The Wi-Fi 6 era is officially here, and new, next-gen routers capable of putting 802.11ax's upgraded features to work are already up for sale.
It's early, though. Despite the fact that Wi-Fi 6 routers are backward-compatible with previous-gen Wi-Fi devices, they won't be able to do much of anything to speed them up. For that, you'll need new devices that support Wi-Fi 6, too. And, while you'll now find plenty of laptops equipped with Wi-Fi 6, along with Wi-Fi 6 support in flagship smart phones like the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10, we haven't seen things like smart home gadgets or media streamers jump on board just yet.
We won't really be able to test out Wi-Fi 6's claims of being much, much better at connecting with lots and lots of devices at once until devices like those are widely available. That means that while you should expect to start seeing faster Wi-Fi at places like airports and stadiums, we're probably still a year or two away from feeling the full impact in our homes (and our test lab).
None of that has stopped us from wondering just what sort of speeds Wi-Fi 6 is actually capable of. Early estimates described those top transfer speeds as 30% faster than previous-gen, Wi-Fi 5 speeds. So, equipped with a Wi-Fi 6 laptop and a lab full of new, shiny, top-of-the-line Wi-Fi 6 routers, we set out to put those claims to test.
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Our test setup
The first Wi-Fi 6 router we tested was the Netgear Nighthawk AX12, which promises speeds of up to 1.2 Gbps on the 2.4GHz band and up to 4.8 Gbps on the 5GHz band. There are a lot of limitations on speeds like those at the moment -- one of them being that our internet speeds aren't nearly that fast here at the office (or, you know, anywhere).
We can still test each router's top transfer speeds by measuring its ability to move files around locally, though. With the Netgear Nighthawk, for instance, the router comes with a set of two 1-gigabit Ethernet ports in the back that you can aggregate into a single connection from two incoming servers. Other high-end routers offer multi-gig Ethernet WAN ports that support speeds as high as 2.5, 5 or even 10 Gbps.
For our tests, we connect ports like those to MacBooks that act as our servers for the test. The MacBooks transmit data to the router over those Ethernet connections -- from there, we use a third computer equipped with an 802.11ax card to connect wirelessly with the router to download the data from the server at Wi-Fi 6 speeds.
With the Netgear Nighthawk AX12, speeds clocked in at 1,320 Mbps, or 1.32 Gbps. The support team for the Killer Wi-Fi 6 module in our test PC told us that the numbers we were seeing sounded about right, and that with different routers or in a different environment, perhaps one with less interference, we might see speeds as high as 1.4 or 1.5 Gbps.
So, we kept testing. To date, the fastest Wi-Fi 6 speeds we've seen came from the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which measured in with an average wireless download speed of 1,523 Mbps at a distance of 5 feet. Range was strong with that router, too -- at a distance of 75 feet, the connection still averaged out to a blazing fast 868 Mbps.
But hey, that's a lot of numbers, and numbers are easier to process when you put them into perspective. To do so, I'mma call in the big guns.
How to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film in the right orderSee all photos
From Robert Downey Jr.'s debut as Tony Stark to the climactic clash with Thanos 11 years later (and setting aside Spider-Man: Far From Home) the Marvel Cinematic Universe consists of a whopping 22 films adapted from Marvel comic books, stretching from Iron Man to Guardians of the Galaxy to Black Panther all the way up to Avengers: Endgame. It'd take more than 48 hours of screen time to watch them all (just ask CNET's Abrar Al-Heeti, who actually pulled it off in a single 59-hour marathon).
Now, let's say you wanted to follow in Abrar's footsteps and host a Marvel marathon of your own with those same 22 films. You don't want to rent, you don't want to stream, and you don't want to wrangle a bunch of discs -- you want your own, high-quality digital copies of each film, and you'll need to download them.
Assuming you were downloading them in 4K resolution using the same compression standards as Blu-Ray, each film would eat up about 70 gigabytes of storage space. The grand total for 48 hours and 11 minutes of footage? 1,580 gigabytes -- more than a terabyte and a half.
So. How long would it take you to download all of those files?
Well, according to the global speed index at Ookla, a top speed-testing site, the average fixed broadband download speed in the US is now 124 megabits per second. Bits aren't the same as bytes, mind you, but the conversion is easy: You just divide the bits by 8.
So, with that average, 124-megabits-per-second connection, you'd be able to download about 15 megabytes per second -- or .015 gigabytes per second. Dividing our grand total of 1,580 gigabytes by .015 tells us that downloading the entire MCU with an average connection speed would take 105,333 seconds.
That's roughly 29 hours and 16 minutes. And you don't even have a time stone to speed things up.
In my home, I'm lucky enough to have a direct fiber connection. My plan is set at 300 Mbps, which is easily fast enough for my purposes, but entry-level as far as fiber goes. If that speed held steady, I'd be able to download the entire MCU in about 11 hours, 42 minutes.
What if I upgraded to the best possible fiber connection, complete with the top-of-the-line hardware needed to take advantage of it? The fastest Wi-Fi 5 router we've tested is the Asus RT-AC86U, which clocked in with an impressive transfer speed of 938 Mbps on the 5GHz band. With that router and a fiber connection that was fast enough to match it, I could download all 22 MCU films in about 3 hours and 45 minutes.
This brings us to Wi-Fi 6. Like I said before, we clocked the TP-Link Archer AX6000 at a top transfer speed of 1,523 Mbps. Assuming we had an internet connection of at least that speed, we'd be able to download all 22 films in just 2 hours and 18 minutes. At that speed, you could download the entire MCU almost 13 times before someone connecting at the average US speed was able to download it once.
Meet the Wi-Fi 6 routers that support 802.11axSee all photos
Hold your horses
Again, the big, obvious problem with all of that is that most people don't have access to faster-than-average internet speeds. A direct fiber connection only became available in my neighborhood very recently -- before that, I was living with cable internet download speeds of about 62 Mbps, which is well below the national average.
A Wi-Fi 6 router wouldn't do much of anything to speed up a connection like that, or even the speedier fiber connection I'm enjoying now. And without Wi-Fi 6-compatible laptops and devices, I wouldn't be able to enjoy the faster local transfers within my home's network, either. For almost all of us, it's still too early to spend big on a Wi-Fi 6 router.
It's a bit like a bucket brigade. A Wi-Fi 6 router is like someone who's really, really good at passing buckets of water back and forth -- say, 100 buckets a minute. But that only matters if the guy next to him is also capable of handling 100 buckets per minute. If that person can only hand off 20 buckets per minute, then 20 buckets per minute is all you can expect from the entire brigade.
In other words, your internet connection is only as fast as its slowest link. And for most of us, our ISP's top download speed is going to be the slowest link.
The silver lining to that is that is that we can expect some pretty dramatic jumps in internet speeds in the coming years. Experts pegged Wi-Fi 6 as 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5, and our early tests seem to indicate that it's an accurate claim. But that's compared to the fastest possible Wi-Fi 5 connections. The speed jumps are much, much more significant when you compare them to the average internet speeds that most of us are currently stuck with. Not 30% faster, but 1,000% faster.
And that's just based off of our first speed test -- other routers might produce even faster results in the months ahead. One option from TP-Link even promises theoretical maximum speeds of 10,756 Mbps -- nearly 11 gigabits per second. That figure is highly skewed by the fact that it combines the top speeds of each of the router's three bands, and you can only connect to one of those bands at a time, but it still gives you a sense of the way things are trending.
Mesh might be the exception
One last point of note -- we aren't just testing single-point, standalone Wi-Fi 6 routers like that space tarantula pictured above. We're also testing out multipoint mesh routers that add range-extending satellite devices into the mix -- and the ones that support Wi-Fi 6 are pretty darned interesting.
That's because those Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems are able to pass data back and forth between the router and the satellites at Wi-Fi 6 speeds. That helps you connect a lot faster at range, when your connection is getting routed through the satellite. Even if your laptop, your phone and your gadgets all still support Wi-Fi 5, you'll still get the benefit of those speedy Wi-Fi 6 signals within the mesh.
The best we've tested so far is the Netgear Orbi 6. At $700 for a two-piece setup, it's too expensive for most, but it was able to return an average download speed of 288 Mbps in my home, where my fiber internet connection maxes out at 300 Mbps. That's after dozens of speed tests conducted over multiple days from every corner of my house -- and note that I don't use any Wi-Fi 6 gadgets in my home yet. No Wi-Fi 5 mesh system we've tested has come close to that level of performance.
And how about top speeds? Since they focus on spreading a speedy signal throughout your home, mesh routers aren't typically capable of hitting top speeds that are as fast as single-point, standalone routers. Among the Wi-Fi 5 crop, the only mesh routers we've tested that have been able to hit speeds faster than 600 Mbps were Nest Wifi and the dual-band, AC1200 version of Netgear Orbi, and in each case that was only at a close-range distance of 5 feet.
Of the six Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems we've tested, five were able to hit speeds faster than 800 Mbps. Four of those were able to hit speeds above 600 Mbps -- at a distance of 75 feet. It might not be long before we see mesh systems that are able to regularly connect at gigabit-plus speeds -- not in some manufacturer's lab, mind you, but right in your home.
Of course, jumps like that are going to require more than just a new router -- they're going to require fiber internet speeds that are faster than a single gigabit per second. Connections like that aren't widely available yet, but when they get here, it appears that the hardware will be ready to take advantage of them. That's thanks to Wi-Fi 6.
In the meantime, we'll continue testing out the newest routers to see if we can find any that are even faster than the models we've already tested. You can also expect to see fresh tests and reviews for the current routers and mesh systems that can tide you over until Wi-Fi 6 becomes a more meaningful upgrade. Do stay tuned.
Originally published Aug. 2, 2019 and updated regularly.