What is Wi-Fi 6? Here’s everything you need to know

What is Wi-Fi 6? Here's a look at the next evolution of the wireless standard

What is Wifi 6? 802.11ax
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Standard Wi-Fi codes are unnecessarily complicated. What does “802.11ac” mean? Well, it’s an important indicator for what Wi-Fi standard devices work with, but for most people, it’s just a list of meaningless numbers and letters that are a pain to decode.

Wi-Fi 6 seeks to solve that problem. It’s a new way of looking at Wi-Fi, introduced by an updated standard that will officially arrive at the end of 2019, pending an accurate timeline. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

The dawn of generational Wi-Fi labels

The Wi-Fi Alliance is the organization in charge of deciding, developing, and designating Wi-Fi standards. As devices become more complex and internet connections evolve, the process of delivering wireless connections also changes. That means that Wi-Fi standards — the technical specifications that manufacturers use to create Wi-Fi — need to be periodically updated so that new technology can flourish and everything can remain compatible. So far, so good.

wi fi direct mimics bluetooth but with faster speed longer range alliance

But the awkward naming of Wi-Fi standards has become a real annoyance for the average person tried to figure out what those little letters at the end mean. The Wi-Fi Alliance is aware of this, which why they announced a new way to label Wi-Fi standards, simply by referring to the number of the generation. This will apply to the upcoming Wi-Fi 6, but will also be retroactive, applying to older standards. For example:

  • 802.11n (2009) = Wi-Fi 4
  • 802.11ac (2014) = Wi-Fi 5
  • 802.11ax (upcoming) = Wi-Fi 6

Easier, isn’t it? This will cause a period of confusion where some products are labeled with the old code and some are just called Wi-Fi 4 or Wi-Fi 5 when it means the same thing. In time, this should be resolved as older product labeling is phased out and everyone gets used to the new, friendly names when doing research.

What the Wi-Fi 6 standard brings

Now that we’ve covered the naming issue, you’re probably wondering just what Wi-Fi 6 brings to the table. Why was another update required? There are a lot of new Wi-Fi technologies on the rise, and Wi-Fi 6 helps standardize them. Here are the important new pieces, and what exactly they mean for your wireless network.

Benefits of Wi-fi 6 (802.11ax)
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First off is lower latency. Reduced latency means there are shorter or no delay times as data is sent (very similar to ping rate and other such measurements). Everyone wants low latency connections because it improves load times and helps avoid disconnects and other issues. Wi-Fi 6 lowers latency compared to older Wi-Fi standards, using more advanced technology like OFDMA (orthogonal frequency division multiple access). Basically, it’s better at packing data into a signal.

Of course, Wi-Fi 6, will also be faster. By offering full support for technologies like MU-MIMO, connection quality will vastly improve for compatible mobile devices, which should also speed up content delivery. Even if you don’t upgrade your internet speed, such improvements can improve the speed of your Wi-Fi data anyway, so you get more information, faster.

How do you know if a router, phone or other device works with the new 802.11ax standard? Check the label.

It also means fewer dead zones, thanks to some expanded beamforming capabilities. Beamforming is the trick your router uses to focus signals on a particular device, especially if it looks like that device is having trouble with a connection. The new standard expands the range of beamforming and improves its capabilities, making dead zones in your house even less likely.

Lastly, Wi-Fi means better battery life. There’s a term called “TWT” or target wake time, a new technology that Wi-fi 6 embraces. This helps connected device customize when and how they “wake up” to receive data signals from Wi-Fi. It makes it much easier for devices to “sleep” while waiting for the next necessary Wi-Fi transmission (this does not mean your device is turned off, just the parts used for Wi-Fi). In turn, this has the potential to save a significant amount of battery life for devices, which should make everyone happy.

Watching for the Wi-Fi 6 label

Wi-Fi Logos

So, how do you know if a router, phone or other device works with the new 802.11ax standard? First, and most obviously, look for the phrase “Wi-Fi 6” on packaging, advertisements, labels and so on. However, the Wi-Fi Alliance has also suggested using icons to show the Wi-Fi generation. These icons look like Wi-Fi signals with a circled number within the signal.

Watch for these icons as well when picking out the right device. For reference, most of the devices around 2020 and later are expected to be Wi-Fi 6, so you will have to wait a year or so before seeing these devices out in the wild.

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