What Is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is faster, but there’s more to the new standard than just speed.

Written by

Last Updated: Dec 11, 2023
An abstract Wi-Fi-themed image with a six
Wi-Fi 6 has been the industry standard since 2020.
  • More than speed: Wi-Fi 6 offers much faster speeds, up to 9.6 Gbps, and improves efficiency for multiple devices using technologies like OFDMA and MU-MIMO.
  • Enhanced battery life and compatibility: Wi-Fi 6 is compatible with most new devices and extends battery life with features like Target Wake Time, which is especially useful for devices that don’t constantly need the internet.
  • Introduction of Wi-Fi 6E: Wi-Fi 6E brings the 6 GHz band into play, providing faster speeds and less interference, making it an excellent option for future-proofing your Wi-Fi network.

Introduced in 2019, Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is not just a step but a giant leap forward in wireless technology. In this guide, we’ll walk you through what Wi-Fi 6 is, how Wi-Fi 6 outshines Wi-Fi 5, and why it’s probably the best choice for your next upgrade.

Unpacking Wi-Fi 6: Faster Speeds, More Room for Devices

Wi-Fi 6 builds upon Wi-Fi 5’s foundations, addressing its limitations and propelling wireless networking into a new dimension. It operates on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and introduces groundbreaking technologies like OFDMA and enhanced MU-MIMO.

There’s a good chance you’re using Wi-Fi 6 already. Most smartphones, laptops, and other wireless devices released in the past few years (since 2019 or so) come equipped with Wi-Fi 6 capabilities. This integration means they can take full advantage of the increased speeds, improved efficiency, and reduced latency that Wi-Fi 6 offers.

Wi-Fi 6 at a Glance

Feature Wi-Fi 6
Frequency band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
Max speeds Up to 9.6 Gbps
Channel width Up to 160 MHz, with additional support for 80 + 80 MHz
MIMO MU-MIMO (multi-user MIMO)
Modulation Up to 1024-QAM

How Fast Is Wi-Fi 6?

These advancements mean Wi-Fi 6 delivers maximum theoretical speeds of up to 9.6 Gbps. That’s up from the 3.5 Gbps maximum of Wi-Fi 5, placing the new standard in a league of its own. Especially noticeable in homes bustling with multiple connected devices, Wi-Fi 6 efficiently manages these connections, ensuring you get closer to those peak advertised speeds.

That said, these are theoretical speeds that we are unlikely to hit anytime soon in our homes. Despite that, the upgrade is still relevant because all the devices in your home split that number between them. Therefore, homes with numerous connected devices will see a tangible difference with Wi-Fi 6.

Wi-Fi 6 Key Features: Making Your Connection Seamless

Wi-Fi 6 does many technical things under the hood that make it a worthy successor to Wi-Fi 5. You don’t necessarily need to know what each of these features does, but in case you’re curious, here’s a breakdown of each of these technologies:

  • OFDMA: Known as orthogonal frequency-division multiple access, OFDMA is all about efficiency, allowing routers to serve multiple users with different bandwidth needs simultaneously.
  • Basic service set (BSS) coloring: BSS coloring differentiates between signals from nearby networks, raising the signal clarity of Wi-Fi 6.
  • Target Wake Time (TWT): This technology puts devices on standby at certain intervals to ensure longer battery life for all your devices.

What Makes Wi-Fi 6 Faster?

Imagine a cafeteria with multiple lunch lines, with each one of these lines representing a “stream.” With its ability to handle up to 8×8 streams on the 5 GHz band, Wi-Fi 6 is like a cafeteria equipped to serve a large crowd swiftly. This process translates to more data for different devices, all at once, without a hitch.

As mentioned above, MU-MIMO, short for multi-user, multiple input, multiple output, is a feature in modern routers and devices enhanced by Wi-Fi 6. This technology enables a router to communicate simultaneously with multiple devices, a significant leap from the one-device-at-a-time approach. Currently, MU-MIMO supports connections with up to four devices, but Wi-Fi 6 expands this capacity to eight.

Additionally, Wi-Fi 6 introduces OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access), which further optimizes data transmission. This technology allows a single transmission to simultaneously send data to multiple devices, streamlining the communication process in a wireless network.

Wi-Fi 6 Enhances Battery Life

A collage of various Wi-Fi 6-enabled gadgets
Wi-Fi 6 can enhance battery life because it talks to your devices more intelligently than past standards.

Wi-Fi 6 introduces a technology that allows devices to communicate with routers more efficiently, minimizing their antennas’ active time. This implementation reduces energy use and extends battery life. This benefit stems from a feature known as TWT, which enables routers to schedule communication intervals with devices.

However, not all devices will reap the same benefits. For instance, laptops requiring continuous internet access may not heavily utilize this feature except during sleep mode. The real advantage lies with smaller, low-power devices that intermittently update their status, like home sensors monitoring environmental conditions or smart home gadgets that are inactive for most of the day.

Compatibility and Beyond: Wi-Fi 6’s Wide Reach

Wi-Fi 6 plays well with older devices but shines brightest with Wi-Fi 6-compatible devices. Since 2019, there’s been a surge in gadgets supporting Wi-Fi 6, from routers to smartphones to smart home devices.

Chances are the vast majority of devices in your home support Wi-Fi 6. This wide-ranging compatibility means that transitioning to a Wi-Fi 6 network is seamless and prepares your digital ecosystem for future technological advancements.

By embracing Wi-Fi 6, you’re not just upgrading your network, but future-proofing your connectivity, ensuring that your home or office stays at the forefront of wireless technology efficiency and reliability.

Wi-Fi 6E: The Next Big Thing

 An abstract image representing the 6 GHz band
The 6 GHz band opens up new airwaves for your devices, which means faster speeds and a more reliable connection.

Wi-Fi 6 Extended (Wi-Fi 6E) was introduced in 2020, expanding upon the foundation set by Wi-Fi 6 by incorporating the 6 GHz frequency band. This addition brings several benefits, most notably the potential for faster data transmission speeds and substantially reduced interference from other wireless devices.

The inclusion of the 6 GHz band in Wi-Fi 6E opens up more spectrum, which means more bandwidth and higher capacity. This feature is particularly beneficial in crowded areas or environments with many connected devices, as it allows for smoother and more reliable wireless connections.

Moreover, Wi-Fi 6E supports the increasing demands of data-intensive applications like high-definition video streaming, virtual reality, and smart home technologies. With channels up to 160 MHz wide available in the 6 GHz band, Wi-Fi 6E can offer higher throughput and lower latency, enhancing the user experience.

For those considering an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E represents an even more future-proof option. It supports all the existing features of Wi-Fi 6 and paves the way for next-generation wireless applications, ensuring that your Wi-Fi network remains robust and capable of meeting current and future connectivity needs.

The Final Word: Wi-Fi 6 Is Here, but Wi-Fi 7 Is on the Horizon

Choosing between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 boils down to your needs and the density of your network environment. While Wi-Fi 6 is superior for performance and efficiency, Wi-Fi 5 may still suffice for less demanding setups. However, with Wi-Fi 6E already available and Wi-Fi 7 emerging on the market, Wi-Fi 5 is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

If your current setup works, that’s great, but as you add more modern devices to your network, you’ll start feeling the constraints of Wi-Fi 5. In the end, Wi-Fi 6 isn’t just an upgrade; it’s a transformation in wireless networking, setting you up for the future.