Modern wireless routers often promise “beamforming” technology for improving your Wi-Fi reception and reducing interference. But what exactly is beamforming, how does it work, and is it really helpful?
In summary, beamforming is a useful feature, though you’ll only really get all the benefits with new 802.11ac devices. You shouldn’t necessarily pay a lot more for a beamforming-enabled router.
In very simplified terms, beamforming is all about focusing a Wi-Fi signal in a specific direction.
Traditionally, when your router broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal, it broadcasts the data in all directions. With beamforming, the router determines where your device — laptop, smartphone, tablet, or whatever else — is located and projects a stronger signal in that specific direction.
Beamforming promises a faster, stronger Wi-Fi signal with longer range for each device. Rather than simply broadcasting in all directions, the router attempts to broadcast wireless data intended for a device in way that’s optimal for the device.
So, that’s the end result of beamforming — a better Wi-Fi signal and reception for your devices.
Here’s a very simplified graphic courtesy of Netgear:
802.11ac vs 802.11n
Beamforming was part of the 802.11n specification — kind of. But it required that both devices — the router and client — supported beamforming in the exact same way. There was no standard way, and device manufacturers were free to invent their own implementations. As a result, it never really took off, as there was no guarantee any 802.11n devices were compatible with each other, even if both supported beamforming. You might have to get devices from the same manufacturer to use this feature, for example.
With the 802.11ac specification, this was fixed. There’s a standard way for beamforming to work, and any 802.11ac devices that support beamforming will work with other ones that do. Essentially, 802.11ac devices — like your router and laptop — can communicate with each other and provide information about their relative positions.
Beamforming is a standardized part of the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. However, not all 802.11ac devices have to support beamforming. Just because you have an 802.11ac device doesn’t mean it supports beamforming. But, if a device does support beamforming, it does so in a standardized way.
This may be a branded feature on some routers. For example, D-Link calls it “Advanced AC SmartBeam.” But it’s still compatible with other 802.11ac devices that implement beamforming, even if they call it something else.
Implicit vs. Explicit Beamforming
Everything above is how “explicit beamforming” works, anyway. There’s also “implicit beamforming.”
With “implicit beamforming,” a wireless router attempts to use beamforming techniques to improve the signal for even older devices — that is, ones without 802.11ac wireless hardware. Those old 802.11n, g, and b devices will see some improvement, in theory. In practice, this won’t work nearly as well as explicit beamforming between an 802.11ac router and an 802.11ac client device. But it is another benefit. Routers that offer implicit beamforming should also offer explicit beamforming. The implicit beamforming is just a perk that brings some beamforming benefits to your older devices, too.
Implicit beamforming is often a branded feature with a manufacturer-specific name. For example, Netgear refers to this as “Beamforming+” on their routers.
Image of D-Link AC3200 router
So, Is Beamforming Worth It?
Beamforming is becoming a standard on high-end 802.11ac wireless routers, up there with other new features like tri-band Wi-Fi. If you can get beamforming on your router, that’s certainly a good thing — there’s no downside to getting beamforming, aside from the money you may have to spend to get a more expensive router with this feature.
You may not actually want to buy a router with beamforming technology if that router costs a lot extra. This technology will be most useful with new 802.11ac devices that support beamforming, so older devices will get either no benefit from it (if only explicit beamforming is offered) or much less benefit than 802.11ac devices (if implicit beamforming is offered, too).
Over time, beamforming should trickle down to cheaper 802.11ac routers and become a more standard feature. It’ll become even more useful by then, too, when everyone has more 802.11ac devices.
If you’re curious about how beamforming works, there’s a lot of information about it online. This isn’t just a Wi-Fi feature — it’s a signal processing technique for radio and sound waves in general.
Beamforming requires MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) antennas. In essence, it uses a variety of signal processing techniques to broadcast several different signals at different antennas, ensuring they interfere in such a way that a stronger signal is broadcast in a specific direction. Wikipedia has a good article on beamforming.