A digital Wi-Fi logo.
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While Wi-Fi has become a fundamental aspect of our lives, the way that it works can be pretty complicated, especially when talking about different versions or trying to understand the variations of “802.11.” So, let’s demystify Wi-Fi standards and what the letters after 802.11 mean.

A Brief History of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi standards function in the same way that roads do, in that they have certain rules and requirements for any two points to connect. Think, for example, of how cars drive on the left side of the road in the UK but on the right side of the road in the US. If you tried to combine the two, there would be accidents, crashes, and everything would generally break down.

As such, the Wi-Fi standards are there to establish a common system of communication so that different sets of devices can communicate. Without them, we’d constantly have issues with incompatible devices not working well together.

So, to solve any issues, the IEEE standard was established, with the numbers 802.11 signifying the “base” Wi-Fi protocol. In fact, 802.11 was the first-ever Wi-Fi, known now as Wi-Fi Legacy, and was created in 1997 with a speed of 2 Mbps, which was quite fast for the time.

Of course, that didn’t last long, with 1999 seeing the establishment of 802.11a (Wi-Fi 2), able to hit 52Mbps, and more importantly, use the 5GHz band since 2.4GHz had a lot of congestion, the least of which being from mobile phones. Ironically though, it was 802.11b (Wi-Fi 1), made in the same year, that actually kick-started Wi-Fi’s popularity. 802.11b could only achieve around 11Mbps, it and only used the 2.4Ghz band.

It wasn’t until IEEE 802.11g (now known as Wi-Fi 3) was created in 2003 that speeds of 54Mbps came to the 2.4Ghz band and cemented the popularity of the Wi-Fi standard across the globe. There may still be some devices out there that use this standard, but they won’t be very common.

Wi-Fi 4, 5, & 6

Wi-Fi 4 is where the modern standards started, and you’ll still probably find a few devices here and there that use it. More commonly known as 802.11n, Wi-Fi 4 works on both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands and adds multi-channel support, bringing up the theoretical maximum speed to 600Mbps—quite a jump from the previous protocol.

Then there’s Wi-Fi 5, also known as 802.11ac, which is the most common standard that pretty much everybody is using nowadays. Wi-Fi 5 was actually a pretty important update since it added support for MU-MIMO, a technology that allows for multiple devices to connect concurrently, rather than one at a time. The standard also bumped up the theoretical maximum speeds to 1,300 Mbps, which most people can’t really take advantage of anyway, and mostly works towards providing a little bit of extra speed at longer ranges.

Finally, we have Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax. This is “the big one” for modern upgrades. Speeds were bumped up to a theoretical maximum of 10Gbps, MU-MIMO tech was upgraded to include even more devices, and there are even extra sub-channels added specifically for additional data streams.

There’s also Wi-Fi 6E, a variation of Wi-Fi 6 that can also work on the 6GHz band.

Should You Upgrade?

Whether you upgrade or not ultimately depends on what current system you’re working with and what budget you have.

Routers that have Wi-Fi 6 support are often still a little on the expensive side. If it’s time to buy a new router, it makes sense to get one—but should you get a new router just for Wi-Fi 6? It depends on what other devices you have (how many of them support Wi-Fi 6?) and how happy you are with your current WI-Fi performance. That being said, if you have a lot of devices that connect to your router, then the increased broadcast channels from Wi-Fi 6 can be useful—assuming your devices can also use Wi-Fi 6.

Then, we have Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), and if you’re on that, you absolutely should upgrade. In that situation, it’s probably better to jump to Wi-Fi 6 if it fits in your budget, but don’t feel bad if you can only afford to go to Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), it’s still widely used and will be for a few years more at least.

Ultimately, it boils down to the following: Wi-Fi 6 is great but expensive and not absolutely necessary just yet. Wi-Fi 4 is outdated, and you definitely should upgrade. Wi-Fi 5 is the goldilocks at the moment and will be in a few years. Unless you specifically need something from Wi-Fi 6, sticking with your current Wi-FI 5 router is a fine move.

The Best Wi-Fi Routers of 2022

Best Wi-Fi Router Overall
Asus AX6000 (RT-AX88U)
Best Budget Router
TP-Link Archer AX3000 (AX50)
Best Cheap Router
TP-Link Archer A8
Best Gaming Router
Asus GT-AX11000 Tri-Band Router
Best Mesh Wi-Fi Router
ASUS ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) (2 Pack)
Best Budget Mesh Router
TP-Link Deco X20
Best Modem Router Combo
NETGEAR Nighthawk CAX80
Best VPN Router
Linksys WRT3200ACM
Beat Travel Router
TP-Link AC750
Best Wi-Fi 6E Router
Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000
Profile Photo for Albert Bassili Albert Bassili
Albert Bassili is a freelance writer at How-to-Geek with eight years of experience in both commerce and tech writing. He's been a life-long lover of all sorts of tech and gadgets and has been building his own PCs for just under two decades now, and he has more gadgets than he actually needs. He's written for a variety of sites from SFGate to GameGavel.
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