What the hell is Wi-Fi 6, and when will you get it?

More stable wireless and better smart home support is coming - hooray!

What is Wi-Fi 6?
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Wi-Fi has moved beyond giving us a more convenient internet connection for our laptops and is now the basis of everything in our home – from smart speakers to streaming video and music.

With this increase in use has come the new problem of how a wireless network deals with an ever-growing number of devices. Enter Wi-Fi 6 to save the day.

Wi-Fi 6 is built to make wireless networks more robust as well as increasing speeds to each device. Do you need it? When can you get it? Should you even care? We're going to answer all these questions, and more.

Jump straight to the information you need

Why is it called Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi devices used to be sold under the banner of the IEEE standard that they adhered to. Technically, then, Wi-Fi 6 is the 802.11ax standard, but the confusing array of numbers and letters makes it practically impossible for any normal people to know which one is the latest and best.

Using a simple naming convention makes it far easier to see which standard is the most recent, particularly as the older standards have been renamed, too.

Read more: How to build better mesh Wi-Fi for your smart home

As well as rebranding Wi-Fi 6, the older networking standards have been renamed, too, so 802.11ac (the current generation) is Wi-Fi 5, and 802.11n (the previous generation) is now Wi-Fi 4. The naming goes all the way down, but you’re unlikely to encounter any Wi-Fi 3 or older devices.

Rebranding everything will take time, so expect to see Wi-Fi 6 used on all new products, while older products will still most likely carry some mixed branding, with the old names used a lot. Yeah, it's a little messy, but it should become more straightforward in time. Or at least that's the idea.

What do I need to get Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is available now with in many new routers, such as the Netgear Orbi WiFi 6. There were a ton of new Wi-Fi 6 devices on show over in Vegas at CES, back in January. All Wi-Fi 6 routers are backwards compatible with older Wi-Fi 5 devices, although you won’t get any of the speed and concurrent device improvements that the standard supports.

For the complete package, you also need to have Wi-Fi 6 devices. The iPhone 11 and Samsung Galaxy 10 both support the standard, and the new Intel chipsets mean that we’ll start to see more and more laptops with the technology, too.

Expect to see media streamers, TVs and more smart devices start to ship later this year and into 2021. Realistically, it will take a few years for Wi-Fi 6 to catch on – Google's new Nest Wifi doesn't even support Wi-Fi 6 – but as networks become more congested, the standard should take some of the pain away.

What the hell is Wi-Fi 6 anyway, and when will you get it?

How fast is Wi-Fi 6? Let's get technical

Headline speeds of Wi-Fi 6 have been improved over Wi-Fi 5 devices, with the current range of routers offering a total throughput of up to 6Gbit/s; faster speeds are coming, too, with routers that will comfortably able to deliver more than 10Gbit/s.

But get this: Wi-Fi 6 isn't really about the blistering top speeds. Rather, it's about delivering consistently high speeds to more devices than Wi-Fi 5 could handle.

To do this, Wi-Fi 6 has some big changes from the older Wi-Fi 5, so excuse us while we get very technical for a moment. The first big change comes with the Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). QAM defines the number of bits that can be encoded and transmitted per time unit. Effectively, the higher the QAM standard used, the more bits can be transmitted, increasing throughput.

Wi-Fi 5 uses 256-QAM, which allows for 8-bits to be sent, whereas Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM, or 10-bits. Using the same radio bandwidth, Wi-Fi 6 can transmit 25% more bits than Wi-Fi 5. On paper, this makes Wi-Fi 6 25% faster. Still with us?

It’s not so much overall speed that defines Wi-Fi 6, but how the technology allows a router to communicate with different devices at the same time, giving each dedicated bandwidth.

What the hell is Wi-Fi 6 anyway, and when will you get it?

There are two main ways to do this. First, we have Multi-user Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO), which lets a router use separate streams to communicate directly with different devices. The number of streams is usually presented as a figure, such as 8x8: this means that a router has eight uplink and eight downlink streams.

With this configuration, a router could talk directly to eight devices using a single stream each, or it could support four devices using two streams each. That gives flexibility, as one gadget can connect and use a lot of bandwidth, but busy networks can reduce the total amount of bandwidth a device gets in order to support more connections.

The real benefit will come when running multiple devices at one time

It also gives router manufacturers the option of how they want to split up the total bandwidth. For example, the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 has four streams in the 5GHz channel running at 4.8Gbit/s total (1.2Gbit/s per stream); the Nighthawk AX12 has the same 4.8Gbit/s limit but runs eight streams at 5GHz (600Mbit/s each) to support more devices.

Once the number of devices exceeds the number of streams, Wi-Fi 6 has to start sharing streams between multiple devices; however, the higher number of streams available still increases the load a network can take.

Importantly, while 802.11ac only had downlink MU-MIMO (the router could send data to multiple clients concurrently), 802.11ax also supports uplink MU-MIMO (the router can simultaneously receive from multiple clients).

Wi-Fi 6 also introduces something called Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). While it sounds super technical, OFDMA simply lets wireless channels be broken down into smaller units, so the same transmission can be shared between multiple devices. It’s kind of like the network equivalent of a delivery truck that has multiple parcels for different customers.

OFDMA and MU-MIMO can be used at the same time, further increasing the number of devices that can communicate at the same time.

2.4GHz vs 5GHz

You may have heard about 2.4GHz and 5GHz. While Wi-Fi 5 was a 5GHz-only standard (the 2.4GHz band on these routers use the older 802.11n standard), Wi-Fi 6 supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

The main difference is that the 5GHz band, which is less congested, supports a channel width of 160MHz for faster speeds; the 2.4GHz band supports a maximum channel width of 40MHz, although in crowded areas this is likely to be 20MHz to prevent interference.

There are also plans to make Wi-Fi 6 available in the 6GHz band, which will increase the number of wireless channels available and further reduce interference.

What the hell is Wi-Fi 6 anyway, and when will you get it?
The real improvement will come when you have multiple devices running at the same time

Testing in the real-world with a Netgear Nighthawk AX8, we used the Tamosoft Throughput test to measure bandwidth. Using a Dell laptop with an upgraded 2x2 Wi-Fi 6 card, we saw some decent speed improvements over a Macbook with a 2x2 802.11ac card.

At 6.5 feet in the same room, Wi-Fi 6 was 7.5% faster; at 16 feet one floor up and through a wall, Wi-Fi 6 proved to be 20.9% faster; and on the second floor 33 feet away from the router, Wi-Fi 6 was 0.09% faster.

It’s worth mentioning that our Wi-Fi 5 device delivered some of the fastest throughputs that we’ve seen, too.

How does Wi-Fi 6 help save battery life for smart devices?

With more and more battery-powered wireless devices, Wi-Fi 6 is here to help save power with a technology called Target Wake Time (TWT). This allows a client and router to schedule when communication can take place, allowing them to more efficiently wake up, increasing low-power sleep time.

TWT also improves network usage, as a router can schedule its use of bandwidth more effectively, reducing contention on the network.

TWT is unlikely to make much difference to your smartphone or laptop, which typically need permanent or more ad-hoc transmission. However, for smart devices that may need to send regular updates, the battery life improvement should be more noticeable.

For example, a Wi-Fi-powered sensor can schedule when it wakes up and sends its updates, spending more time in sleep mode; or a wireless camera could send its current status, saving battery life when it’s not recording. With previous versions of Wi-Fi, a device would have to wake up, check to see if the network is available and then transmit, all of which could take multiple tries and reduce battery life.

TAGGED    smart home

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