Home / Opinions / 802.11ac vs 802.11n - What’s the difference between the Wi-Fi standards?

802.11ac vs 802.11n - What’s the difference?

Gordon Kelly

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802.11ac vs 802.11n - What’s the difference between the Wi-Fi standards?

What's the difference between 802.11ac and 802.11n? We explain the ins and outs of new-gen and last-gen Wi-Fi standards

b, g, n, ac… wireless standards haven’t had the most logical of alphabetical progressions, but it has just had the most important.

Last week governing body the Wi-Fi Alliance certified the ‘802.11ac’ standard, paving the way for the mass roll-out of ‘wireless ac’ devices. As this standard is built into routers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, televisions and much more we look at what enhancements it will bring over its predecessor, 802.11n, and whether it is worth getting excited about.

Video: How to improve your home's Wi-Fi network

802.11ac 802.11acCompatibility

The first thing to get out of the way is - like past Wi-Fi standards - 802.11ac is backwards compatible with 802.11b, g and n. This means you can buy an 802.11ac-equipped device and it will work just fine with your existing router. Similarly you can upgrade to an 802.11ac router and it will work happily with all your existing devices. That said you will need both an 802.11ac router and an 802.11ac device to enjoy the standard’s biggest benefits. And those begin with…

802.11ac Speed

With any new wireless technology speed is always the headline-grabbing feature but, as with every wireless standard to date, the figures tossed around can be highly misleading.

1.3 gigabits per second (Gbps) is the speed most commonly cited as the 802.11ac standard. This translates to 166 megabytes per second (MBps) or 1331 megabits per second (Mbps). It is vastly quicker than the 450Mbit per second (0.45Gbps) headline speeds quoted on the highest performing 802.11n routers.

speeds

SEE ALSO: Best routers 2015

So wireless ac is roughly 3x as fast as wireless n? No.

These figures are ‘theoretical maximums’ that are never close to being realised in real world scenarios. In our experience wireless n performance tends to top off around 50-150Mbit and our reviews of draft 802.11ac routers have typically found performance to be closer to 250-300Mbit. So 2.5x faster when close to your router is a good rule of thumb (though far more at distance, which we'll come to shortly).

Happily this gain is likely to increase as 802.11ac devices advance. Wireless 802.11n supports a maximum of four antennas at roughly 100Mbit each, where 802.11ac can support up to eight antennas at over 400Mbit each.

Smaller devices like smartphones tend to fit only a single antenna, but it gets even bigger in tablets (typically two to four antennas) and laptops and televisions (four to eight). In addition no 802.11ac router released so far has packed more than six antennas.

A final point: beware routers claiming speeds of 1,750 Gigabits. It is a marketing ploy where the manufacturer has added the 1.3Gbit theoretical maximum speed of 802.11ac to the 450Mbit theoretical maximum speed of 802.11n. Sneaky.

802.11ac Range

While speed is what will likely sell 802.11ac routers, range is equally important. Here wireless ac excels.

The first point to make is the 802.11ac standard lives entirely in the 5GHz spectrum. While some more modern routers broadcast 802.11n in 5GHz as well as 2.4GHz they remain relatively rare.

Consequently, the 5GHz spectrum tends to be 'quiet', meaning much less interference from neighbourhood Wi-Fi. This more than counters the fact that, in lab conditions, 5GHz signals do not actually broadcast as far as 2.4GHz signals. 5GHz is also necessary to support the faster speeds of wireless ac.

beamforming

The second key factor is 802.11ac makes ‘beamforming’ a core part of its spec. Rather than throw out wireless signal equally in all directions, WiFi with beamforming detects where devices are and intensifies the signal in their direction(s).

This technology has been around in proprietary form (it made a huge impact in the D-Link DIR-645), but now it will be inside every 802.11ac router and every 802.11ac device.

The combination of these two technologies is profound. This was most clearly seen with the Linksys EA6500 which hit speeds of 30.2MBps (241.6Mbit) when connecting to a device just two metres away, but still performed at 22.7MBps (181.6Mbit) when 13 metres away with two solid walls in the way. By contrast Linksys’ own EA4500 (identical except being limited to 802.11n) managed 10.6MBps (84.8Mbit) dropping to 2.31MBps (18.48Mbit) under the same conditions.

The real world result is 802.11ac not only enables you to enjoy the fastest 100Mbit (and beyond) fibre optic broadband speeds all over the house, but to enjoy it along with multiple streams of Full HD content, super low latency gaming and blazing fast home networking all at the same time.

802.11ac Availability

Here comes the first caveat. The announcement of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s 802.11ac certification programme means 802.11ac equipped products can now be certified, but that process will take time as thousands of chipsets need to be tested.

Of course some manufacturers have jumped the gun. The 802.11ac routers we have tested are sold as ‘Draft 802.11ac’ products and while many may become certified through a firmware update, it is not guaranteed. Draft 802.11ac products are also not guaranteed to perform optimally with other Draft 802.11ac products - especially between different manufacturers. Certified products are.

The good news is the first certified chipsets are already creeping out and they come from the likes of Intel, Qualcomm, Cisco, Realtek, Marvell, Broadcom and Samsung - manufacturers with extensive networking expertise and who licence their chipsets to others. For example Intel has only one chipset certified - the ‘Dual band Wireless 7260’ - but it is expected to be at the heart of most Haswell-powered Ultrabooks.

Air ac wifi

A full list of 802.11ac certified chipsets can be found here.

Furthermore, adoption should be fast. The first 802.11ac routers carried a hefty premium, but this has dropped quickly to the point where price shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone keen to hop onto the bandwagon. In addition 802.11ac is extremely efficient and it brings power savings compared to 802.11n, meaning it is ideal for mobile devices.

As such, while 802.11ac products are only trickling out at present, it will turn into a tidal wave by early 2014.

Should I wait for 802.11ac?

All of which begs the question: should I now buy any device that isn’t 802.11ac compatible? The short answer is no. If you live alone in a small flat where you have no signal problems 802.11n may serve all your needs, but in larger, multi-user homes and homes with network attached storage the benefits of 802.11ac are simply too good to miss out on. Especially when buying devices you expect to keep for a number of years.

The longer answer is 802.11ac is a revolution that will be hard to actively avoid. Wireless ac will be built into most laptops and phones within the next 12 months and routers will increasingly come with it (though ISPs are typically slow to adopt new standards in the routers they give out, so plug an ac router into theirs and switch off their wireless to get around it).

It will take time and money for your home to be fully 802.11ac compatible, but it will be worth it.

Philip Xenakis

June 27, 2013, 1:01 pm

Great article - didn't know about the 'beaming' tech built into this standard. Looking forward to testing out a laptop with 802.11ac

MidianNightbreed

June 27, 2013, 1:20 pm

Will you be able to buy 802.11ac wifi USB dongles to plug into laptops, etc. that don't have it built-in?

Gordon Kelly

June 27, 2013, 1:34 pm

Thanks. Beamforming should make a huge difference when in both the router and receiving device in particular. It already makes a big difference for the 802.11n routers it has been featured in and that is purely one way.

Gordon Kelly

June 27, 2013, 1:35 pm

Yes, they'll be coming. USB dongles never have the same performance as built in chips though and if you have a USB 2.0 port that could become a bottleneck to performance as eight antenna 802.11ac routers emerge.

If you do go down the dongle route I'd be sure to wait for certified dongles as they will need to be able to be 100% compatible any 802.11ac kit you may have.

Laurent Lejeune

June 28, 2013, 8:13 am

You don't mention what benefits I will get from using a non-ac compatible device with a ac compatible router.
Will I still see a difference in speed and range?

Pbryanw

June 28, 2013, 8:20 am

I wonder what the best time will be to buy an AC router? At the moment I can't justify the premium over an N router (along with the expense of an AC bridge). Will it take 1-2 years for them to drop in price, or would it be worth waiting for the 2nd-gen AC routers, which I expect will be out this Autumn/Winter?

Also bearing in mind that N routers improved a lot over that spec's lifetime, so I expect AC routers will become faster with time.

Gordon Kelly

June 28, 2013, 2:25 pm

I'd say there's no pressure to get an AC router until you own a device with built in ac that you think would seriously benefit from the extra speed and range. It's that simple.

Gordon Kelly

June 28, 2013, 2:26 pm

The reviews I link to detail this. Some of the earliest AC routers actually had terrible N performance (avoid the Buffalo AC1750 in this regard), but recent routers from Linksys, Netgear and D-Link all added beamforming to their N spec as well as AC so you get improved range and speeds.

Laurent Lejeune

June 28, 2013, 2:34 pm

thanks

Pbryanw

June 28, 2013, 2:59 pm

Thanks for the reply, that makes sense.

196ars

August 22, 2013, 7:00 pm

Thanks for the info! Great article! How does Apple's new AC router stack up against the others?

andyvan

August 23, 2013, 8:31 am

We're trying to get it in for a review at the moment.

georgesss

September 6, 2013, 6:50 am

excellent info. Thanks. I am upgrading to ac standard as early as Jan 2014. I am just not very sure about this sentence: (though ISPs are typically slow to adopt new standards in the routers they give out, so plug an ac router into theirs and switch off their wireless to get around it). Why not just put the ISP's router that is slow in the dustbin and leave the ac alone?Read more at http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

Nate Opgenorth

September 8, 2013, 8:34 pm

Will beam forming work with 802.11n devices? In other words if their is a 802.11ac router and my retina MacBook Pro with 802.11n is connected will this beam forming and the overall standard help? Also is the beam forming exclusive to routers or is it in chipsets on the 'receiving end' like laptops, phones, etc. Very cool! I think they rushed 802.11n and should have waited to add features from ac to N but oh well.

Carlos B

October 26, 2013, 5:21 pm

The author might be referring to all-in-one modems w/ routers built in. in a set up like that, you can't throw the original piece of hardware away because it's your modem, so if you want to use your own router, you need to plug it into their modem and disable wireless on their modem so that it only acts as a modem and not a modem + router.

Betty

November 10, 2013, 8:14 pm

I was ready to upgrade to the ipad air but I guess I should wait for the next gen of ipad air to get in on the ac wifi network capabability??

Tech Specialist

November 15, 2013, 9:22 pm

You have to use their routers typically for the modem portion to establish a connection. They are just saying to bypass their wireless, and use the 802.11 ac

derrick

November 17, 2013, 7:25 am

Why would you want to disable the the router part of the modem? Would it make the separate router slower?

Aman Gupta

November 19, 2013, 5:57 am

What difference would it make for a smartphone like Nexus 5 (it supports 802.11 ac) in terms of speed and range ? Will it be faster than any other smartphone supporting 802.11 n?

What if the network it is connecting to is 802.11 n? Will it still have the advantage or the advantage will be when both devices support 802.11 ac..?

Gabriel Fields

December 28, 2013, 3:22 pm

Sup.

Moderately tech savvy here.

My adventure started when I could not get Netflix for the life of me in 1080P

Setup:
Standard comcast modem - plan speed 25 down 10 up
Comcast net gear n100 router - 100 Mbs
Ps4 hardwired with cat5e

This was my wife's comcast residential account, for her simple emailing, watching you tube was the norm so she had originally ordered the equipment.

In the house we have:
Galaxy note 3 - mine
Company issued iPhone - mine
Company issued iPad - mine
Hp laptop - mine

Galaxy s4 - hers
Company issued iPhone - hers
Company issued iPad - hers
Sony laptop - hers

Kid iPhone 5c
Kid Toshiba laptop

Xbox 360 - 1
Xbox 360 - 2
Ps3
Ps4
Nas for music and movies (network attached storage)
Samsung wireless printer all in one

16 fucking devices..... Wow... All on wifi from a basic router. After I couldn't play online with EVERYONE home, I decided it was time for a change.

Took router and modem, threw in garbage garbage as they were paid off.

Installed Motorola docsis 3.0 modem. This modem gives you 4 channels of bandwidth versus standard 2 channels from older modems. They are fairly new so if you haven't upgraded, do it!

Installed net gear 6250 dual band ac router.

Ripped out cat 5e which had a max of 10/100

Installed cat 6 - thus enabling GIGABIT!!! 10/100/1000 uuber speed.

On configuration page, created the 2.4 ghz range for wife and kids wifi.

On configuration page, created the 5.0 ghz range for ME :-)

Hardwired:
Xbox
Xbox
Ps4
NaS

2.4 spectrum - wife and kids - their devices = FAST
No lag, Netflix is 1080P. Minimal buffering, even under stress test of all all devices on YouTube had at same time

5.0 spectrum - mine - Godly fast. I cannot speak of the insane speeds with decorum in this post.

I welcomith the future. ...

NetSecurityGuru

January 16, 2014, 8:59 pm

cat 5e supports gbit ethernet

Fernando Martínez Degregori

January 23, 2014, 11:20 pm

I have just bought an XPERIA ZL and it cannot connect to WIFI at home while other phones I had could easily connect.

Cory S.

February 10, 2014, 11:54 pm

It depends on your internet connection. Wireless n provides 450mbps of throughput, and most internet connections in the US cap out around 50mbps. So if the nexus 4 and nexus 5 both connected to that wireless hotspot there shouldn't be any significant difference in data throughput (aside from the fact that the nexus 5 has substantially higher data processing power). If you were on a fiber node that had a 1gbps internet connection however, the Nexus 5 could pull down more than twice as much data than the wireless n phone in the same amount of time.

Doyle Ogg

August 12, 2014, 9:33 pm

You want to put your ISP providers modem in bridge mode and use your own router. 99% of all ISP router don't even have Gbit Ethernet. Bridge mode will allow you to use ISP router for only one purpose. To provide your router with internet.

leuver68

November 23, 2014, 3:22 am

So will my 4 year-old Smart Plasma HD television benefit from the higher ac speed when streaming HD movies? Or did I waste my money upgrading from my old N router to Dualband AC to hopefully reduce the number of times my HD movie streaming service stops and goes into buffering?

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