We go through the major differences between the latest Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E wireless standards and tell you if – or why – it’s time for you to upgrade.
As with all technologies, wireless communication is also updated and improved at regular intervals. Earlier, just a couple of years ago, we talked about standards such as 802.11n or 802.11ac. But then this terminology became too cumbersome for the common man to decide Wi-Fi Alliance, the organization that determines what the standards should look like, 2018 to adopt new names (and also icons) for each standard. This means that 802.11ac became Wi-Fi 5 and the latest 802.11ax became Wi-Fi 6. In addition, we have also been able to see a type of upgrade of Wi-Fi 6 called Wi-Fi 6E. But what really distinguishes these different standards? And when should or should we start thinking about upgrading the network gadgets in our homes and offices?
Especially considering that we can still see completely new products launched with the standard Wi-Fi 4, formerly called 802.11n, even though it was launched already in 2009.
Wireless communication is gaining momentum
If we look briefly back in time, the first 802.11 standard was launched as early as 1997. Then, of course, with significantly lower performance compared to today’s solutions. Over the years, the range of wireless solutions grew and more and more devices began to communicate wirelessly. Two important steps in the development took place in 2003 when 802.11g or Wi-Fi 3 was launched, which in general terms was the first standard that was more adapted for homes.
The second important year was 2009 when Wi-Fi 4 was launched and the theoretical bandwidth took a leap from 54 megabits per second to 600 megabits per second. It was also in connection with this launch that we seriously began to use both 2.4- and 5-gigahertz bands for communication.
But as more and more devices communicate wirelessly, the demands for better bandwidth and coverage increased. We are thinking here of both computers, mobile phones and smart tablets, but also of TVs, various media devices and perhaps above all the beginning of more and more smart home solutions. This led to the launch of Wi-Fi 5 in 2012, which is the standard that still has the greatest spread, even though the latest Wi-Fi 6 buttons in for each passing month.
More currents provide better flow
When we look at different wireless standards, we often see very different figures for the performance that each standard can offer. This is because different solutions can have different so-called data streams and also use different numbers of bands over different frequencies. If we start here with Wi-Fi 5, this standard offers a maximum theoretical throughput of 433 megabits per second per data stream at a bandwidth of 80 megahertz.
In the basic version of Wi-Fi 5, the so-called Wave 1, three simultaneous streams could be handled, which gave a theoretical maximum limit of 1,300 megabits per second. Over time, the standard was further developed and we got what is called Wave 2 which offered four streams and an increased theoretical maximum limit to 1,732 megabits per second.
Eight streams simultaneously
If we then look at Wi-Fi 6, the highest theoretical throughput is 1,201 megabits per second per data stream at a bandwidth of 160 megahertz. In addition, the technology supports eight streams simultaneously, giving a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 9.6 gigabits per second over both the 2.4 and 5 gigahertz band. If dual 5-gigahertz bands are used, it is also possible to get a theoretical maximum limit of just under a staggering 11 gigabits per second divided into 4.8 x 2 via 5-gigahertz (or 6-gigahertz) and 1.15 gigabit via the 2.4 gigahertz band .
It is worth noting that all these values are theoretical maximum values under optimal conditions, which are rarely achieved in reality. This is partly due to the fact that we have several disturbing sources on the road. Everything from your TV, computer, microwave, walls and floor can have a disruptive effect. In addition, your neighbors’ wireless equipment is likely to interfere a lot.
The transition to Wi-Fi 6 meant, among other things, that we got a fourfold increase in modulation and that we switch to a 4: 4 MU-MIMO technology from a 4: 1 at Wi-Fi 5. Without delving into technical explanations is also a technician to be able to handle several clients all together and that more data can be transferred at each connection.
Differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 in reality
If, instead of focusing on theoretical values, we take a closer look at the real difference between Wi-Fi 5 and 6, we usually say that the actual performance gain between the two networks is on average around 30 percent. But increased transmission speed is far from the only benefit (especially considering that our internet connection will still be the limiting factor if we consider internal access of various kinds).
In its basic version, Wi-Fi 6 offers advantages such as the ability to service four times as many connected devices as Wi-Fi 5, where the technology can also communicate with twelve devices simultaneously. Given the ever-increasing number of connected wireless devices in our homes and offices, this is an extremely important increase.
Smarter handling of packages
The technology that makes this possible is called OFDMA or Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access and it replaces previous OFDM used by Wi-Fi 5. What makes the technology so smart and above all efficient is that every data packet sent will be fully utilized then the space in these packages can be shared between multiple users, unlike previous solutions that went with half-full packages to one user at a time.
In addition to using bandwidth more efficiently, the latency, response time, with Wi-Fi 6 also becomes extremely much faster as devices no longer have to wait to the same extent as before. The next big benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is a technology called Target Wakeup Time or TWT. This solution allows devices that do not continuously communicate with the router or an access point to go into sleep mode to quickly connect and send or receive data when needed. Thanks to this, less power is consumed, which is especially important for battery-powered devices. It is often said that the technology provides up to seven times longer battery life for mobile devices seen from this very perspective.
For this to work fully, it is of course necessary that both transmitters and receivers support the technology. Because even though Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible with previous wireless standards, older devices cannot take advantage of the new features.
Your own file
We have previously mentioned that Wi-Fi 5 after some years was updated to what is called Wave 2, which gave increased capacity. Wi-Fi 6 has also received an update in 2020, but this is not about more streams but about a bit of its own highway in the form of access to the 6-gigahertz band, which then also gave the standard an addition in the form of Wi-Fi 6E.
With the new update, a total of 14 new channels over 80 megahertz and 7 new channels over 160 megahertz will be added. So what’s good about these new channels? Well, since the channels use the 6-gigahertz band – which no previous standards have used – new devices will get this band for themselves, which will result in both a faster connection, less waiting and a smoother and higher data transfer.
Because only Wi-Fi 6E devices use this band, they do not need to use DFS, Dynamic Frequency Selection. DFS is a technology that continuously scans the wireless channel so that devices do not interfere with parts such as air traffic. By skipping this scan, the connection to the network becomes almost instantaneous.
In addition, the technology will release traffic over the previous 2.4- and above all 5-gigahertz, which in turn will have positive effects on the network as a whole.
To upgrade or not
How should we then reason about wireless devices and above all routers and access points in the home?
If you have a Wi-Fi 5 solution, or older, you should seriously consider upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E in order to ensure that the home’s increasing number of devices and growing bandwidth requirements are met. However, if you already have a Wi-Fi 6 solution, there is no major reason to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E, at least not at the time of writing. As more 6E units become available, it may be worth considering these courses.
The best routers of the year 2019
A little tip for those of you who already have a well-functioning Wi-Fi 6 set at home is to invest in new access points where you turn off all traffic except the 6 gigahertz band. This way you get a clean breakdown and maximum bandwidth utilization.