What is Wi-Fi 6? In a network nutshell, it’s the next-gen wireless technology that was formerly known as 802.11ax until the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to rename it more succinctly. Wi-Fi 6 supersedes 802.11ac (now known as Wi-Fi 5), which most current routers and devices run.
The broad idea of this renaming is to make the standard easier to remember and understand. Rather than bombarding you with a meaningless string of numbers and letters that most people will probably forget, you get something that is comparable to 3G, 4G, and 5G with phones.
But what does Wi-Fi 6 actually offer to the consumer besides a new naming convention? Obviously, it offers faster wireless speeds – which is a given, really. More to the point, it’s designed to deliver a much better Wi-Fi performance in device-crowded environments, as well as offer several other efficiency benefits.
Want to know more about this upcoming wireless standard and what it might mean for your home or office? Read on for the full lowdown, as well as all the latest news and speculation on this promising step forward for Wi-Fi.
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Cut to the chase
- What is it? Wi-Fi 6 is next-gen wireless tech that replaces 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)
- When is it out? Late 2019
- What will it cost? Pre-release (draft standard) Wi-Fi 6 routers start from £200/$200
Wi-Fi 6 release date
According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, the non-profit overseer of the Wi-Fi world, Wi-Fi 6 will roll out ‘later in 2019’. By all accounts, that will highly likely be towards the very end of the year (assuming no serious slippage is encountered). A certification programme was announced back in January to ensure that Wi-Fi 6 labelled devices meet the relevant specified standards, and this scheme is expected to start in the third quarter of 2019.
At this point, you might be thinking "wait a minute: aren’t there already Wi-Fi 6 routers out there (albeit most of them are still labelled 802.11ax)?"
And you’d be right – there are indeed Wi-Fi 6 routers already on offer. Some of these routers that support Wi-Fi 6 include the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 and AX4, TP-Link’s Archer AX6000, and the Asus RT-AX88U (indeed Asus even has a Wi-Fi 6-toting mesh router offering which is imminent).
However, they come with a few caveats. Remember that these early devices are based on the draft standard of Wi-Fi 6, which isn’t yet finalized (and won’t be till later in the year). This means that these routers may miss out on some features that fully certified Wi-Fi 6 devices are required to carry.
Of course, that depends on whether the spec that manufacturers must adhere to will change between now and the official launch of the new standard. From what we’ve heard, any potential differences will be minor. Still, we won’t know specifics until the Wi-Fi 6 is officially launched.
Furthermore, even if you do own a router that supports (draft) Wi-Fi 6, you’ll also need Wi-Fi 6 compatible client devices on the other end of the connection to really benefit from the new Wi-Fi standard. Early adopting pieces of hardware are even thinner on the ground, at least at the moment, one example being Samsung’s Galaxy S10 smartphone.
That said, a number of laptops supporting Wi-Fi 6 from all the major vendors were announced back at CES, and it shouldn’t be long before those laptops hit the shelves (for starters, we are expecting Alienware notebooks imminently).
After the official launch of Wi-Fi 6 late in 2019, going forward into 2020, you can expect a rapid increase of both supporting routers and client hardware, all of which will be certified to the fully finalized Wi-Fi 6 standard.
Wi-Fi 6 routers and pricing
To give you an idea of the cost of Wi-Fi 6 routers, let’s take a quick look at some of the prices of the aforementioned routers, which have already been produced adhering to the draft Wi-Fi 6 spec and are not on the shelves.
TP-Link’s Archer AX6000 is a Wi-Fi 6 router that currently weighs in at around £300 or $350 (about AU$510), while the Asus RT-AX88U is pitched at about £300 or $325 (around AU$470).
Netgear’s Nighthawk AX8, on the other hand, can be had for around £280 or $300 (about AU$435), with the Nighthawk AX4 coming in at around £200 or $200 (about AU$290), which is as cheap as it gets right now.
We will, of course, see more budget-friendly Wi-Fi 6 routers coming into play as time goes on and as the number of competing products grow.
As for Wi-Fi 6 client devices, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 currently starts at an eye-watering £799 or $899 (AU$1,349).
Wi-Fi 6 spec and performance
Wi-Fi 6 operates over 2.4GHz and 5GHz (and more frequency bands in the future) – unlike Wi-Fi 5, which is 5GHz only – and it will be faster than its predecessor as you’d expect. Exactly what sort of speed increase we’ll ultimately get won’t be fully clear until its official release (and will vary in different scenarios anyway).
In theoretical terms, Wi-Fi 6 boosts peak speeds by 37% compared to Wi-Fi 5 (when using a single device). While you won’t likely achieve all of that gain – it’s a bit of a ‘how fast is a piece of string tied to the bumper of a moving car’ scenario – you would still get a sizable chunk of it, and a very telling uplift in terms of raw performance.
Unlike previous Wi-Fi standards however, this new version isn’t focused on purely boosting headline speeds. Rather, Wi-Fi 6’s priority is to facilitate much better performance in crowded environments where there are lots of wireless devices. Such environments include an apartment block, a public venue like a stadium, and even your home, if you have a number of family members who own multiple mobile devices and PCs each.
It’ll also aim to manage the connectivity strain caused by the ever-increasing number of connected IoT (Internet of Things) devices and smart home gadgets.
Wi-Fi 6 utilizes various technologies to achieve all this, including a key player in the form of OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access). This allows more folks to simultaneously use the same wireless channel for far more efficient operation, not to mention better throughput and much lower latency (meaning a more responsive connection).
Wi-Fi 6 also makes use of MU-MIMO, which has already been incorporated with Wi-Fi 5 hardware, and allows for a greater amount of data to be transferred at once – not to mention, the handling of multiple client devices simultaneously. In Wi-Fi 6, the technology has been improved to double the number of spatial streams that can be transmitted from a maximum of four previously, to now potentially cover eight devices. Plus, it adds support for uplink – transmissions back from the client device – as well as downlink.
So yes, there’s a bit of jargon involved here, with other clever bits of trickery including improved beamforming for better speeds at range, and 1024-QAM being employed (as opposed to 256-QAM in Wi-Fi 5) for better throughput.
Unfamiliar acronyms and techie-sounding stuff aside though, the performance takeaway when it comes to congested wireless environments (where loads of devices are online) is that Wi-Fi 6 promises to boost the average throughput per user by four times (or more). That’s quite a considerable improvement in heavy-trafficked areas, and it’s backed by the promise of increased network efficiency also by a factor of four.
With more and more pieces of hardware going online – particularly given the increasing popularity of smart home gadgets, connected appliances and IoT devices, in general – these improvements will be crucial moving forward. If we stay with Wi-Fi 5, we’d effectively become stuck in the wireless mud.
There’s a further boon on the efficiency front to Wi-Fi 6, and that’s better battery life for client devices. This is achieved via this technology called Target Wake Time (TWT), which essentially lets the router and client talk to each other to determine when the client device will need to wake up to transmit (or receive) data. As a result, the client hardware won’t have to be constantly listening for wireless signals, which in turn means less battery usage.
This will be particularly useful for IoT gadgets that only communicate online sporadically, as well as the likes of wearables and to a lesser extent, phones, tablets and laptops. Wi-Fi 6’s overall improvements in network efficiency (by a factor of four) that we’ve already mentioned should also help on the battery front as well, because that will cut down a little on power usage.
When you add everything up in terms of faster overall Wi-Fi speeds, much-improved performance in crowded wireless environments and some power-efficiency driven battery benefits to boot, there’s plenty to look forward to with the next-gen Wi-Fi standard, Wi-Fi 6.
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