We all want faster internet connections. Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of wireless networking, claims to be just that.
As with all new wireless standards, Wi-Fi 6 promises significant advantages, in this case in wireless performance and even battery life benefits for connected devices. Those advantages might take some time to reach the majority of users, most of whom will be stuck on Wi-Fi 5 (or older) devices for years.
So, the question to be asked is this: Is Wi-Fi 6 worth your investment today?
My Wi-Fi 6 setup
Wi-Fi 6 was explicitly designed to deal with today’s incredibly busy wireless networks. Gone are the days where the typical home network consisted of a few devices, maybe a desktop PC to go with a laptop and a smartphone or two. Now, home networks consist of not just PCs and mobile devices but also smart TVs, streaming boxes, smart home devices, and more. It’s not uncommon to have 10 or 15 or even more devices attached, and Wi-Fi 5 wasn’t designed to handle so many.
I wasn’t able to test that kind of capacity out yet because Wi-Fi 6 is required on both ends. That is, you need a Wi-Fi 6 router and Wi-Fi 6 devices to see the full benefits of the new standard. So far, there are only a relative handful of devices that support the standard, making it a question mark in terms of whether it’s worth buying into today.
That doesn’t mean there’s no good reason to buy a Wi-Fi 6 router to go with your brand-new laptop that’s equipped with a Wi-Fi 6 adapter. That’s what I tested, and while my methods weren’t scientific, they do provide a hint at what’s possible.
For my test clients, I used the latest version of the Dell XPS 13 equipped with a Killer AX1650 chipset (from Killer Networking, of course), a brand-new HP Spectre x360 13 with an Intel AX201 chipset, and an HP Envy 13 with an Intel AC9560 chipset. The first two support Wi-Fi 6; the Envy 13 supports only Wi-Fi 5 — the new name for 802.11ac.
For my Wi-Fi 6 router, I used athat’s at the very top-end of the Wi-Fi 6 router food chain. This thing is a monster, supporting up to 11Gbps connectivity via two 5GHz bands (both supporting 160MHz) and one 2.4GHz band. The AX11000 is overkill for most people, but I didn’t want the router to be a bottleneck. I also tested a TP-Link Archer AC4000 Wi-Fi 5 router to see how the Wi-Fi 6 devices performed when connected to an older router.
Finally, for the throughput test, I used a Synology DiskStation DS918+ network-attached storage (NAS) device. It’s connected to the AX11000 via two gigabit Ethernet connections that are bonded to provide a single 2Gbps connection. To test throughput, I copied a 13GB video file that’s loaded on the DS918+ to each of the clients at various locations around my house. I timed how long it took each client to copy the file and did a little math to determine the throughput.
I also noted the speed at which each device connected to each router at each location. Wi-Fi 6 has a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 3.5Gbps per individual stream, but I never saw that speed.
So how much faster is it?
When connected to the AX11000, the Envy 13 topped out at the Wi-Fi 5 maximum of 867Mbps for a single stream, while the XPS 13 managed 2.2Gbps within five feet of the AX11000 router (with no walls in between). The Spectre x360 13 hit 2.4Gbps — more than a 60% increase in speed, showing the raw power of Wi-Fi 6.
Each laptop connected to the AC4000 router at the maximum 867Mbps at five feet, and things fell off from there. At 20 feet from the router, for example, the XPS 13 connected at 585Mbps, the Spectre x360 at 488Mbps, and the Envy 13 at 535Mbps.
The throughput results were similarly impressive. The XPS 13 and Spectre x360 13 both benefited tremendously from connecting at Wi-Fi 6 speeds, with the XPS 13 hitting a maximum of 118MBps (or 944Mbps) when connected to the AX11000 at five feet. The Spectre x360 13 was close at 116MBps, while the Envy 13 hit 81MBps. Given that the Synology DS918+ was connected to the router at 2Gbps, it’s likely that I maxed out how fast the NAS device itself can deliver data — otherwise, I imagine the Wi-Fi 6 laptops would have achieved even faster speeds.
At some point, Wi-Fi 6 started to perform worse than Wi-Fi 5.
As expected, throughput dropped as I moved farther away from the router. Each laptop hit close to its maximum throughput at 10 feet from the router with a single wall in between, and then performance dropped off precipitously for the Wi-Fi 6 laptops at 20 feet with a couple of walls in between. The XPS 13 managed just 54MBps (megabytes per second) while the Spectre x360 13 and Envy 13 both hit 69MBps. Clearly, the Wi-Fi 6 laptops lost more speed the farther they moved away from the router, and at some point, Wi-Fi 6 started to perform worse than Wi-Fi 5.
When connected to the AC4000 router at Wi-Fi 5 and at five feet, each of the laptops performed similar to each other. In other words, Wi-Fi 6 laptops won’t benefit you without a Wi-Fi 6 router.
Is it worth the upgrade?
First, the easy answer: If you’re already in the market for a new router, buy a Wi-Fi 6 router. The same goes for Wi-Fi 6-powered laptops (which Intel supports in anything using its 10th generation chips). There’s no reason not to. Even if you don’t have a single Wi-Fi 6 device, you’ll be futureproofed since eventually, all devices will embrace the new standard.
Second, if you need to squeeze out every bit of throughput you can, consider upgrading to a new Wi-Fi 6 router. One example is my own, where I’m often moving large files to and from my Synology NAS device, and it’s worth it to me to gain the extra speed.
Another example is if you have gigabit internet that provides a full gigabit of service (which isn’t always guaranteed). You won’t get that speed to a single device without Wi-Fi 6 — but you’ll have to decide if the extra hundred megabits per second or so are worth the investment for you.
Third, if you have a bunch of devices on your network, you’ll benefit from a faster router — but not necessarily from a Wi-Fi 6 one. As we noted in the beginning, to get the full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 you have to have devices that fully support the new standard.
If your current router is relatively new, there’s no reason to run out and upgrade. If you don’t have Wi-Fi 6 devices or you don’t need the extra throughput, then you won’t see much benefit. But one thing is for sure: Once we’ve all moved into this next era of Wi-Fi, we’ll all be better off.
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