We all need good Wi-Fi, but if you’re not steeped in IT knowledge, you might not know what’s out there. For instance, did you know that soon the seventh generation of Wi-Fi will be released to the world? Did you even know that there were different types of Wi-Fi?
Right now, the two most prominent are Wi-Fi 5 and 6, and until you know what separates them, it’s hard to be sure that your Wi-Fi plan is the best it could be.
What Is Wi-Fi 5?
According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the fifth generation of Wi-Fi (known as Wi-Fi 5) is formally referred to as the IEEE 802.11ac standard. The standard was released in 2013, and it was designed to generally improve Wi-Fi capabilities from the previous generation.
There are two particularly noticeable changes to Wi-Fi 5 from previous generations. First, this generation only supports the 5 GHz band. Wi-Fi 4 supports both, but Wi-Fi 5 went all in on 5 GHz to try to improve effective speeds and reduce traffic noise on Wi-Fi.
The second big change is the implementation of MU-MIMO. To keep things simple, this is a strategy that allows multiple users to simultaneously upload and download information on a single Wi-Fi channel. Before MU-MIMO, users spent a lot more time waiting their turn to upload or download. This one change did more for effective speed improvements than any other upgrade for this generation.
What Is Wi-Fi 6?
Of course, something released in 2013 would have to be eclipsed eventually, and Wi-Fi 6 was released in 2019. Designed to be an upgrade to every single facet of Wi-Fi, the sixth generation, called IEEE 802.11ax, offers a lot of changes.
It still supports 5 GHz communication, but it also restored 2.4 GHz communication (the original Wi-Fi band). On top of this, Wi-Fi 6 adds the 6GHz band to the mix. Overall, this gives Wi-Fi 6 a lot more breathing room for managing traffic, and it makes Wi-Fi 6 reverse compatible with all of its predecessors.
Wi-Fi 6 also added technological upgrades beyond a wider band. It features enhanced MU-MIMO, target wake time (TWT), OMFDMA, and WPA 3 encryption, just to name a few. Here’s a quick breakdown of what all of that means.
The improved MU-MIMO on Wi-Fi 6 allows even more users to simultaneously upload and/or download compared to Wi-Fi 5. TWT means that devices will power down when they aren’t actively broadcasting, dramatically improving battery life. OMFDMA allows for significantly more subchannels per channel. Since Wi-Fi 6 has a lot more band range to make more channels, this is a major upgrade.
Lastly, WPA 3 is the latest and greatest in Wi-Fi encryption and security.
Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6
While that covers the mechanisms that make Wi-Fi 5 and 6 different, it doesn’t exactly cover what those differences are. What should you expect when switching from 5 to 6? To explain that, we can first cover the similarities, and then get into the technical differences in performance.
Despite the upgrades with Wi-Fi 6, these generations have more in common than not. They still use the same basic mechanisms to communicate, and that’s why they are perfectly compatible with each other. Wi-Fi 6 routers can talk with Wi-Fi 5 devices just fine, and the reverse is also true. They are also both reverse compatible with older versions of Wi-Fi (although Wi-Fi 5 is only reverse compatible with versions that use the 5 GHz band).
Both of these standards use MU-MIMO to provide faster simultaneous communication. Both of them are capable of directional communication. They both encrypt and secure data, and they’re both clearly faster than predecessors.
Yet, Wi-Fi 6 does offer superior performance in every metric, provided you’re using it with both the router and the endpoint device.
In terms of raw numbers, Wi-Fi 5 has a maximum theoretical data rate of 3.5 Gbps while Wi-Fi 6 can get up to 9.6 Gbps. As for MU-MIMO, Wi-Fi 6 literally doubles the capacity, allowing 8 simultaneous broadcasts per channel compared to Wi-Fi 5’s 4.
TWT can increase battery life by up to double (although that depends heavily on the equipment and application in question).
Perhaps the most notable difference is in user capacity. Wi-Fi 5 can support up to 255 devices at a single time (per router). While that’s a nice number, it pales in comparison to Wi-Fi 6. Between OMFDMA and the expanded band, Wi-Fi 6 has hundreds more channels available, and it supports twice as many users per channel. This allows a single router to support over 1,000 users (theoretically). In fact, Wi-Fi 6 was designed with very large numbers of users in mind, such as in malls, airports, hospitals, and stadiums.
Wi-Fi 6 offers a lot over Wi-Fi 5, but it’s still Wi-Fi. Operating it feels much the same. It’s just streamlined for the applications that people seem to need the most.
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