Wi-Fi naming is getting a makeover -- and it's not a moment too soon.
Until now, Wi-Fi standards have been an alphanumeric soup with designations like 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac. And if that wasn't bad enough, the letters didn't seem to "mean" anything. Is 11g faster than 11ac, just because it's higher in the alphabet? Actually, no -- it's slower.
That's why the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry consortium that manages wireless networking standards, is rebranding the different generations of Wi-Fi. The newest, fastest version of Wi-Fi will be 802.11ax, but you are unlikely to see devices marketed as such. Instead, the 802.11ax standard will more simply be labeled as Wi-Fi 6. Why 6? Because it is the sixth generation of the wireless networking standard. Just as Nigel Tufnel knew 11 was greater than 10, the Wi-Fi Alliance is making it clear that Wi-Fi 6 is faster (read: better) than Wi-Fi 5, which in turn is greater than Wi-Fi 4.
If you watched Samsung's rollout of the Galaxy S10, then you may have seen the phone championed as supporting Wi-Fi 6; it is the first phone with Wi-Fi 6 capability. You are certain to see other phones along with tablets, TVs, laptops, doorbells, washing machines, routers and other devices released later this year with Wi-Fi 6 support.
What is Wi-Fi 6, and how is it better than the previous flavors of Wi-Fi? Let's wade into the Wi-Fi sea and find out.
Wi-Fi by the generation
Wi-Fi 6 features a number of capabilities that don't show up in a comparison chart, but let's start with such a chart to explain the basics of how Wi-Fi 6 compares to the two previous versions of Wi-Fi.
Max data rate
2.4GHz and 5GHz
2.4GHz and 5GHz
Read this PDF at Wi-Fi.org for more info.
First three Wi-Fi generations
With its new naming scheme, the Wi-Fi Alliance jumps in at Wi-Fi 4 -- similar to the Star Wars franchise that started with Episode 4: A New Hope. And as with Star Wars, we couldn't have arrived at Wi-Fi 6 without three prequels. The Wi-Fi Alliance's new version numbers don't extend back to the first three generations of Wi-Fi, but it's easy to match them up, even if they're not being officially renamed:
- Wi-Fi 1 = 802.11a
- Wi-Fi 2 = 802.11b
- Wi-Fi 3 = 802.11g
But, long story short: If you have a product that's topping out at 802.11g or slower, it's probably pretty old.
Wi-Fi 6 advantages
Wi-Fi 6 has a higher maximum data rate in theory at up to 9.6Gbps than previous versions, but you are unlikely to hit that top speed in real-world scenarios -- much less need to. Wi-Fi 6 has more going for it, however, than higher data rates. Its biggest advantage, perhaps, is its ability to handle crowded Wi-Fi networks more effectively than the current Wi-Fi 5 standard.
Not only does Wi-Fi 6's higher data rate give it more bandwidth to divvy up among multiple devices, but it also introduces new technologies to help it better manage those devices without performance slowing down. Because in 2019, you no longer have just a single PC connected to the Internet. Instead, on a given evening you might be streaming Netflix on your TV as your significant other or roommate is watching Hulu on a tablet, as your kid plays Fortnite on a laptop, with all three of you checking Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or Pinterest on your phones as your smart fridge, washing machine and doorbell also check in on your network.
According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi 6 access points will be more adept at handling larger numbers of devices at the same time thanks to multi-user multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) and orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA). MU-MIMO lets more data be transferred at the same time, giving your router a greater ability to handle a multitude of devices simultaneously, and OFDMA increases efficiency and lowers latency and allows more devices to operate on each channel.
And there are more channels. Wi-Fi 6 features eight MU-MIMO or spatial channels -- double the number you get with Wi-Fi 5 -- giving your router more room to send and receive data from the various Wi-Fi devices in your home.
In addition to being able to talk to more devices more effectively, Wi-Fi 6 will deliver better battery life for smart home devices. It features Target Wake Time (TWT), which makes your router smarter about how it communicates with IoT devices so that they can sleep more and wake less while still doing their job.
When can I get Wi-Fi 6?
We will see the first Wi-Fi 6 devices this spring. Theis the first family of phones announced with Wi-Fi 6 support -- they're ahead of a March 8 release. You can expect other phones to follow along with tablets, laptops and other devices.
There is a catch, of course: In order for your Wi-Fi 6 devices to work at optimal speeds, it'll need to communicate with a Wi-Fi 6 access point. Those are starting to trickle out as well, starting with TP-Link routers that are out now and continuing with Netgear's Orbi mesh router in the second half of the year.
In the meantime, though, Wi-Fi 6 devices will work perfectly well with Wi-Fi 5 and older routers. They just won't communicate as quickly or as efficiently as they would if it was a Wi-Fi 6 connection.
Read more: Getting a Galaxy S10 phone or already did?
First published Feb. 26 at 9:42 a.m. PT.