What is Wi-Fi 5, 6, 6E, and 7? Should You Upgrade?
Wi-Fi 7 isn’t here yet, and you might not even need Wi-Fi 6, but it has benefits worth considering.
Wi-Fi is integral to our daily lives, powering everything from our smartphones to our thermostats and beyond. As technology evolves, so do Wi-Fi standards, offering faster speeds, better range, and more efficient data delivery. But how do you pick the Wi-Fi that’s right for you? In this guide, we’ll delve into the details of Wi-Fi 5, 6, 6E, and 7 to help you decide if an upgrade is right for your household.
Should You Upgrade: The Short Answer
Wi-Fi technology has evolved rapidly, with Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and the upcoming Wi-Fi 7 offering progressively faster speeds, greater efficiency, and advanced features. Before upgrading, consider your current devices, usage needs, and budget.
If you’re experiencing network congestion, require faster speeds for activities like gaming or 4K streaming, or want to future-proof your setup, an upgrade might be beneficial. However, for basic internet tasks, your current Wi-Fi might suffice.
An Overview of Current Wi-Fi Standards
There are really two primary Wi-Fi standards in use today, with another on the horizon. They are: Wi-Fi 5 (the most widespread), Wi-Fi 6 (the current cutting edge), and Wi-Fi 7 (the future of Wi-Fi technology).
Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac): Wi-Fi of Yesterday
Introduced in 2014, Wi-Fi 5 (also known as 802.11ac) was a significant leap from its predecessor, offering faster speeds primarily for home networks.
- Maximum data rates: Up to 3.5 Gbps
- Channel bandwidth: Supports 80 MHz and 160 MHz channels
- Multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) capabilities: Allows multiple antennas for better signal and faster speeds
What We Like
- Improved speeds
- Better range
- More simultaneous device support than previous versions
What We Don't Like
- Newer technologies are offering more tangible improvements and value.
At this point in its life cycle, Wi-Fi 5 is widely supported. Compatible devices include smartphones and tablets from brands like Apple and Samsung, computer manufacturers like Dell and HP, smart TVs, gaming consoles like the PlayStation 4, and routers from companies like Netgear and TP-Link.
In short, most modern devices made after 2015 support the Wi-Fi 5 standard.
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax): Today’s Wi-Fi Standard
Released in 2019, Wi-Fi 6 introduced several key advancements, not just in terms of speed, but also efficiency — especially in crowded networks.
- Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA): Allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices simultaneously.
- Multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO): Supports up to eight users at a time, doubling the previous limit.
- Target Wake Time (TWT): Improves battery life in Wi-Fi devices.
- Basic Service Set (BSS) coloring: Reduces interference from neighboring networks.
What We Like
- Faster average speeds
- Better performance in congested areas
- Improved battery life for connected devices.
What We Don't Like
- Requires newer hardware
- Full benefits only apply to devices with Wi-Fi 6 enabled
Devices compatible with Wi-Fi 6 include flagship smartphones like the iPhone 11 series and Samsung Galaxy S10 series (and their successors), modern laptops from brands like Apple and Dell, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S gaming consoles, and new routers from brands like Netgear and TP-Link.
If your device is a 2020 or newer model, it will likely support Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6 vs Wi-Fi 6E: What’s the Difference?
The short answer is: Both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are based on the 802.11ax standard. Wi-Fi 6 uses the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, while Wi-Fi 6E adds the 6 GHz band, offering faster speeds and less interference in busy areas. Think of Wi-Fi 6E as Wi-Fi 6 with an extra performance boost.
Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are both based on the same 802.11ax standard, but there are key differences between the two, primarily related to their frequency band capabilities.
- Wi-Fi 6: Operates on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.
- Wi-Fi 6E: Operates on the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz band. The inclusion of the 6 GHz band is what differentiates Wi-Fi 6E from Wi-Fi 6.
- Wi-Fi 6: Uses the existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, which are also used by previous Wi-Fi standards and other devices, leading to potential congestion.
- Wi-Fi 6E: The 6 GHz band provides a fresh and broader spectrum, offering up to 1,200 MHz of additional spectrum, which translates to more channels and less congestion. This band is exclusively for Wi-Fi 6E, ensuring minimal interference.
- Wi-Fi 6: Offers significant improvements over Wi-Fi 5 in terms of speed, capacity, and efficiency, especially in congested areas.
- Wi-Fi 6E: By leveraging the 6 GHz band, Wi-Fi 6E can provide even faster speeds, lower latencies, and more reliable connections than standard Wi-Fi 6, especially in dense environments.
- Wi-Fi 6: Compatible devices can connect to networks operating on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.
- Wi-Fi 6E: Devices designed explicitly for Wi-Fi 6E can utilize all three bands (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz). However, to benefit from the 6 GHz band, the router (or access point) and the device must support Wi-Fi 6E.
- Wi-Fi 6: Uses bands that have been available for Wi-Fi for years.
- Wi-Fi 6E: The availability of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed Wi-Fi use required regulatory approval. Many countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and parts of the European Union, have approved using the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi 6E. However, the band’s availability may vary by region.
Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be): A Glimpse Into the Future
Wi-Fi 7, tentatively termed 802.11be, is the upcoming generation of Wi-Fi that aims to build upon the strengths of Wi-Fi 6 and 6E. Experts expect it to be a game-changer in terms of speed, efficiency, and versatility, catering to the ever-growing demands of modern-day connectivity.
Anticipated Key Features
- Enhanced data rates: Wi-Fi 7 will support data rates of up to 30 Gbps — a significant leap from the maximum rates of Wi-Fi 6.
- Multiband operation: One of the standout features is the ability to operate simultaneously across multiple frequency bands, including 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz. This multiband operation will significantly enhance flexibility and performance.
- Improved MIMO: While Wi-Fi 6 introduced MU-MIMO, Wi-Fi 7 will take this technology a step further with coordinated multi-user MIMO (CMU-MIMO). This standard will allow for better coordination between multiple access points, optimizing data delivery to multiple devices.
- Advanced modulation: With 4096 Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (4069-QAM), Wi-Fi 7 will offer finer data modulation, leading to faster data transfer rates.
- Real-time applications: Experts are designing Wi-Fi 7 with real-time applications in mind, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). The enhanced speeds and reduced latencies will be crucial for these data-intensive applications.
- Enhanced security: Building on Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3), the security protocol introduced with Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 7 is expected to bring even more robust security features to protect user data and prevent unauthorized access.
Wi-Fi 7 Considerations
- Adoption rate: As with all new technologies, it might take time for devices to become Wi-Fi 7 compatible. Early adopters might not immediately benefit from all its features.
- Higher costs: Initial adoption might be on the pricier side, both for consumers and businesses.
Wi-Fi 7 promises a future of hyper-connectivity, with speeds and features that were once deemed the stuff of science fiction. While it’s still in the pipeline, the buzz around it suggests that it’ll be worth the wait, setting new standards for wireless communication.
A Brief History of Earlier Wi-Fi Standards
To illustrate how far Wi-Fi has come over the years, we put together the following look back on Wi-Fi history so you can see the evolution of Wi-Fi through its specifications.
Wi-Fi 1 (802.11a)
- Introduced in 1999
- Operated in the 5 GHz band
- Offered speeds up to 54 Mbps
- Less popular due to higher costs and shorter range compared to its counterpart, 802.11b
Wi-Fi 2 (802.11b)
- Also introduced in 1999, shortly after 802.11a
- Operated in the 2.4 GHz band
- Offered speeds up to 11 Mbps
- Gained widespread adoption due to its longer range and affordability
Wi-Fi 3 (802.11g)
- Launched in 2003
- Operated in the 2.4 GHz band
- Offered speeds up to 54 Mbps
- Backward compatible with 802.11b, leading to its popularity
Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n)
- Introduced in 2009
- Operated in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands
- Introduced MIMO technology, allowing for multiple data streams
- Offered speeds up to 600 Mbps with the correct configurations
Should You Upgrade Your Wi-Fi?
Deciding whether to upgrade your Wi-Fi essentially boils down to evaluating your current setup, needs, and the potential benefits of the newer standards. Here are some aspects you must consider when deciding if you’re ready to upgrade:
Before considering an upgrade, assess the devices you currently own and use. If most of your daily driver devices are older and don’t support newer Wi-Fi standards, you won’t benefit fully from the upgrade until you also update your devices.
Upgrading might require purchasing a new router or even multiple mesh Wi-Fi routers for larger homes and spaces. Consider the costs associated with these hardware changes, as well as potential costs for professional installation or setup.
Your daily internet activities play a significant role in the decision to upgrade. If you’re into online gaming, 4K or 8K streaming, or have a smart home with many connected devices, a newer Wi-Fi standard will provide noticeable improvements. On the other hand, for basic browsing and streaming, your current setup will probably suffice.
If you live in a densely populated area with many networks overlapping, newer Wi-Fi standards like Wi-Fi 6 (and especially 6E) offer better performance in congested areas, making an upgrade more beneficial.
Even if you don’t need the advanced features now, upgrading can be a way to future-proof your home or office setup, ensuring you’re ready as more devices and services start to leverage newer standards.
Benefits of Upgrading Your Network
If you do choose to upgrade your device, you could gain several benefits for your home network, including:
- Faster speeds: Newer Wi-Fi standards promise faster data transfer rates, ensuring smoother streaming, gaming, and overall internet experience.
- Extended range and coverage: Experience fewer dead zones and a more consistent connection throughout your space, especially with technologies like beamforming that focus the signal toward connected devices.
- Enhanced security: Newer standards often come with improved Wi-Fi security protocols, ensuring your network and connected devices are safer from potential threats.
- Efficiency in multi-device environments: If you have many devices connected simultaneously, newer Wi-Fi standards handle multiple device connections more efficiently, reducing lag and buffering.
When to Stick With Your Current Setup
If you decide not to upgrade and stick with your current setup, it’s not the end of the world. Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t upgrade just yet:
- Satisfactory performance: If you’re content with your current Wi-Fi speed and coverage, and don’t foresee a significant increase in connected devices or higher bandwidth needs, it might be best to wait.
- Budget constraints: If you’re on a tight budget, consider if the benefits of upgrading outweigh the costs. Sometimes, simple solutions like moving your router, using a Wi-Fi extender, or optimizing your current network settings can offer noticeable improvements without the need for a complete upgrade.
- Recent upgrades: If you’ve recently upgraded your Wi-Fi setup, making another jump so soon might not be cost-effective or necessary. Evaluate the differences between your current setup and the newer standard to determine if another upgrade is justified.
The Middle Ground: Incremental Upgrades
It’s not all cut and dry when it comes to upgrading your Wi-Fi network. Here are some considerations if you want to take smaller steps into the Wi-Fi future:
- Hybrid solutions: If a complete upgrade seems too daunting or expensive, consider hybrid solutions. For instance, you could upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router now and then gradually replace older devices with Wi-Fi 6 compatible ones over time.
- Mesh Wi-Fi networks: If coverage is your primary concern, consider mesh Wi-Fi systems. These use multiple nodes or units to spread Wi-Fi coverage evenly across larger areas, and many newer mesh systems support advanced Wi-Fi standards.
Final Word on Wi-Fi Networks and Upgrading
Wi-Fi technology is continually evolving, offering consumers better and more efficient ways to connect. While the allure of faster speeds and improved performance is tempting, evaluating your current setup, budget, and household needs is essential before choosing to upgrade. For many people, upgrading won’t be necessary. However, if you already have the devices and necessities in place, upgrading your Wi-Fi could make a world of difference for your internet connectivity and experience.