fi 6 aims to facilitate much better performance in crowded environments where there are lots of wireless devices, such as an apartment block, or a public venue like a stadium. Or even your home, if you have a number of family members who perhaps own multiple mobile devices and PCs each.
It’ll also help deal with the connectivity strain caused by the ever-increasing number of connected IoT (Internet of Things) devices and smart home gadgets.
Wi-Fi 6 employs various technologies to achieve all this, including a key player in the form of OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). This allows more folks to simultaneously use the same wireless channel for far more efficient operation, not to mention better throughput and much lower latency (meaning a more responsive connection).
Wi-Fi 6 also makes use of MU-MIMO, which has already been incorporated with Wi-Fi 5 hardware, and allows for a greater amount of data to be transferred at once (and to handle multiple client devices simultaneously). In Wi-Fi 6, the technology is improved to double up the number of spatial streams that can be transmitted from a maximum of four previously, to now potentially cover eight devices (plus it adds support for uplink—transmissions back from the client device—as well as downlink).
So yes, there’s a bit of jargon involved here, with other clever bits of trickery, including improved beamforming for better speeds at range, and 1024-QAM being employed (as opposed to 256-QAM in Wi-Fi 5) for better throughput.
But odd acronyms and techie-sounding stuff aside, the performance takeaway when it comes to congested wireless environments where loads of devices are online is that Wi-Fi 6 promises to boost the average throughput per user by four times (or more). That’s quite a startling improvement in traffic-heavy areas, and it’s backed by the promise of increased network efficiency also by a factor of four.
With more and more pieces of hardware coming online—particularly given the increasing numbers of smart home gadgets, connected appliances and IoT devices in general—these improvements will be vital going forward into our Wi-Fi future. If we were stuck on Wi-Fi 5, we’d effectively become stuck in the wireless mud.
There’s a further boon on the efficiency front to Wi-Fi 6, and that’s better battery life for client devices. This is achieved via a technology called Target Wake Time (TWT), which essentially lets the router and client talk to each other to determine when the client device will need to wake up to transmit (or receive) data. This means that the client hardware won’t have to be constantly listening for wireless signals, and that in turn means less battery usage.
This will be particularly useful for IoT gadgets that only communicate online sporadically, and the likes of wearables, but also to a lesser extent phones, tablets and laptops. Wi-Fi 6’s overall improvements in network efficiency (by a factor of four) we’ve already mentioned should also help on the battery front, too, helping to cut down a little on power usage.
When you add everything up in terms of faster overall Wi-Fi speeds, much-improved performance in crowded wireless environments and some power-efficiency driven battery benefits to boot, there’s plenty to look forward to with the next-gen Wi-Fi standard.
This article originally appeared on techradar.com.