The last decade has brought more and more of our lives online, and wireless internet has helped make that transition possible. The latest version of this technology is Wi-Fi 6, also referred to as 802.11ax.
What Is Wi-Fi?
The term “Wi-Fi” was created by the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance and refers to a group of wireless networking protocols that are based on the IEEE 802.11 network standard. Wi-Fi has been around since the late ‘90s but has improved dramatically in the last decade.
To make the differences between each generation more obvious, the Wi-Fi alliance recently adopted a more traditional naming convention, dropping the 802.XX designation for a simplified numerical suffix. This simpler labeling convention (Wi-Fi 6 vs. 802.11ax) makes it easier to know what generation of the technology is being used and to determine compatibility with devices that support that version.
How Is Wi-Fi 6 Different?
Wi-Fi 6 is a substantial upgrade over previous generations, though the differences may not seem immediately obvious to the average user. These changes might not dramatically change the way we use wireless routers or wireless networking but instead consist of many incremental improvements that stack up to be a substantial upgrade.
The first big change is that Wi-Fi 6 allows for potentially faster connection speeds.
Faster Wi-Fi means better upload and download speeds (or throughput) due to the increased bandwidth afforded by Wi-Fi 6. This is becoming increasingly important as file sizes continue to increase, along with the higher data demands of streaming high-quality video and communication-heavy online gaming. Playing a multiplayer game while also streaming to Twitch* requires large amounts of bandwidth and a reliable and stable connection.
So, how much faster is Wi-Fi 6?
- 9.6 Gbps is the maximum throughput of Wi-Fi 6 across multiple channels. In contrast, Wi-Fi 5 offers a maximum of 3.5 Gbps. These are theoretical maximums however; in real-world situations, local networks may not reach this top speed. That said, because that maximum is shared across multiple devices, devices with Wi-Fi 6 can enjoy significantly faster speeds even if they don’t reach the maximum potential.
- Speeds can be faster when compared to Wi-Fi 5. This assumes you’re using a Wi-Fi router with a single device. Wi-Fi 6 can achieve higher data transfer speeds through a variety of techniques, starting with more efficient data encoding and intelligent use of the wireless spectrum made possible by more powerful processors.
- Wi-Fi 6 can result in up to 75% less latency. It achieves this by handling large amounts of network traffic more efficiently. For gamers, this means faster game downloads, better upload speeds for streaming gameplay, and more reliable media multitasking.
- Wi-Fi 6 brings wired and wireless signals closer to parity. This potentially frees more users from the constraints of being hardwired to their modem. Many gamers or content creators still connect directly to routers or network switches via Ethernet cables instead of taking advantage of the flexibility that wireless networking provides. Wi-Fi 6 helps further bridge the gap between wired and wireless connectivity.
What Makes Wi-Fi 6 Faster?
Most homes today have significantly more Wi-Fi enabled devices than they did even five years ago. From smartphones and tablets to televisions and IoT devices like thermostats and doorbells, just about everything can connect to a wireless router. Wi-Fi 6 communicates better with multiple devices that need data simultaneously, and more efficiently prioritizes traffic across those devices.
Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) is one of the ways this is achieved. OFDMA works by subdividing channels into subcarriers and allowing for transmission to multiple endpoints (devices) at the same time. A Wi-Fi 6 router can send different signals in the same transmission window. This results in a single transmission from the router being able to communicate with multiple devices, instead of each device having to wait its turn as the router serves up the data across the network.
Overlapping Basic Service Sets (OBSS) is another Wi-Fi 6 feature that can help to improve network congestion. With older versions of Wi-Fi, devices trying to connect to a network used a “listen before talk” process, which meant they had to “listen” for any noise on a channel before transmitting.
If there was any noise on the channel, even if it originated from a distant network, they would have to wait until the channel was clear before transmitting in order to avoid potential interference. OBSS enables the access point to use a “color” in order to uniquely identify the network. If other traffic is detected on the channel, but it is not the same color of the local network, devices can ignore it and continue transmission. This can help increase reliability and improve latency.
Working together, OFDMA and OBSS allow for more effective communication on crowded networks. As more and more of our devices utilize Wi-Fi, this will help preserve the speed and stability of our connections.
Beamforming is another technology that Wi-Fi 6 improves in order to achieve higher speeds. This futuristic-sounding data transmission method is actually relatively simple. Instead of broadcasting data in all directions, the router detects where the device requesting the data is located and transmits a more localized data stream in that direction.
Beamforming isn’t new to Wi-Fi 6, but its efficacy has been improved in this generation.
Network Benefits Beyond Speed
Speed is probably the most important thing to the average user, especially for gamers, but there’s more to a wireless network. Wi-Fi 6 also promises improvements in security.
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is a common Wi-Fi security protocol that uses passwords for encryption. Anytime a password is required to sign into a Wi-Fi network, that’s WPA in action. WPA2 has been the standard for a long time, but that’s changing with Wi-Fi 6.
One of the biggest improvements is the implementation of increased password security via the Dragonfly Key Exchange system, also called SAE or Simultaneous Authentication of Equals. This authentication method helps make passwords harder to crack by using a more sophisticated method of establishing the handshake with the Wi-Fi network. This added layer of security, coupled with stronger encryption, means Wi-Fi will have more robust security options than ever.
This extra layer of security is a great example of how Wi-Fi 6 changes things for the better without negatively impacting the user experience.
Battery Life and TWT
Another forward-facing development incorporated into Wi-Fi 6, Target Wake Time (TWT), has the ability to potentially increase battery life on some devices.
This technology allows for more efficient communication between your router and device regarding when to sleep or wake up. By effectively communicating with the device’s Wi-Fi radio and only activating it when it needs to be awake, your device will spend less time and energy searching for a wireless signal.
This can enhance battery life.
What Is Wi-Fi 6E?
In addition to Wi-Fi 6, another new Wi-Fi technology has recently arrived: Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi devices had previously been restricted to using only the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, but that’s recently changed. Wi-Fi 6E enabled devices can utilize the 6GHz frequency band, which provides 1,200MHz of bandwidth, making it ideal for delivering high amounts of data shorter distances. This can help alleviate traffic congestion and interference for supported devices. Think of Wi-Fi 6E as a new, wider lane being added to the previously two-lane Wi-Fi freeway, with all of the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 included.
Not every device that supports Wi-Fi 6 will support Wi-Fi 6E, so be sure to check that the hardware you’re considering supports Wi-Fi 6E when upgrading.
What Do I Need to Make Wi-Fi 6 Work?
Here’s what you should consider when making the switch to Wi-Fi 6:
- Does your router support Wi-Fi 6? The most important upgrade you’ll need to take advantage of this new protocol is a Wi-Fi 6 capable router. Most manufacturers offer routers with Wi-Fi 6 capability already, so there are plenty of options to choose from.
- Do your devices support Wi-Fi 6? You’ll also need devices that have the ability to use Wi-Fi 6. Though Wi-Fi 6 is backwards compatible with the older 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), you’ll need a Wi-Fi 6 capable device to take advantage of everything we’ve listed here. As Wi-Fi 6 increasingly becomes the standard over the next few years, newer devices will start incorporating the technology, and it will become the new normal.
- Does your PC support Wi-Fi 6? If you have the latest Gen Intel CPU and compatible motherboard, many of the pieces required for Wi-Fi 6 to function are already included, making it easier than ever to take advantage of this new technology. Though an external M.2 antenna is still required if your motherboard doesn’t have one, the implementation of Intel® Integrated Connectivity (CNVi) means much of the technology that powers Wi-Fi 6 is already available in your system.
If you’re looking for a gaming-focused Gig+ Wi-Fi 6 solution, check out this Killer® Wi-Fi 6 AX1650 Wi-Fi 6 card designed in partnership with Intel. These devices use 160MHz channels that allow for Gigabit wireless speeds — up to 1700 Mbps — or three times faster than standard Wi-Fi 5 under ideal circumstances.
Remember, all devices and components that are Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E compatible will be labeled as such, so be sure to look for that designation when considering upgrades.
Is it Time to Upgrade Your Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E will have a dramatic impact on the way we interact with our wireless devices. Between the faster speeds, better traffic prioritization, and added security, Wi-Fi 6 is a significant step forward in wireless network technology.
Whether you’re gaming, working, or just streaming video, upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 is worth considering.