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What is 802.11ac, and Do I Need It?

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If you’ve been down to your local Best Buy lately, you might have noticed that a whole new class of wireless routers are on the market on the premium end of the product scale, emblazoned with an “802.11ac” label in bright letters on the front of the box.

But what does 802.11ac mean, and is it really necessary for you to get the most out of your daily WiFi browsing experience? Read on as we clear up the confusion around this confounding wireless networking standard and tell you everything you need to know about the newest devices that can support it in 2016.

802.11 Explained

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Whenever you buy a new router, the first thing you probably notice is that no matter which model you eventually go with, they all share the denotation of “802.11(something)” somewhere in their name. Without getting too deep with the technical details, what you’ll want to pay attention to is the letter that follows after this number, which signifies both the generation of the router and the maximum speed you can hope to transmit or receive between the base station and other wireless devices.

You can read about what all of these mean in our handy guide here, but to cut to the chase the only two we’ll be talking about today are 802.11n, and 802.11ac. To start, it helps to know that on the whole most routers made within the past five years will support 802.11n, which at its peak can transfer upwards of 450Mbits/s, or around 56 megabytes per second. This, of course, is the theoretical max point for the technology achieved in carefully controlled lab settings, but it’s still plenty fast enough for the average household to run multiple Netflix streams or gaming sessions at a time without anyone noticing a slowdown.

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802.11ac on the other hand is quite a bit newer, having only been approved by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) for consumers in 2014. Theoretically capable of maxing out at a whopping 1.3Gbits per second (162.5 MB/s), the throughput of an ac-enabled router is more than double what you can expect with the more common 802.11n. Also, it’s important to note that opposed to 802.11n, 802.11ac can only transmit over the 5Ghz spectrum. As we explain in this article, while the 2.4Ghz band is much more crowded than 5Ghz and can suffer from increased interference, its larger wavelength allows it to penetrate walls over longer distances without much signal loss.

This means that if your router sits a number of rooms or floors away from your wireless devices, it may not be the best pick for your household despite the possible increased throughput.

802.11ac Routers: Do I Need One Yet?

Because 802.11ac was only approved for the consumer market so recently, router manufacturers have just begun the process of flooding the shelves down at your local Best Buy with wireless networking hubs that bear the new brand.

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To know that a router is ac-ready, simply look at the name of the model to learn everything you need to know about what kind of power you should expect straight out of the box. For the time being, all routers featuring 802.11ac will have an “ac” stashed somewhere in its name (the Asus RT-AC3200, D-Link AC3200, etc). On average you can expect to pay anywhere from $150 – $400 for an 802.11ac router, which is a high price for users who might only have one or two devices in the house that are actually capable of tuning into the channel in the first place.

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Right now, the crux of buying an 802.11ac router is that only the most current wireless devices even know how to decode its signal. For example, both the iPhone 6 and 6s are equipped to handle an 802.11ac signal…but when was the last time you found yourself struggling with the fact that 802.11n only transmits at a ‘mere’ 56 megabytes per second?

802.11ac will be great as soon as everyone in the house wants their own private 4K movie on laptops or streaming devices that are capable of handling that much bandwidth over the air, but until then, it seems it’s simply a luxury for those who have the hottest devices equipped with the latest and greatest in WiFi technology.

Conclusion

So, do you really need an 802.11ac router just yet? (Probably) not. If you’re somehow streaming 4K videos to your iPhone through a central media server or have an ultrabook that was released in the past six months then yes, you can receive an ac signal and obviously have enough reasons to put it to work.

That said, unless you’re one of the lucky few customers to have fiber optic lines in their home that actually receive broadband speeds above the 150Mbit limit, your standard b/g/n router should be able to handle the job just fine. They’re a heck of a lot cheaper than 802.11ac routers, compatible with both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz spectrum, and run almost all of the current heavy-load applications (gaming, streaming, downloading) without breaking a sweat.

Our recommendation is to wait this one out another year or two once the rest of the wireless networking community catches up to the trend that 802.11ac routers are just starting to dip their toes into. If you have the spare cash on hand and just can’t get enough of routers that look like they were designed by Bruce Wayne, then it’s a worthy investment that’s just about as “future-proof” as they come. If you just need something that delivers solid performance at a discount however, there are still plenty of 802.11n models out there that will get the job done just fine.

Image Credits: Wikimedia, D-Link, Asus

Chris Stobing is a writer and blogger from the heart of Silicon Valley. Raised around tech from birth, he's had an interest in PC hardware and networking technology for years, and has come to How-To Geek to contribute his knowledge on both. You can follow him on Twitter here.

  • Published 01/3/16

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