The much-anticipated next generation of wireless networking, 802.11ax, better known as Wi-Fi 6, has arrived, and it promises significant improvements over the current 802.11ac standard (now dubbed Wi-Fi 5 by the Wi-Fi Alliance). Faster throughput speeds, better battery life for clients, and less bandwidth congestion are some of the most obvious reasons for upgrading to the new standard, but there are some important things to consider before you run out and buy a Wi-Fi 6 router.
A lot has been written about Wi-Fi 6 up to this point, but here’s a brief rundown on what to expect from the newest 802.11 wireless standard. (For more history, check out our explainer.) Wi-Fi 6 routers employ several new technologies that are designed to boost overall performance by offering increased throughput speeds (nearing 10Gbps, theoretically, compared with max speeds of around 3Gbps with 802.11ac).
In addition, Wi-Fi 6 aims to relieve network congestion, provide greater client capacity, and reduce client power consumption. For example, Wi-Fi 6 uses Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) modulation, which allows up to 30 clients to share a channel at the same time, thereby improving efficiency by boosting overall capacity while reducing latency. Long story short, OFDMA assigns time intervals to clients that allows them to better parse out available network channels. For example, if one person in your home is streaming a movie and another is checking social media on a phone, OFDMA allows a router to assign channels to each device based on when it needs it most.
Wi-Fi 6 also uses Target Wake Time (TWT), which allows devices to determine when they will normally wake up to begin sending and receiving data. This extends the battery life of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, as well as battery-powered smart home devices such as security cameras and video doorbells. The new standard also takes advantage of previously unused radio frequencies to provide faster 2.4GHz performance, and it uses refined bandwidth management to provide enhanced Quality of Service (QoS) options. Additionally, Wi-Fi 6 offers eight-stream uplink and downlink Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Out (MU-MIMO), which streams data simultaneously rather than sequentially, allowing a more equitable sharing of bandwidth among connected MU-MIMO enabled clients. Wi-Fi 5 MU-MIMO topped out at four streams.
The short answer is, probably not. You can find a handful of Wi-Fi 6 routers on the market right now (see our reviews of the Asus RT-AX88U and the Netgear Nighthawk AX8). More are showing up every day, and they are all backward-compatible with previous-generation clients. But to realize the faster speeds, improved range, reduced power consumption, and other benefits that you get with Wi-Fi 6, you’ll have to use Wi-Fi 6-enabled clients, and as of this writing they are few and far between.
Devices that support the latest protocol are just starting to roll out, but keep in mind that even those are using a form that is still in draft. PCs with Intel Ice Lake CPUs will support the protocol, but those are just now slowly starting to go on sale. Smartphones with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor, including the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S10, also support Wi-Fi 6. If you don’t have a Wi-Fi 6-enabled device, there are also aftermarket adapters available.
Remember that Wi-Fi 6 is still only in draft form. The Wi-Fi 6 standard is not yet finalized and is not expected to be ratified until later this year. That means that early routers and clients may not offer all the features that Wi-Fi 6 promises. And, as was the case with Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5, there will likely be two waves of Wi-Fi 6 devices as features are fine-tuned and finalized. That said, the Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to begin certifying Wi-Fi 6 devices sometime in Q3 of 2019, and final IEEE approval is expected sometime toward the end of Q4 2019.
Also required will be support for 1,024-QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation), a method that allows more data to be packed into each signal for increased throughput, offering 25 percent more capacity than the 256-QAM method used in most Wi-Fi 5 routers. Finally, devices must have Target Wake Time power-scheduling capabilities. All this jargon is a lot to unpack, but rest assured that any device you get that supports the final Wi-Fi 6 standard will have all these features in place.
As it stands here in the summer of 2019, Wi-Fi 6 may still be baking, but it’s likely to be a game changer once it fully rolls out. So, what’s the bottom line on upgrading now? If you’re currently using a Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) router with a mix of Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) and Wi-Fi 5 clients, and it’s getting the job done, there’s no reason to replace it with a Wi-Fi 6 router. On the other hand, if you’re building a new network and want to be ready for the onslaught of Wi-Fi 6 clients that will eventually hit the shelves, future-proofing with a Wi-Fi 6 router is a smart choice. Just be aware that the technology is likely to evolve and additional features could be added at a later time.