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 run.
The broad idea of this rechristening is to make the name of the standard easier to understand and remember. Rather than bombarding you with a meaningless string of numbers and letters that most people will probably forget, you get something akin to 3G, 4G, and 5G with phones.
But what does Wi-Fi 6 actually offer to the consumer besides a new naming convention? Obviously, you’ll get faster wireless speeds – that’s a given, really – but more to the point, it’s designed to deliver much better Wi-Fi performance in device-crowded environments, alongside several other efficiency benefits.
Want to know more about this incoming 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 exciting 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 be out ‘later in 2019’. By all accounts, that will most 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 very soon, 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, but with caveats. Some routers that support Wi-Fi 6 that are already on shelves 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, 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). So bear in mind that these routers may miss out on some features that fully certified Wi-Fi 6 devices are required to carry, depending on whether the spec that manufacturers must adhere to is changed much 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 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 some of these 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 been produced adhering to the draft Wi-Fi 6 spec.
TP-Link’s Archer AX6000 is a Wi-Fi 6 router that currently weighs in at around £300 or $ 350 (about AU$ 510), and 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 pretty much 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.
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 isn’t fully clear (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 doubtless won’t 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 could still see a sizable chunk of it, and a very telling uplift in terms of raw performance.
Unlike previous iterations of Wi-Fi standards however, this new offering isn’t focused on purely boosting headline speeds. Rather, Wi-Fi 6 aims to facilitate much better performance in crowded environments where there are lots of wireless devices, such as an apartment block or a public venue like a stadium. Or even your home, if you have a number of family members who perhaps own multiple mobile devices and PCs each.
It’ll also help 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 (and to handle multiple client devices simultaneously). In Wi-Fi 6, the technology is 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.
Odd 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 significant 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 coming online – particularly given the increasing popularity of smart home gadgets, connected appliances and IoT devices, in general – these improvements will be crucial going forward into our Wi-Fi future. If we stuck 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 a 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, and that 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, but also to a lesser extent phones, tablets and laptops. Wi-Fi 6’s overall improvements in network efficiency (by a factor of four) we’ve already mentioned should also help on the battery front, too, helping to 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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