Last year was a big year for wireless networking with the advent of Wi-Fi 6, the newest and fastest generation of Wi-Fi technology. Now, in 2021, we're set to take another big step forward with the arrival of Wi-Fi 6E, a new designation for routers and other Wi-Fi devices that are quipped to send signals in the ultra-wide 6GHz band, which the FCC opened for unlicensed use in a unanimous vote last year.
That's why it was no surprise to see plenty of new routers at this year's all-virtual, all-digital CES tech showcase. Along with the debut of several new options that support Wi-Fi 6E, we're seeing plenty of new regular Wi-Fi 6 routers that should give shoppers plenty to think about as they ponder an upgrade. Here's a quick rundown of all of them, with lots more set to follow later this year once we're able to test them all out.
Before I get to the routers, let me offer a quick breakdown of Wi-Fi 6E and why it matters. With Wi-Fi 6E, your router will be able to send signals on the 6GHz band in addition to the usual 2.4 and 5GHz bands that you're probably used to. That 6GHz band has over twice as much bandwidth as the 5GHz band, with room for several, non-overlapping 160MHz channels that your router can use to move data.
Couple that abundance of bandwidth with the fact that there aren't any older-gen Wi-Fi devices on the 6GHz band to cause interference, and you're looking at an exclusive, multilane expressway for the latest Wi-Fi devices, every one of which will support the faster speeds and improved networking efficiency of Wi-Fi 6.
"It's an opportunity for a clean break from the legacy requirements of the 2.4 and 5GHz bands," the Wi-Fi Alliance spokesperson Kevin Robinson told me earlier this month, adding that all devices on the 6GHz band will use the latest WPA3 security standard.
Now here's the rub. You'll obviously need Wi-Fi 6E devices on your network in order to put 6E to work in your home. The newly announced Samsung Galaxy S21 supports 6E, but aside from that, there aren't very many options yet. We'll see more arrive this year, but the point is that it's still very early for 6E. For most, it'll make more sense to start thinking about making the upgrade in 2022.
Got it? Good. Let's get to the routers.
Up first, one of the very first Wi-Fi 6E routers that'll hit the market, the Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500, introduced this week at CES 2021. Just like last year's Wi-Fi 6 Nighthawks, the 2021 model features a distinctive design with the antennas packed into a pair of fins that makes the thing look like something Kylo Ren might use to shuttle around a galaxy far, far away.
Rest assured, it is a router, though -- and a pretty fast one at that, with top theoretical speeds of up to 4.8Gbps on both the 5 and 6GHz bands. It also includes a 2.5Gbps WAN port for fast, future-proofed wired speeds from your modem, which is something we should expect to see from the majority of high-end router upgrades this year. Look for the RAXE500 to go on sale by the end of January for $600.
Meanwhile, Linksys brought its first Wi-Fi 6E router to CES, too -- and it's a mesh router for the Velop lineup. Specifically, it's the Linksys Velop AXE8400, and it'll cost $450 for a single device, $850 for a two-pack with an additional unit that you can use as a range extender, and $1,200 for a 3-pack. That makes it about as expensive as routers get.
For the money, you're getting a powerful, tri-band mesh router with full access to the 6GHz band. Top speeds are listed at 4.8Gbps on the 6GHz band and 2.4Gbps on the 5GHz band, and you a WAN port that supports incoming wired speeds of up to 5Gbps.
Maybe most notable is that the AXE8400 features Linksys Aware motion sensitivity, a $3 per month premium feature that detects the subtle yet telltale signs of wireless interference caused whenever someone is moving around in your house. That lets you set the router to alert you if it detects unexpected motion like that, making it into sort of a whole-home motion-detecting watchdog.
And then there's TP-Link, which debuted several new routers at CES, including multiple Wi-Fi 6E options. The first is this one, the TP-Link Archer AX96. Coming in Q3, it's a tri-band AX7800 router with full support for Wi-Fi 6E. No word yet on what it'll cost, but I'm not expecting any of this year's 6E options to come cheap.
Another new option coming in Q3: The TP-Link Archer AX206, the company's latest and greatest gaming router. That'll be an interesting one to watch for, as the ultra-wide bandwidth of that 6GHz band is often pitched as the perfect network for demanding VR applications.
On top of that, the lack of any older-gen Wi-Fi devices on that 6GHz band means that it'll probably offer exceptional latency, which is of the utmost importance to some gamers.
That said, the benefits of 6E will matter much more for PC gamers than console gamers, since we don't have any consoles that support Wi-Fi 6E yet. Again, it's very early for this new standard.
TP-Link's team isn't done there, though -- they'll be launching new Wi-Fi 6E systems for the Deco lineup of mesh routers, too. The first of them is this one, the Deco X96. No price is set just yet, but it's an AX7800 router that'll hit stores in the second half of the year.
I'm especially interested for this one, because the router and its extenders can use that 6GHz band as a dedicated backhaul channel for system transmissions -- and that makes for a faster, more efficient home network, even before you start using any other gadgets that support 6E.
The Deco X96 also uses TP-Link's AI-Driven Mesh feature to tailor the mesh performance to the specific layout of your home, and it stores all of the data that feature requires locally, without ever sending anything up to TP-Link's servers. That's a great, privacy-minded design, and one that I'll be excited to test out later this year.
TP-Link's other new Wi-Fi 6E mesh router is the Deco X76 Plus. Like the X96, it's coming in the second half of the year and we don't have a price for it yet, but the "Plus" part of the pitch is that it adds in a built-in smart home hub for connecting things like smart lights and smart locks with your home network.
That's the same approach Amazon's latest Eero routers took in 2020 -- I'm curious to see if it catches on here in 2021, as I've long thought that packing smart hub radios into a router makes plenty of sense.
Here's one last TP-Link mesh router to keep an eye out for in 2021: the Deco Voice X20. Unlike the last two, it doesn't support Wi-Fi 6E -- but it does add a speaker and microphone into each range-extending satellite node, along with the full intelligence of Amazon's Alexa. That means that that you can use each extender like an Echo smart speaker.
That's the same pitch as previous Alexa routers like the Netgear Orbi Voice, and similar to Google's Nest Wifi mesh router, which features built-in Google Assistant voice controls. The difference is that the Deco Voice X20 supports Wi-Fi 6, while those other options don't. That might be just what some voice enthusiasts have been waiting for in a router upgrade. Expect to see it in stores by this summer.
CommScope plans to release a new Wi-Fi 6 mesh system this year, too -- the Arris Surfboard Max AX6600. Like last year's Surfboard models, it's a Wi-Fi 6 mesh router (and no, it doesn't support Wi-Fi 6E), but it brings the price of a robust, tri-band mesh system down to $400 for a two-pack, which is about as low as systems like that go. Pencil this in as a potential value pick among mesh systems with enough oomph to qualify as an upgrade.
Later this year, Arris will also start to sell the Arris Surfboard Max Express, a plug-in extender for Surfboard networks. Despite the adorably itty-bitty design, it features the same top speeds and the same tri-band build as the full-size Surfboard Max from the previous slide, which is a pretty impressive technical feat. Can't wait to see how it performs in my tests.
Meanwhile, the folks at Asus didn't bring any new Wi-Fi 6E routers to CES this year -- but they did offer an update for the ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000, a Wi-Fi 6E gaming router teased last year. Word from my source is that we can expect it to launch by the end of February. The price is still yet to be finalized, but you can expect it'll cost a hefty sum. I mean, just look at the thing.
6E aside, Asus did bring one new router to CES this year -- the RT-AX68U. It can't connect on that 6GHz band, but it supports Wi-Fi 6 and comes with a clever companion app that lets you establish a VPN connection to your home network whenever you're using public Wi-Fi.
Expect to see it in the first half of the year for $200, which might position it as a tempting, entry-level upgrade pick for people looking to make the jump from Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6.