Wi-Fi 6 is a newer wireless networking standard, and it supports all the features of Wi-Fi 5 and adds new ones. It offers faster internet speeds, higher efficiency, and can more efficiently handle a large number of simultaneous wireless connections.
If you want to buy wireless networking equipment, Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 are two of the most prevalent wireless generations you’ll find on the market today. But what makes Wi-Fi 6 different from Wi-Fi 5? Is better?
What is Wi-Fi 5?
Wi-Fi 5 is the fifth generation of wireless networking protocol and is also known by its Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard name 802.11ac. Introduced in 2014, it brought several improvements over Wi-Fi 4 or 802.11n, including support for data rates exceeding one gigabit.
It was also the second version of Wi-Fi after 802.11a to use the 5 GHz frequency band for data transmission. Other Wi-Fi 5 features include beamforming support, MU-MIMO (multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output), 160MHz channel width support, and four spatial streams. These features together brought significant improvements over Wi-Fi 4, but Wi-Fi 5 certainly isn’t the pinnacle 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 on Wi-Fi 5 by improving its overall performance to better deal with the increasing number of wireless devices in homes and corporate offices, including IoT products such as smart home equipment.
Wi-Fi 6 uses 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wireless frequency bands for data transmission and contains several incremental upgrades over previous Wi-Fi generations, such as OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access), a Enhanced version of MU-MIMO, Target Wake Time (TWT) function to save battery life on mobile and IoT devices, and WPA3 encryption for added security. All of these updates make Wi-Fi 6 an important step forward and capable of bringing better speeds to connected devices.
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Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6
As mentioned, Wi-Fi 6 is based on Wi-Fi 5. As a result, there are many similarities between both generations of Wi-Fi. That said, Wi-Fi 6 offers improved versions of several Wi-Fi 5 technologies, allowing it to better meet modern wireless networking needs. Some of the most significant differences between the two generations of Wi-Fi lie in its ability to connect to a large number of devices, the use of wireless frequency bands, the ability to transfer or receive multiple data streams, the speed of data and MIMO support.
One of the highlights of Wi-Fi 6 is OFDMA technology. It is a variant of OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) technology present in Wi-Fi 5. OFDMA assists Wi-Fi 6 with efficient data encryption and better use of wireless spectrum by allowing up to 30 clients to share a channel simultaneously. Thanks to this update, Wi-Fi 6 routers can better handle network congestion caused by multiple simultaneous requests from connected devices and with lower latency. By comparison, OFDM can only connect to one device per channel. Therefore, it is not as efficient in handling concurrent requests and cannot reliably serve a large number of connected devices.
Another Wi-Fi 6 feature that makes a difference in the real world is support for eight spatial streams. Compared to the typical Wi-Fi 5 four spatial streams and potentially (but rare) eight spatial streams, Wi-Fi 6 APs can consistently deliver 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 dual frequency band support, OFDMA and more spatial streams help Wi-Fi 6 deliver a potential maximum data rate of 9.6 Gbps. On the other hand, Wi-Fi 5 exceeded 6.9 Gbps. That being said, neither generation of Wi-Fi can reach its theoretical maximum data rates in real-world usage. But you’ll undoubtedly get considerably faster data speeds with Wi-Fi 6 than Wi-Fi 5.
Additionally, the enhanced implementation of MU-MIMO in Wi-Fi 6 supports both uplink MU-MIMO and downlink MU-MIMO. Which means that any Wi-Fi 6 access point can transmit and receive data from multiple devices at the same time. As a result, Wi-Fi 6 can offer improved speeds and adapt to multiple devices seamlessly. Wi-Fi 5, on the other hand, only supports downlink MU-MIMO.
Finally, Wi-Fi 6’s BSS Color feature flags your neighbor’s router frames so 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.
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What about Wi-Fi 6E?
Read up on wireless standards these days and you’re likely to 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, offer many improvements over Wi-Fi 6, but their best benefits require wireless devices built to support them.
As of this writing, only the most advanced (and often most expensive) phones, tablets, and computers support Wi-Fi 6E, and commercial Wi-Fi 7-capable products are still on the way. So Wi-Fi 6E routers are only worth looking at if you’re the type of person who buys the latest and greatest in technology, or if you want to make a serious investment to prepare for the future.
Should you upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router?
There are obvious benefits to moving from a Wi-Fi 5 router to a Wi-Fi 6 router (or skip Wi-Fi 5 if you’re using an older standard). However, whether the time is right to upgrade depends on your needs. First, you’ll need Wi-Fi 6 devices to enjoy many of the benefits of this generation, such as improved channel width and enhanced security. If you’ve invested in a lot of new Wi-Fi 6-compatible hardware, an upgraded router makes sense for you.
However, even if you don’t have many Wi-Fi 6-enabled devices, the number of wireless devices in your home has likely increased significantly, which means it’s a good time to switch to a Wi-Fi 6 router of all. modes. 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.
Also, a hop to Wi-Fi 6 router can also come in handy if you live in an apartment or run a business in a shopping complex or mall where many 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 become outdated and finicky, a Wi-Fi 6 router is a good investment, especially if you have or plan to get a broadband connection greater than 500 Mbps. Prices on these routers are coming down, and you should be able to find a great standalone or mesh Wi-Fi 6 router in your budget. On top of all that, you’d be future-proofing the Wi-Fi 6 compatible wireless devices you’ll get in the future.
For a good place to start shopping, check out our recommendations for the best Wi-Fi routers and the best mesh routers.