What is Wi-Fi 6 and how fast is it?

Wi-Fi 6 has finally arrived, with the Wi-Fi Alliance finally opening its new certification programme which will allow routers and compatible devices to see a certification logo slapped on the box if they meet the requirements for the new Wi-Fi standard.

The new 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard was announced in April 2018, with the headline feature that it will support transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps – almost 10 times faster than previous mainstream standards.

What’s more, since the Wi-Fi Alliance simplified its naming conventions and re-branded it as Wi-Fi 6 numerous big name companies have started announcing devices that’ll be compatible with it.

So far the new Samsung Galaxy S10 and iPhone 11 support the new Wi-Fi standard, while laptops will soon follow thanks to Intel’s new 10th Generation processors. For everything on Wi-Fi 6, including network speeds and availability, read our guide below.

Related: Best Router 2019

What is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is the new name given to one of the latest standards of Wi-Fi used by consumer electronics goods including phones, tablets, laptops, and routers.

The previous name was ‘IEEE 802.11ax’, and the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry body which tests and certifies Wi-Fi products, decided that after 21 years since the first Wi-Fi standard was issued, some snappier names were needed. The previous standard, 802.11ac, has also been retroactively named Wi-Fi 5.

Not only is that a whole lot easier to read and pronounce, these new labels should give buyers a good idea of the kind of Wi-Fi performance they can expect from their new tech.

Wi-Fi 6 was introduced in April 2018. This latest version offers a speed boost of course, but you can also expect more reliable performance on demanding networks, such as those found in congested public areas – airports, stadiums and so on. That’s because more devices are now simultaneously supported.

As if that wasn’t enough, Wi-Fi 6 is also more power-efficient, helping to improve battery life on some products, particularly smart home and IoT devices.

How fast is the new Wi-Fi 6 standard?

Whether you call it Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax, the newer standard offers theoretical speeds of up to 10Gbps, although one of the main goals of the standard is to make Wi-Fi work better with multiple devices. There are a few fundamental changes to the way that Wi-Fi 6 works.

First, the standard has improved the number of bits that can be transmitted at the same time. Wi-Fi uses a technique called Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). Wi-Fi 5 used 512-QAM, which let the system transmit eight bits at once; Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM, which lets 10 bits be transmitted at the same time. That gives a 25% speed improvement.

Next, Wi-Fi 6 uses Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which breaks a wireless channel down into small chunks, so that each client gets its own dedicated bit of bandwidth. It’s similar to how a post truck can be packed with letters for different people, and separated out at the end.

There’s also been a boost to MU-MIMO. With this technology, a router has a set number of streams for upload and download. For example, a 8×8 router has eight upload and eight download streams. With MU-MIMO, a stream can be directed at a client, giving them bandwidth. There’s a choice on how this is done. For example, a 2×2 client could connect with both streams to increase performance, letting our 8×8 router support up to four clients in this way; however, the router could connect eight clients directly using a single stream each instead. The important thing is that the more streams you have the easier it is for the router to support more clients.

MU-MIMO was introduced with Wi-Fi 5, but only for downloads, but Wi-Fi 6 makes the technology bi-directional. And, MU-MIMO can be used with OFDMA at the same time, improving the response and dedicated bandwidth that each client gets.

On the 5GHz band, channel width has been doubled from 80MHz to 160MHz, further increasing the amount of bandwidth available; on the congested 2.4GHz band, channel width remains at 40MHz.

Power saving is improved with Wi-Fi 6 thanks to Target Wake Time. With this technology, clients and the router can schedule when regular communications can take place. For devices that have to check in from time-to-time, such as smart sensor, this saves battery life, as the device only needs to communicate when scheduled; with the old system, the device would need to wake up, try and transmit but back off if the Wi-Fi network was in use, then try again.

Target Wake Time won’t make a difference on your laptop, which will communicate a lot more, but for sensors, smart home devices and the like, this technology should improve communication and improve battery life.

Wi-Fi 6 is a standard that works on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, so everything you read above applies to both. As a comparison, Wi-Fi 5 was a 5GHz standard only, and routers still used the older 802.11n specification for the 2.4GHz band.

As a result, Wi-Fi 6 delivers its features across all bands, giving more total high-quality bandwidth; however, devices will still only connect to one network type at a time: routers can either present two separate channels or have a single network name and send connecting devices to the best channel based on speed, range and capabilities.

Related: Best Phone 2019

When is Wi-Fi 6 launching?

Wi-Fi 6 has actually been around for a while, with many routers already offering it. The problem was there were few Wi-Fi 6 routers available, especially at an affordable price.

Fortunately the Wi-Fi Alliance has now finally opened up its new certification programme which means manufacturers can submit their products in order to get a shiny Wi-Fi 6 Certified logo slapped on the box and listed in their spec sheets if the device passes the required tests.

iphone 11 colours

The iPhone 11 is confirmed to support Wi-Fi 6, and so will offer faster network connectivity with a compatible router

There is now a range of routers available with Wi-Fi 6: these models tend to be more expensive than their Wi-Fi 5 equivalents, but they’re future-proofed for when you get more Wi-Fi 6 devices.

Of course, a Wi-Fi 6 router is wasted if you don’t have any Wi-Fi 6 compatible devices. The good news here is that Wi-Fi 6 products are starting to appear in stores. The Samsung Galaxy S10 was the first smartphone to feature support for Wi-Fi 6, while Apple’s upcoming iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max all support it too.

We’ll also start to see more laptops flaunting Wi-Fi 6 support thanks to the launch of Intel’s new Ice Lake and Comet Lake processors. One of the very first laptops to feature one of Intel’s 10th Generation CPUs (and therefore offering Wi-Fi 6 support) will be the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, but many more will start to hit stores throughout the last quarter of the year and 2020.

Related: Best Laptops 2019

What are Wi-Fi standards?

Each new Wi-Fi standard that comes along introduces improvements and refinements to our wireless networks. Wi-Fi 6 is the sixth generation of these standards, as the name kind of implies.

Here’s a full table of the previous Wi-Fi standards, including their old and new names, maximum speeds and other pertinent information.

Note that the three generations prior to Wi-Fi 4 have not officially been rechristened by the Wi-Fi Alliance, as they’re now defunct and won’t be found or supported by any new products.

Original name New name Top speed Year of introduction Other information
802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 10Gbps 2018 Designed to operate in the 1 and 7 GHz frequencies as well as 2.4GHz and 5GHz
802.11ac Wave 1 / Wave 2 Wi-Fi 5 1.3Gbps / 2.34Gbps 2013 / 2016 Used 20, 40 and 80-MHz channels in the 5GHz band / used 160MHz 5GHz channel, added MU-MIMO (Multi-user MIMO) for even greater coverage
802.11n Wi-Fi 4 450Mbps 2009 Support for dual-band Wi-Fi, meaning routers and devices could use 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and MIMO (mutli input, multi output) for greater coverage
802.11g n/a 54Mbps 2003 Brought the top 802.11a speed to the 2.4GHz frequency
802.11b n/a 11Mbps 1999 Single-band, used the 2.4GHz frequency
802.11a n/a 54Mbps 1999 Single-band, used the 5GHz frequency, launched at same time as 802.11b

On speeds, you should note that the speeds given here are theoretical maximum speeds – even if you have the latest phones and laptops, if there are other devices in your home all using the same connection, or you’re moving closer or further away from your router (and you’ve not got a mesh Wi-Fi system set up), then your mileage may vary.

To take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 and its improvements, you’ll need the proper equipment. For one, you’ll need an 802.11ax compatible router. In addition, each device that connects to that router should have the appropriate Wi-Fi 6 antenna.

Wi-Fi standards also ensure that products are backwards-compatible. In other words, older connected devices which don’t conform to the latest standards will still happily connect to a Wi-Fi 6 router. They just won’t be able to capitalise on those updates. Likewise, any smartphones, laptops and other devices which are Wi-Fi 6 compatible can hook up to a router using Wi-Fi 5.

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What is 5GHz Wi-Fi? Is that the same as 5G and Wi-Fi 5?

No. Since the beginning, Wi-Fi has used two radio frequencies – 2.4GHz or 5GHz.

The 2.4GHz frequency is quite crowded as it’s used by everything from automatic garage doors to old-school baby monitors. Bluetooth, another wireless technology standard, also occupies the 2.4GHz band.

This excess noise is why the much faster 5GHz band was added to Wi-Fi standards.

Most modern routers and client devices these days are dual-band, which means they send and receive data over both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies.

You can therefore choose which band to connect to on your wireless device, providing it also uses both. You might wonder why anyone would bother using the 2.4GHz band given a choice between the two. However, this frequency is actually more effective at passing through obstacles such as floors and walls – great news if you live in a massive house, and don’t have a mesh Wi-Fi setup.

Wi-Fi 5 is the new name for 802.11ac standard Wi-Fi, introduced in 2013. This is what most modern wireless devices use, although you can expect to see it replaced with Wi-Fi 6 from 2019.

As for 5G, that’s something completely different. This is the new super-fast data network that’s currently rolling out across the UK, allowing us to get more reliable access to the internet on our phones and other SIM-enabled devices.

Related: What is 5G?

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