Wi-Fi 6: Everything you need to know

Count how many devices need to connect
Count how many devices need to connect (Image credit: Windows Central)

A new Wi-Fi designation has landed, and it's bringing some important changes. Wi-Fi 802.11ax, now named Wi-Fi 6 to lessen confusion, is set to improve speed and performance and better prepare for a wireless future with thousands of devices all vying for data. Here's everything you need to know.

What exactly is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 is a new Wi-Fi standard, named so to avoid confusion with older standards, which are now designated as follows:

  • 802.11b is now Wi-Fi 1
  • 802.11a is now Wi-Fi 2
  • 802.11g is now Wi-Fi 3
  • 802.11n is now Wi-Fi 4
  • 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5
  • 802.11ax is now Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 is based on the new IEEE 802.11ax standard, so you might see the two terms interchanged. It's still going to act like the Wi-Fi you know and love now, except with some added benefits. The Wi-Fi Alliance (the standards body that oversees Wi-Fi technology) lists these four key benefits of Wi-Fi 6:

  • Faster overall transfer speeds to and from devices
  • More capacity for connected devices
  • Better performance with many connected devices
  • Less device battery drain when connected

To summarize, Wi-Fi 6 expands on Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) to be better suited to handle large crowds vying for data at the same time (including expansive public events), and it is capable of handling theoretical speeds up to about 9.6Gbps, which is about three times the current maximum theoretical speed limit of Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). As we move to higher-resolution video streaming, demanding gaming performance, and more connected devices, Wi-Fi 6 will be better suited to handle our needs.

What is Wi-Fi 6E?

Wi-Fi 6 popularity has exploded since I first wrote this article in 2019, and there's now a newer version called Wi-Fi 6E popping up in plenty of devices. Whereas standard Wi-Fi 6 operates on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, Wi-Fi 6E has been extended — that's where the "E" comes from — into the 6GHz band.

To extrapolate, the two bands (2.4GHz and 5GHz) that standard Wi-Fi 6 operates on are very crowded. Wi-Fi 6E's ability to operate on the 6GHz band solves a lot of congestion, at least for compatible routers and devices. Wi-Fi 6E has seven additional 160MHz channels, which is roughly an extra 1,200MHz of spectrum to work with. The 6GHz band doesn't overlap, also reducing congestion.

Wi-Fi 6E should further help accommodate the needs of people with heavy streaming demands, whether for high-resolution video content or game and VR streaming.

How is Wi-Fi 6 different from previous Wi-Fi standards?

Source: Intel (Image credit: Source: Intel)

Wi-Fi 6 devices connected to Wi-Fi 6 routers will see potential performance gains up to about 40% compared to Wi-Fi 5 devices and routers. This is achieved due to Wi-Fi 6 being able to pack more data into each packet, and it will work on both the 2.4Gz and 5GHz bands (and the 6GHz band with Wi-Fi 6E).

A larger benefit, however, is revealed when there are multiple devices connected to the same network. If you've ever stayed in a hotel or have connected to Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, you know how slow throughput can be due to the main access point attempting to handle all simultaneous connections.

In a writeup on Intel's IT Peer Network, it's claimed that Wi-Fi 6 will improve the efficiency of a single network by about four times, which will, in turn, improve average throughput for those connected to Wi-Fi 6 in heavily congested areas by about four times. Wi-Fi 6 continues and expands on the MU-MIMO trend released with Wi-Fi 5, which allows a Wi-Fi radio to deliver data simultaneously to multiple devices instead of in a rotating manner. Instead of handling four simultaneous streams, Wi-Fi 6 ups the number to eight.

Thanks to the addition of Target wake time (TWT) in Wi-Fi 6, all connected devices should see significantly less battery drain. Compatible devices and routers will communicate key wake and sleep times, which means less up time for an adapter and less pull on a battery. Not only is this important for everyday devices like laptops and modern phones, it will also make a difference as we see more Internet of Things (IoT) products enter our homes and businesses.

What does official Wi-Fi 6 certification mean?

Source: Nick Sutrich / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Windows Central)

While hardware manufacturers have been pumping out Wi-Fi 6 products for a while already, official certification via the Wi-Fi Alliance, which assures devices meet certain guidelines, only began mid-September 2019. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 was the first phone to receive official certification, with the Ruckus R750 coming in as the first certified access point. Devices released before certification began are classed as "draft certified," which means they might not necessarily meet the official standards now set by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Products that adhere to the Wi-Fi Certified 6 certification program deliver an optimal wireless experience. Whereas Wi-Fi 5 delivers 256-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation mode), Wi-Fi 6 steps it up to 1024-QAM. This offers far more throughput for data-hungry devices, and together with 160MHz channels, MU-MIMO, and transmit beamforming, you're going to see phenomenal performance even with many users vying for bandwidth. Orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) for channel sharing is also a must for certification, which will improve performance across the board when there is a high demand for data.

How can you tell Wi-Fi standards apart?

Source: Wi-Fi Alliance (Image credit: Source: Wi-Fi Alliance)

Other than knowing your own hardware, being able to tell which Wi-Fi standard you're connected to while in public can be made easier with new interface icons. This will depend on the device that's being connected to Wi-Fi, but you can expect most modern phones, laptops, and tablets to jump on board before long.

When connecting, it's expected that you'll see a standard Wi-Fi icon with a number included, which will denote which standard is being used.

Are wireless 5G and Wi-Fi 6 the same thing?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

No, these two technologies are not the same. Wireless 5G is a cellular technology designed for mobile devices and Always-Connected laptops, while Wi-Fi 6 is a wireless LAN (WLAN) technology that expands on (and is compatible with) older standards. You'll find that wireless 5G is most commonly associated with cellular data, while Wi-Fi 6 is most commonly associated with your home or office network.

Do you need to buy a new router for Wi-Fi 6?

If you're currently using a Wi-Fi 4 or Wi-Fi 5 router with your devices and you'd like to get in on the Wi-Fi 6 hype, you will need to buy a new router (and you'll need compatible devices). There are now quite a few good Wi-Fi 6 router options on the market, and we recommend the Netgear Nighthawk RAX50. It brings all the benefits of Wi-Fi 6, and rest assured it remains compatible with any older devices that were using previous Wi-Fi standards. If you're looking for the best Wi-Fi 6E routers, something like the ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000 might do the trick.

Image (opens in new tab)

ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000 (opens in new tab)

Wi-Fi 6E capabilities

The ASUS ROG Rapture has a mouthful of a name, but you'll probably be speechless with its incredibly fast speeds, six Ethernet ports, RGB lighting, and low latency for gaming.

Cale Hunt
Senior Editor, Laptop Reviews

Cale Hunt is formerly a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full-time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.

  • I'm still on WiFi 4 :(
  • I'm sorry... It's getting to point that 5 isn't enough for me anymore.
  • What is WiFi?
  • I upgraded my wireless access points to Ubiquiti WiFi 6. The new throughput has been amazing.
  • Does WiFi-6 improve range at all or is that only dependant on which band you are hooking up to (2.4GHz and 5GHz)?
  • I'm still on WiFi 4. The cost of upgrading is just ridiculous, got one router and 5 access points plus two desktops that will need WiFi 6 cards, and some old laptops that will need new WiFi modules.