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The iPhone 11 supports Wi-Fi 6. Here's what that means for you

The iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are the newest phones that support next-gen Wi-Fi 6 connections. Here's what you should know about that.

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All of Apple's newest iPhones add support for Wi-Fi 6.

Shara Tibken/CNET

In case you haven't heard, it's new iPhone season -- and this year, amid the flurry of new features and performance claims, Apple made a pretty interesting technical announcement. No, there's no support for 5G with any of the new models (we expect that'll come in 2020), but that doesn't mean there won't be speed. All three of them -- the iPhone 11, the iPhone 11 Pro, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max -- include support for Wi-Fi 6.

I can't say I blame you if you missed it at Tuesday's Apple event. The company only mentioned Wi-Fi 6 support as a throwaway line during a quick list of new features it was excited about, but didn't have enough time to focus on (understandable, what with the slofies and all).

Still, it's right there in the tech specs. All three models support 802.11ax, the technical name for Wi-Fi 6. That puts the iPhone up there with Samsung's Galaxy S10 and Note 10 mobile devices, which were the earliest phones to hop aboard the Wi-Fi 6 bandwagon.

That's great! Also: what exactly is Wi-Fi 6 again?

The Wi-Fi Alliance wants you to look for the Wi-Fi 6 logo.

Wi-Fi 6: The fastest Wi-Fi yet.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Next-gen connections

Wi-Fi 6 is the newest version of the 802.11 standard for wireless networking, which we commonly call Wi-Fi. The current version that most of your Wi-Fi devices probably use is 802.11ac, or Wi-Fi 5. Devices that support Wi-Fi 6 still speak that same Wi-Fi language to talk to each other -- they just talk faster and more efficiently than before.

The specific technical advancements that the standard brings to the table are complicated, but you can read my full Wi-Fi 6 explainer to start wrapping your head around them (and do let me know in the comments if you find the Mortal Kombat analogy helpful). But in a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6 is better than Wi-Fi 5 because:

  • It supports faster top transfer speeds (we've clocked it at as much as 1,320 Mbps -- about 40% faster than the fastest Wi-Fi 5 speeds we've measured).
  • It lets devices send more information with each individual transmission.
  • It lets routers and other access points service more devices at once.
  • It helps sensors and other wireless gadgets conserve battery power by scheduling transmissions.
  • It facilitates better, faster performance in dense, crowded environments like airports and stadiums.

According to our speed tests, Wi-Fi 6 lets devices transfer data about 40% faster than before. That number will likely go up as we continue working through more tests.

Ry Crist/CNET

So my internet will be faster?

Well... not really.

The new iPhones and other devices that support Wi-Fi 6, like the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus, will definitely be able to take advantage of all of the Wi-Fi 6 perks -- but only if they've got a Wi-Fi 6 access point to connect to. You won't see any difference at all if you're still using a Wi-Fi 5 router. And sure, Wi-Fi 6 routers are available now (we're currently testing a bunch of the things out) -- but they're still very expensive.

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Even if you do get one, it won't do anything to magically make your internet connection faster. If the connection from your internet service provider is, say, 100 Mbps, then that's the speed limit for your home. Wi-Fi 6 can't do anything to speed it up.

Right now, the average download speed in the US is 119 Mbps, which is nowhere close to the top speeds Wi-Fi 6 is theoretically capable of. Using a Wi-Fi 6 router on a network like that is a bit like driving a sports car on sand. You aren't going to go nearly as fast as your hardware is capable of.

So yeah, Wi-Fi 6 is fast and exciting -- but it's also very early. Though the Wi-Fi Alliance is now offering certification for devices that use 802.11ax, Wi-Fi 6 still needs to be ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the industry organization that develops and maintains wireless standards. Supporting Wi-Fi 6 helps future-proof the new iPhone lineup, but it isn't a must-have feature just yet, and you shouldn't feel obligated to rush out and replace your router.

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Wi-Fi 6 in the newest iPhones will help spur more of the market toward adopting the new standard, too.

Apple/Screenshot by Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

The future looks fast

All of that said, the spread of fiber networks and other connections that approach gigabit speeds means that Wi-Fi 6 will probably be a whole lot more relevant to a whole lot more people within the next year or so. And, now that the iPhone is on board, you can expect more devices to follow suit with support for the standard, too. Apple is still a market mover.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for Wi-Fi 6 deployments in public places. One such deployment, a Wi-Fi 6 Boingo network at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, has been up and running since this past April. If your phone supports the new standard, you'll benefit from faster public networks like those. And if you're sticking with a Wi-Fi 5 phone, don't worry -- Wi-Fi 6 networks are backward-compatible with older-gen Wi-Fi devices, even if they can't do much to make them any faster.

Edited to correct the location of John Wayne Airport, which is in Orange County, California, not Burbank.