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Wi-Fi 6: Better, faster routers are here -- here's what you need to know

Got Wi-Fi 6 questions? We've got answers.

wi-fi-6-logo

Look for this logo to identify Wi-Fi 6-certified devices.

Wi-Fi 6 is making its big debut this year, but summing up the potential impact is a bit more complicated than saying it will make your Wi-Fi network faster. Yes, things are going to be speedier than before -- but beyond basics like speed and range, what's really key about Wi-Fi 6 is how it will reshape the way routers handle the growing number of internet-connected devices in our homes and lives.

If you're looking for some basic answers about how that'll work, and perhaps a semi-convoluted comparison or two to help you wrap your head around all of it, then you've come to right post.

Let's start with the basics -- what is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax if you want to be technical about it, is the newest version of the 802.11 standard for wireless network transmissions that people commonly call Wi-Fi. It's a backwards-compatible upgrade over the previous version of the Wi-Fi standard, which is called 802.11ac.

Wi-Fi 6 isn't a new means of connecting to the internet like fiber -- rather, it's an upgraded standard that compatible devices, particularly routers, can take advantage of to transmit Wi-Fi signals more efficiently.

Wi-Fi 6? Did I miss the other 5?

No, the names were just clunky, and more or less meaningless to most people who don't work with wireless networks for a living. That's why the Wi-Fi Alliance, the non-profit industry group that helps maintain and certify Wi-Fi devices, is now transitioning to a simpler, more user-friendly way of talking about the standard. The new version, 802.11ax, is the 6th version of 802.11, so they're calling it Wi-Fi 6. The previous couple of generations will get the same treatment retroactively, too. For instance, the existing standard I mentioned before, 802.11ac? That's called Wi-Fi 5 now.

With a fast enough internet connection, the fastest Wi-Fi 6 router we've tested yet could download every MCU film from Iron Man to Endgame at 4K Blu-ray resolution in a little over two hours.

Ry Crist/CNET

How fast is Wi-Fi 6?

That's a topic of some debate, and we're still in the process of testing the hardware out for ourselves, but the early refrain from industry experts was that Wi-Fi 6 would offer real-world speeds that are roughly 30% faster than Wi-Fi 5, with theoretical maximum transfer speeds up around 10 Gbps. 

That figure held up in our first round of Wi-Fi 6 speed tests, where we clocked Wi-Fi 6 transfer speeds at 1,320 Mbps. That's about 40% faster than the fastest Wi-Fi 5 speed we've ever measured, which is 938 Mbps. And I'd add that our Wi-Fi 6 speed test was about 1,000% faster than the current average download speed in the US, which is 119 Mbps.

We've tested several other Wi-Fi 6 routers since then. Our current king of the speed test is the TP-Link Archer AX6000, which was able to transmit data wirelessly at 1,523Mbps from a distance of 5 feet. That's about 60% faster than our fastest tested Wi-Fi 5 speed -- so yes, Wi-Fi 6 is definitely faster than what came before.

That said, the actual number you ultimately experience will really depend on context. For starters, gigabit-plus speeds like that are a lot more than you're likely to ever need from a single device. In environments with lots and lots of devices that need to connect, Wi-Fi 6 might make a huge difference. In small homes with only a few devices on the network, the difference might be harder to notice.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that the speed from your internet service provider (ISP) is like a speed limit for your local network. A Wi-Fi 6 router won't magically speed it up. 

For example, in my home, I'm lucky enough to have a direct fiber connection, and my entry-level plan allows for speeds of up to 300 Mbps -- but that's only 25% of what a Wi-Fi 6 router can offer. If I wanted to take full advantage of a Wi-Fi 6 router's extra speed, I'd need a faster plan from my ISP to match it. And right now, most plans don't go nearly that high.

In other words, ISPs still have a lot of work to do with fiber rollouts and such in order to really capitalize on next-gen router technology, and that might take years. But when those faster ISP speeds get here, it appears that the hardware will be ready to go.

When will Wi-Fi 6 get here?

Wi-Fi 6 is already technically a thing -- it's a new, certified standard that newly-made wireless devices can put to use. It'll be a while before you have a ton of options, but Wi-Fi 6 routers from brands like Cisco, Netgear, Asus and TP-Link are already rolling out, including new mesh options for the Netgear Orbi, Arris SURFboard and TP-Link Deco lineups. Meanwhile, the Samsung Galaxy S10 was the first phone to support Wi-Fi 6, and the new iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max all support it, too. And now that the Wi-Fi Alliance's certification program for Wi-Fi 6 devices is officially up and running, it's a pretty sure bet that the next generation of laptops, streaming devices and Wi-Fi smart home devices will follow suit, too.

archer-ax11000-1

New Wi-Fi 6 routers, like the TP-Link Archer AX6000 here, are available for purchase now or will be in the coming months. They won't come cheap, though.

TP-Link

Read more: When will we start seeing Wi-Fi 6 smart home gadgets?

You'll need both a Wi-Fi 6 router and Wi-Fi 6 devices like those in order to reap the full benefits of 802.11ax, but if you go ahead and get that fancy new router, your older devices will still work like normal. The rub is that they won't be much faster, if at all -- Wi-Fi 6 supports previous-gen 802.11 devices, but it can't do much to speed them up. 

Who made Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 was developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world's largest association of technical professionals. Along with a lot of other functions (its stated mission is "to advance technology for the benefit of humanity"), the IEEE is basically the keeper of Wi-Fi, with committees responsible for developing it and establishing industry standards.

So how is Wi-Fi 6 better than before?

Analogy time!

gororendermkx

Who's thirsty?

NetherRealm Studios

Imagine a bar with lots of patrons trying to order drinks and just one bartender on duty. He's good at his job, and even capable of multitasking a bit to speed up service, but it's still a pretty congested scene, and some patrons are going to have to wait.

That bartender is your router, and the patrons are all of the devices in your home that use Wi-Fi to communicate with it -- your phone, your laptop, your smart home devices, etc. All of them need the bartender's attention, but there's only so much to go around, and he's only so good at his job.

Replacing your router with a Wi-Fi 6 router is sort of like replacing that bartender with Goro from Mortal Kombat. He's a large, terrifying Shokan warrior if you aren't familiar, but the important part as far as this analogy is concerned is that he's got four arms. 

Suddenly, bartender Goro is serving up drinks to multiple wide-eyed patrons at once. Along with the four arms speeding things up, it turns out he has a knack for the job, too. He's using each of his humongous hands to drop off multiple drinks in front of multiple customers in a single pass, then grabbing empty glasses on the way back to keep the bar clear. The customers are confused but impressed. Guy's a pro!

OK... But what does that mean on a technical level?

Fine, analogy over. Wi-Fi 6 is designed to allow network access points like routers to communicate more efficiently with more users and devices at once, and in a way that helps them use less power.

For starters, Wi-Fi 6 routers will be able to pack more information into each signal they send, which means they'll be able to communicate with devices faster and more efficiently. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 access points will be able to divy up each individual signal between multiple recipient devices, servicing all of them with a single transmission like a delivery truck driver with multiple stops on her route (or, you know, like Goro serving multiple drinks at once with his enormous, three-fingered hands).

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QAM FTW

Like I said, Wi-Fi 6 routers will be able to send more information with each signal -- bigger pours from Goro as he slings drinks. To understand how, know that Wi-Fi works using radios. Devices that want to send a Wi-Fi transmission modulate the signal of a frequency on a specific radio channel. To the device receiving the transmission, those specific modulations signify specific bits of binary code -- the ones and zeroes that make up every piece of digital information you've ever consumed.

This approach is called quadrature amplitude modulation, or QAM. The better your router is at QAM, the more binary code it can send with each transmission. For instance, a 2-QAM access point would only be able to modulate the Wi-Fi radio waves in one of two ways, so each transmission could only be a 1 or a 0. A 4-QAM access point could modulate the radio waves in four distinct ways, which would allow it to send either 00, 01, 10, or 11 with each transmission. Two digits at once means more code at once -- that's better! 

These days, current-gen Wi-Fi 5 routers are 256-QAM, which lets them send eight digits of binary at once. That was a big jump from what came before, and it's a big reason why after 2013 or so, when Wi-Fi 5 started rolling out, people started spending a lot less time waiting for videos to buffer.

Wi-Fi 6 will raise things up to 1024-QAM, which lets devices send ten digits of binary with each transmission. The Wi-Fi Alliance claims that this will equate to speed boosts of up to 30% and increase throughput for "emerging, bandwidth-intensive use cases" -- your 4K streams, your augmented reality apps, what have you. And again, our first batch of Wi-Fi 6 speed tests backs that claim up.

OFDMA makes your router a better multitasker

Remember Goro's four arms? Of course you do, it's his defining characteristic (and I keep bringing it up -- not sorry!) Well, for the purpose of my bartending analogy, you can think of those four arms as something called orthagonal frequency division multiple access, or OFDMA.

Put simply, OFDMA is a new feature with Wi-Fi 6 that gives your router the ability to serve multiple clients at once within a single channel. More specifically, OFDMA allows your router to divide whatever channel it's using to send its signals on the 2.4 or 5GHz frequency band into smaller frequency allocations called resource units, or RUs. Each one of these RUs is sort of like one of Goro's extra arms -- they give your router another avenue with which to dish out information, which in turn, reduces latency.

So, as an example, if you're sitting in your living room checking Twitter for Baby Yoda theories while streaming The Mandalorian, your Wi-Fi 6 router might allocate one RU to your streaming device and another to your phone, or divide the data each device requires between multiple RUs. Either way, they'll both get service from the router simultaneously. OFDMA is flexible like that (cut to Goro cracking his knuckles).

OFDMA will complement another feature worth mentioning that's called multi-user, multiple input multiple output, or MU-MIMO for short. Like OFDMA, MU-MIMO lets your router communicate with multiple devices at once, but instead of dividing channels into resource units, MU-MIMO uses spatial differences between devices to divide attention between them.

MU-MIMO was first introduced in 2015 as an upgrade for Wi-Fi 5, but it only worked for outgoing signals from the router. The Wi-Fi 6 version of MU-MIMO will fix that, and let your router handle incoming signals from multiple devices, too.

Target Wake Time 

Wi-Fi 6 access points will also be smarter about scheduling when devices should wake up and request information. This helps those devices avoid interfering with each other, which, in turn, helps them spend more time in their battery-saving sleep modes. That means you might not have to swap out the batteries in things like smart locks and motion sensors quite as often.

This is all thanks to a new feature called Target Wake Time that essentially lets your router act as a traffic cop. When a device like a temperature sensor or a smart lock on your network needs to periodically ping the router to report its status, Wi-Fi 6 will let the router put it on a schedule to keep it from colliding with another incoming signal and creating congestion. 

To bring our bartender Goro back into it, Target Wake Time is a little like giving him the ability to schedule when customers can place orders, which in turn means they'll have to spend less energy talking over one another to get his attention. And, according to industry experts, it's a feature that could make a big impact in our homes.

"The difference between waking up 100 times per second, which in large part was the default up until now, and waking up once a second... That's a huge, huge amount of battery life," said Cisco Meraki SVP and General Manager Todd Nightingale. "And what that means is that Wi-Fi networks can start to become the de facto network that serves everything in a very, very power-conscious way."  

galaxy-s10-plus-7

The Samsung Galaxy S10 is the first phone to support Wi-Fi 6, and more are certain to follow suit.

Angela Lang/CNET

When and where will Wi-Fi 6 make a difference for me?

It's still early for Wi-Fi 6, though the Wi-Fi Alliance recently launched its certification program for devices that use 802.11ax, which is a significant step on the path toward widespread adoption. Flagship smart phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and the iPhone 11 support Wi-Fi 6, and you'll find Wi-Fi 6 routers on the shelf at retail outlets like Best Buy, too.

That said, there really isn't much reason for most folks to rush out and buy one just yet. For starters, most cost hundreds of dollars at this point, so you'll likely be able to find a better deal if you wait for a sale next year. And even if you buy a Wi-Fi 6 router right now, you won't really be able to take advantage of it until the majority of the devices in your home support the standard, too. That's still a long ways off.

And remember, Wi-Fi 6 is an upgrade for routers and Wi-Fi devices, not an upgrade to your Wi-Fi service in general. If you have a slow connection from your service provider to start with, a Wi-Fi 6 router won't fix that.

Still, along with the earliest of adopters, expect to see businesses begin to buy in on the enterprise level by the end of this year. With improved capabilities for handling lots of devices at once being the key gist of the upgrade, you can expect Wi-Fi 6 to start making a noticeable difference in dense, crowded spaces like stadiums and airports, too -- in fact, that's exactly what we're already seeing.

Incoming coverage

We're in the midst of testing out the newest crop of Wi-Fi 6 routers, so stay tuned for a lot more on that front. In the meantime, feel free to click the little envelope icon on my CNET profile page to send your questions my way. All of those submissions go straight to my inbox, and I make an effort to respond to all of them (just, you know, be at least somewhat nice).

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have the weirdest hankering to go and play Mortal Kombat at a dive bar. BRB.

Originally published May 11 and updated regularly.