If you want to buy wireless networking gear, Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 are two of the most prevalent wireless generations you’ll currently find on the market. But what makes Wi-Fi 6 different from Wi-Fi 5, and is it better?
What Is Wi-Fi 5?
Wi-Fi 5 is the fifth generation of the wireless networking protocol and is also known by its Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard name of 802.11ac. It was introduced in 2014 and brought several improvements over Wi-Fi 4 or 802.11n, including support for data rates that exceed one gigabit.
It was also the second Wi-Fi version after 802.11a to use the 5GHz frequency band for data transmission. Other features of the Wi-Fi 5 include beamforming support, MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple input, multiple output), 160MHz channel width support, and four spatial streams. These features put together brought significant improvements over Wi-Fi 4, but Wi-Fi 5 is certainly not the apex of wireless connectivity.
What Is Wi-Fi 6?
As the name suggests, Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax is the sixth generation of Wi-Fi and a direct successor to Wi-Fi 5. Introduced in 2020, it builds upon Wi-Fi 5 by enhancing its total throughput to better deal with the increasing number of wireless devices in homes and corporate offices, including IoT products like smart home gear.
Wi-Fi 6 uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless frequency bands for data transmission and packs several incremental upgrades over previous Wi-Fi generations, such as OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access), an improved version of MU-MIMO, Target Wake Time (TWT) feature for battery saving on mobile and IoT devices, and WPA3 encryption for better security. All these upgrades make Wi-Fi 6 a significant step up and capable of delivering better speeds to connected devices.
RELATED: What Is WPA3, and How Do I Get It On My Wi-Fi Router?
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6
As mentioned, Wi-Fi 6 builds upon Wi-Fi 5. As a result, there are a lot of similarities between both Wi-Fi generations. That said, Wi-Fi 6 brings improved versions of several Wi-Fi 5 technologies, allowing it to serve modern wireless networking needs better. Some of the most significant differences between the two Wi-Fi generations lie in their ability to connect to a large number of devices, use of wireless frequency bands, ability to transfer or receive multiple streams of data, data speed, and MIMO support.
One of the highlights of Wi-Fi 6 is OFDMA technology. It’s a variant of the OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) technology present in Wi-Fi 5. OFDMA helps Wi-Fi 6 with efficient data encoding and better use of the wireless spectrum by allowing up to 30 clients to share a channel simultaneously. Thanks to this upgrade, Wi-Fi 6 routers can better handle network congestion caused by multiple simultaneous requests from connected devices and with lower latency. In comparison, OFDM can only connect to one device per channel. Therefore it’s not as efficient at handling simultaneous requests and can’t reliably serve a large number of connected devices.
Another Wi-Fi 6 feature that makes a real-world difference is the support for eight spatial streams. Compared to Wi-Fi 5’s typical four and potentially (but rare) eight spatial streams, Wi-Fi 6 APs can consistently offer eight spatial streams. These streams are essentially data lanes, and more data lanes result in faster data speeds.
Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5 Speeds Compared
Combined with the dual frequency band support, OFDMA and more spatial streams help Wi-Fi 6 deliver a potential maximum data rate of 9.6Gbps. On the other hand, Wi-Fi 5 topped out at 6.9Gbps. That said, neither Wi-Fi generation can reach their theoretical maximum data rates in real-world usage. But you’ll undoubtedly get a considerably faster data rate with Wi-Fi 6 than with Wi-Fi 5.
Additionally, the improved implementation of MU-MIMO in Wi-Fi 6 supports both uplink MU-MIMO and downlink MU-MIMO. Meaning any Wi-Fi 6 access point can both transmit to and receive data from multiple devices at the same time. As a result, Wi-Fi 6 can offer enhanced speeds and cater to multiple devices seamlessly. Wi-Fi 5, on the other hand, only supports downlink MU-MIMO.
Finally, the BSS Color feature of Wi-Fi 6 marks frames from your neighbor’s router so that your router can ignore them and the interference caused by them. This makes Wi-Fi 6 routers more efficient in apartments and other settings with many wireless routers in a smaller area.
RELATED: Where to Place Your Router for the Best Wi-Fi Speeds
What About Wi-Fi 6E?
Do any reading about wireless standards these days and you’ll likely hear mention of what sounds like a variation of Wi-Fi 6, called Wi-Fi 6E. This newer standard and its incoming successor, Wi-Fi 7, do offer many improvements over Wi-Fi 6, but their best benefits require wireless devices built to support them.
At the time of writing, only the most bleeding-edge (and often pricey) phones, tablets, and computers support Wi-Fi 6E, and commercial products supporting Wi-Fi 7 are still on their way. So looking at Wi-Fi 6E routers is only worth your time if you’re the kind of person who buys the latest and greatest in tech, or if you want to make a serious investment toward future-proofing.
Should You Upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 Router?
There are obvious benefits in moving from a Wi-Fi 5 router to a Wi-Fi 6 one (or skipping Wi-Fi 5 if you’re using an older standard). Whether it’s the right time for you to upgrade, though, depends on your needs. First and foremost, you’ll need Wi-Fi 6 devices to enjoy many benefits of this generation, such as enhanced channel width and improved security. If you have invested in a lot of new hardware with Wi-Fi 6 support, an upgraded router makes sense for you.
However, even if you don’t have many Wi-Fi 6-capable devices, the number of wireless devices in your household has likely increased significantly, meaning it’s a good time to move to a Wi-Fi 6 router anyway. Wi-Fi 6 is generally better at handling a large volume of connected devices than Wi-Fi 5. You’ll also get better speeds, lower latency, and more reliable performance.
Plus, a jump to Wi-Fi 6 router can also be helpful if you live in an apartment or have a business in a shopping complex or mall where a lot of routers are flooding the wireless spectrum with their signals. Compared to Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6 routers are more efficient at dealing with interference caused by neighboring routers.
Even if none of these conditions apply to you, but your wireless router has gotten older and finicky, a Wi-Fi 6 router is a good investment, particularly if you have or are planning to get a broadband connection faster than 500Mbps. These routers’ prices are coming down, and you should be able to find an excellent standalone or mesh Wi-Fi 6 router in your budget. On top of all that, you’d be future-proofing for wireless devices that support Wi-Fi 6 you get down the road.
For a good place to start shopping, check out our recommendations for the best Wi-Fi routers and best mesh routers.
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