A Wi-Fi router sitting on a piece of furniture in an apartment.
Aquarius Studio/Shutterstock.com

When you’re shopping for a new Wi-Fi router you’ll certainly notice they have elaborate number-packed names. Here’s how to decode what those numbers mean.

Why Are Router Names So Confusing?

A lot of tech products tend to have complicated names as manufacturers try to pack in as much information about the product as possible to both entice shoppers and make it easier to search for products. Router naming conventions, in particular, are quite prone to this.

eero 6+ AX3000 Wi-Fi 6 System

This popular mesh system uses a dual-band Wi-Fi 6 setup.

Let’s take a quick peek at Best Buy’s most popular routers at the time of this writing, for example. That’s a good representation of products you’d see on the shelf and it yields products with names like:

While we understand that the manufacturers are trying to get as much information in front of people as possible to help their products stand out from the competition (and even the cheaper and older versions of their own hardware,) it’s not exactly an intuitive system if you don’t know how to decode it.

Although the number designations likely aren’t going away anytime soon, the confusion over them, along with confusion over designations like 802.11ac and 802.11ax is exactly why there has been a push towards designations like Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 7 to make it easier on the average consumer.

If you’re not a person that loves crunching numbers and poring over tech stats, the breakdown of what the various router designations mean can get pretty fiddly. So let’s start with the basics of what the letters and numbers mean, then break it down with some examples.

The Letters Indicate Wi-Fi Generation

The letters you find in Wi-Fi router advertisements, on the box, and packed into the names of the products indicate the highest generation of the Wi-Fi standard the product supports.

Formally, the full name of a given Wi-Fi generation is IEEE 802.11[x] wherein the IEEE part indicates it’s an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), it’s in the 802 family (which governs computer networks), in the subcategory .11 (reserved for Wi-Fi), with the generation indicated by the [x] letter designation.

That’s quite a mouthful and while manufacturers might not exactly be turning out router names with super compact and elegant names, they do try to trim it down to just the final letters.

Here’s what the letters mean:

  • AC – Wi-Fi 5
  • AXWi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E
  • AXE – Unofficial. Used by some companies to indicate Wi-Fi 6E.
  • BE – Candidate for Wi-Fi 7. You won’t see this on product boxes just yet.

There are other letter designations, like 802.11n and 802.11g, but these versions of the Wi-Fi standard are quite outdated at this point (introduced in 2008 and 2003, respectively) so you won’t see companies actively promoting them front and center.

The Numbers Indicate Theoretical Maximum Speed

Now that we know what the letters stand for, it’s time to unpack what the numbers stand for. And if you thought the whole letters thing was unnecessarily opaque, you’re going to love unpacking what the numbers mean.

First and foremost: The clearest part. The number after the letter designation is the maximum theoretical speed of the router, or Maximum Linkrate, expressed in megabits per second (Mbps).

For example, if a router is labeled AC1900, that tells you the router is using the Wi-Fi 5 standard and has a theoretical maximum speed of 1900 Mbps. If the router is labeled as AX3000, it is using the Wi-Fi 6 standard and has a theoretical maximum speed of 3000 Mbps.

Now, the less clear part: This is not the maximum speed you could experience using a single device. This is the theoretical maximum speed the router can achieve under ideal laboratory conditions when all the radios in the router are active and paired with equally good or better hardware devices.

There are no real-world conditions under which your smartphone, computer, or game console will be able to achieve, individually, the theoretical maximum speed.

Breaking Down the Theoretical Maximum Speed

A man using his laptop in the kitchen.
You’ll never saturate your Wi-Fi router’s connection with a single device. SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock.com

If a company advertises that their router is AC3200 but no individual device on the network can ever reach that speed then where does the 3200 part come from, exactly?

Modern routers use multiple radios across multiple bands to provide more bandwidth and a better user experience. Designations like “dual-band” and “tri-band” indicate this feature and increasing the number of antennas allows for increased bandwidth and overall increased speed.

The key to understanding the number is the “overall” speed part. That AC3200 router isn’t blasting out all 3000 Mpbs across a single connection but breaking it up between a single 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands. That’s not a bad thing, of course. You’re much better off with multiple devices getting a fast-enough connection to the router than one single device getting the full blast anyway.

The size of the number then—AC600 versus AC3200 for example—simply indicates how much more hardware is being thrown at the problem. An AC600 router has a single 2.4GHz radio and a single 5Ghz radio running on older hardware with less advanced frequency modulation.

Conversely, an AC3200 router will typically have 4 2.4GHz radios and 4 5GHz radios, with significantly improved hardware and frequency modulation. The end result is both a higher theoretical maximum speed as well as a better overall user experience (especially in homes with a lot of people and devices.)

Is a Higher Maximum Speed Number Always Better?

A higher AC or AX number doesn’t automatically translate to a better experience. There are other variables at play.

For instance, if you replace a mesh system with multiple APs with a stand-alone router that has a higher AC value you might not get the performance you expect. Perhaps your old mesh system was only AC1200 and your new stand-alone router is an AC3000 system, but the old mesh system covered your sprawling ranch-style home better which gave you a better user experience. At that point, something being theoretically faster pales in the face of it being practically better.

But in general, when comparing apples to apples (in this case stand-alone routers to stand-alone routers or mesh systems to mesh systems) it’s safe to lean on the AC/AX number to get a better router. Why? Because all things equal, a manufacturer has to use increasingly better hardware to push towards bigger and bigger theoretical maximum speeds.

The Best Wi-Fi Routers of 2023

ASUS AX6000 (RT-AX88U)
Best Wi-Fi Router Overall
ASUS AX6000 (RT-AX88U)
TP-Link Archer AX3000 (AX50)
Best Budget Router
TP-Link Archer AX3000 (AX50)
TP-Link Archer A8
Best Cheap Router
TP-Link Archer A8
ASUS GT-AX11000 Tri-Band Router
Best Gaming Router
ASUS GT-AX11000 Tri-Band Router
ASUS ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) (2 Pack)
Best Mesh Wi-Fi Router
ASUS ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) (2 Pack)
TP-Link Deco X20
Best Budget Mesh Router
TP-Link Deco X20
NETGEAR Nighthawk CAX80
Best Modem Router Combo
NETGEAR Nighthawk CAX80
ExpressVPN Aircove
Best VPN Router
ExpressVPN Aircove
TP-Link AC750
Beat Travel Router
TP-Link AC750
ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000
Best Wi-Fi 6E Router
ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000
Profile Photo for Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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