If you’re looking at replacing your old router—maybe even upgrading from your ISP’s combined modem/router unit—you may come across terms like “dual band,” which refers to a router that uses both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi. Curious about what these numbers mean? Well, wonder no more.
These numbers refer to two different “bands” that your Wi-Fi can use for its signal. The biggest difference between the two is speed. Under ideal conditions, 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi will support up to 450 Mbps or 600 Mbps, depending on the class of the router. 5 GHz Wi-Fi will support up to 1300 Mbps.
Of course, there are some caveats here. First, the maximum speed you might see is also dependent on what wireless standard a router supports—802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, or 802.11ac. You can learn more about how those standards affect things in our guides on whether you need 802.11ac and whether you should upgrade your wireless router.
The second big caveat is that important phrase we mentioned: “ideal conditions.”
The 2.4 GHz band is a pretty crowded place, because it’s used by more than just Wi-Fi. Old cordless phones, garage door openers, baby monitors, and other devices tend to use the 2.4 GHz band. The longer waves used by the 2.4 GHz band are better suited to longer ranges and transmission through walls and solid objects. So it’s arguably better if you need better range on your devices or you have a lot of walls or other objects in the areas where you need coverage. However, because so many devices use the 2.4 GHz band, the resulting congestion can cause dropped connections and slower-than-expected speeds.
The 5 GHz band is much less congested, which means you will likely get more stable connections. You’ll also see higher speeds. On the other hand, the shorter waves used by the 5 GHz band makes it less able to penetrate walls and solid objects. It’s also got a shorter effective range than the 2.4 GHz band. Of course, you may also be able to mitigate that shorter range through the use of range extenders or mesh Wi-Fi systems, but that will mean a bigger investment.
The good news is that most modern routers act as dual- or tri-band routers. A dual-band router is one that broadcasts both a 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz signal from the same unit, essentially providing you with two Wi-Fi networks and the best of both worlds. Dual-band routers come in two flavors:
A tri-band router broadcasts three networks simultaneously—two 5 GHz signals and one 2.4 GHz signal. The reason for this is to help alleviate network congestion. If you have multiple devices that really use a 5 GHz connection heavily—like streaming high-resolution or even 4K video—you might benefit from spending a bit more on a tri-band router.
First things first. If you have a device that supports a wired Ethernet connection and it’s not to awkward getting a cable to the device, we highly recommend using a wired connection over a wireless one. Wired connections offer a lower latency, no dropped connections due to interference, and are just plain faster than wireless connections.
That said, we’re here to talk about wireless. If you currently use 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi and are wondering whether you need to upgrade to 5 GHz, it’s really all about what you need to do with it. If you’re experiencing dropped connections or if you need more speed for watching videos or playing games, then you probably need to move to 5 GHz. There’s only so much speed you can get out of a 2.4 GHz network, even under ideal conditions. If you live in a crowded apartment complex with dozens of wireless routers, baby monitors, and other 2.4Ghz band devices, then you should definitely consider switching to the 5Ghz band if you already haven’t.
If you’re already using a dual- or tri-band router and have both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands available, you’ll have to make some decisions on which one to connect your devices to. It’s tempting to just go ahead and use 5 GHz Wi-Fi for any device that supports it and use 2.4 GHz for the rest—and you can certainly do that—but it’s not always the best strategy.
Instead, think about how you use each device. If a device only supports 2.4 GHz, then your decision is already made for that device. If a device supports both, think about whether you really need to use 5 GHz. Does that device need the higher speed or are you mostly checking email and browsing the web? Is the device experiencing dropped connections on the 2.4 GHz network and do you need it to be more reliable? Are you okay with the device having the shorter effective range that comes along with using the 5 GHz band?
In short, we recommend using 2.4 GHz unless a device has a specific need for the 5 GHz band. This will help low-use devices from competing on the 5 GHz band and, in turn, keep congestion down.
Hopefully, this gives you the information you need to make a decision about whether you need 5 GHz Wi-Fi in your life and how best to use it if you do. Also keep in mind that no matter what you choose, you should also take the time to optimize your wireless signals by selecting an appropriate channel on your router. You might be surprised at the difference such a small change can make. And if you have any questions or comments, please join the discussion!