Wi-Fi is a technology that most people use every day, whether it’s streaming music on their phone or browsing Twitter on their computer. But there are a few different Wi-Fi standards, and not all of them treat internet data the same. Some standards are faster, and some devices only support one standard but not others.
So it’s worth asking: what is a Wi-Fi standard and why should you care?
Ok, so what is a Wi-Fi standard?
A Wi-Fi standard defines rules for devices, routers, and other network equipment, both to ensure they work together and to comply with government regulations. Wi-Fi standards are created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)non-profit professional organization, and managed by the WiFi Alliance.
Wi-Fi differs from other wireless standards, such as Bluetooth or your smartphone’s 4G/5G connection. All three rely on radio waves, but Bluetooth and 4G/5G are not Wi-Fi and are not compatible with any Wi-Fi standard.
Devices that support Wi-Fi are marked as “Wi-Fi” with a version number, such as Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 5 versus Wi-Fi 6
Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 are the Wi-Fi standards most commonly supported by Wi-Fi devices sold today.
First released in 2014, Wi-Fi 5 is an older and less capable standard. Wi-Fi 6 was introduced in 2019, so it’s newer and faster. The exact difference will depend on your home network, however, in our testing we found that Wi-Fi 6 is often much faster than Wi-Fi 5.
While an older Wi-Fi 5 router, like the TP-Link Archer A7can reach speeds of up to 450 Mbps in real-world conditions, a similar Wi-Fi 6 router, like the TP-Link AX50, can reach almost 700 Mbps. Wi-Fi 6 also tends to be more consistent over long ranges, so you worry less about lost or slow signals.
There are many technical reasons for these improvements, but they come down to efficiency. Wi-Fi does not send a smooth, consistent stream of data, but rather sends data in bursts. Wi-Fi 5 can only send data to one device (per Wi-Fi channel) per burst, but Wi-Fi 6 can send data to multiple devices per burst.
Congestion is also less of an issue for Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 5 devices must wait for a channel to be clear before transmitting, regardless of the source of the interference. Wi-Fi 6 understands if the interfering transmission is coming from its own network. If not, it will continue to transmit.
Together, these changes mean that Wi-Fi 6 can send more data and does so more reliably than Wi-Fi 5.
Wi-Fi 6 is also more secure than Wi-Fi 5 because it supports WPA3 security standard. This mitigates WPA2’s vulnerability to brute force attacks and enables encryption of network traffic even among devices connected to the same network. (WPA2 could do this, but it was optional.)
Wi-Fi 6 versus Wi-Fi 6E
Wi-Fi 6E is a version of Wi-Fi 6. It is based on the same technical standard as Wi-Fi 6E (802.11ax), but adds a 6 GHz radio band. This is in addition to the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands you’ve probably noticed on your existing Wi-Fi network.
The 6 GHz band can achieve even higher speeds than normal Wi-Fi 6 because it uses a higher radio frequency. It also uses radio spectrum with less interference, which can improve reliability,
It’s not all good news, however. The 6 GHz band can have more trouble with obstacles than the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, so it can be unreliable over long distances or through thick walls.
The performance improvement in the 6 GHz band is significant, but device support is still sparse and Wi-Fi 6E routers are expensive. This will start to change until 2022 and 2023.
Wait… what is 802.11ax?
Wi-Fi versions were once advertised as the technical standard, 802.11, with newer versions getting an affix, like 802.11b or 802.11g.
Eventually the Wi-Fi Alliance realized that this confused most people and renamed Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi. Newer versions have a higher version number, so again Wi-Fi -Fi 5 is older than Wi-Fi 6.
802.11ax and Wi-Fi 6, for example, are the same thing. 802.11ax is the name of the technical standard, while Wi-Fi 6 is the brand advertised by routers and devices.
Should you switch to a new Wi-Fi standard?
Wi-Fi 6 is better than Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6E is the best. But should you rush to Amazon and buy a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router right away?
We recommend an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. There’s no need to upgrade if you’re already happy with the Wi-Fi in your home. But if there’s a room where the signal is spotty, or download speeds are often much lower than what a PC wired directly to your Internet modem can achieve, an upgrade can help.
Wi-Fi standards and backward compatibility
So you have decided to upgrade your Wi-Fi network. Do you also need to upgrade your devices?
Wi-Fi is backwards compatible, which means that newer standards also support older standards. It is technically possible that Wi-Fi 6 supports all standards dating back to the 802.11a/b standards of 1999.
However, while new routers and Wi-Fi devices are compatible with older standards, they will only work at the slowest speed supported by two connected devices.
For example, a Wi-Fi 5 device connected to a Wi-Fi 6 router will deliver Wi-Fi 5 speeds, and the same is true if the roles are reversed. A router and the device connected to it must support Wi-Fi 6 to use Wi-Fi 6. This is also true for Wi-Fi 6E and future Wi-Fi standards.
Still a little confused? Here’s what you absolutely need to know.
- Wi-Fi standards are defined by a version number, such as Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6. A higher number is better.
- New Wi-Fi standards are faster and more reliable.
- Wi-Fi is backward compatible, so old and new devices can work together.
- However, performance is limited to the slower of the two connected devices.
Wi-Fi standards can be daunting, but understanding the basics is worth it. Choosing devices that support the latest Wi-Fi standard can significantly improve network performance and reliability.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.