What is Wi-Fi Beamforming?

Better Wi-Fi is right here

Image of an illustration of beamforming
Beamforming can improve your Wi-Fi.

 Pixabay/Public Domain

Beamforming is a new buzzword that is often associated with new Wi-Fi routers, but what exactly is beamforming? Will it actually improve your signal? And more importantly, is it worth it to upgrade?

Digital beamforming technology is part of the 802.11ac standard for Wi-Fi routers. Sounds confusing, right? Don't worry about the jargon. A standard for computers is much like a language. We both need to know the rules — grammar, spelling, etc. — to effectively communicate with each other. Our Wi-Fi router and our laptops, smartphones and tablets also need rules on how to talk to each other. The 802.11ac standard is simply the newest set of rules.

So what's the deal with beamforming? Older routers are omni-directional, which means they send out their signal in all directions. As you might imagine, this dilutes the signal. Beamforming is a way for our device to give its location to the router and for the router to form a beam within the signal directed toward the device. This will help strengthen the signal, which in turn should help us when we stream movies or browse the web.

Do You Need a Beamforming Wi-Fi Router?

Unfortunately, beamforming isn't a magic pill that will solve all of our Wi-Fi woes. The beam will help improve a signal over distance, so if you are having a problem in part of your house or office that is far away from the router, beamforming could improve the signal.  

However, distance isn't always the problem when it comes to slow Internet speeds. Every time the signal passes through an object like a wall, it can lose strength. In this instance, a beamforming router may not help the signal. The beam is going to be disrupted in the same way a normal signal would be disrupted.

If your router is on one side of your home or office, and you are having problems on the other side, beamforming might be the golden ticket to Internet speed bliss. But if your router is in the middle and you are having issues on one end but not the other, there is probably something disrupting the signal and beamforming may not help. This is an issue where a Wi-Fi extender or other Wi-Fi signal solutions may be better (and likely cheaper).

Does Beamforming Make My Internet Speed Faster?

Yes and no. Beamforming alone will not increase your maximum Internet speed, but it can improve the signal, which can boost your effective speed as you travel further away from your router.

However, a side benefit many people receive when upgrading to an 802.11ac router with beamforming is the addition of MIMO, which stands for multiple-in and multiple-out. Most new routers include this feature, and it is fundamental to beamforming. If your device supports MIMO, which most current mobile devices do, your router and your smartphone, laptop or tablet will use multiple streams to communicate. This can provide a dramatic boost to your Internet speed.

MIMO was supported before the 802.11ac standard and your current router may already support it.

What's the Difference Between Implicit Beamforming and Explicit Beamforming?

Beamforming can potentially boost the signal strength of devices that don't actually support beamforming, although not as much as it could on a supported device. Explicit beamforming means the beam is only formed if the device on the other end supports beamforming. Implicit beamforming will attempt to form the beam even if the endpoint device doesn't support it. While it may not be as accurate, implicit beamforming can help with some connections.

Do All New Routers Have Beamforming?

While the 802.11ac standard includes standards for beamforming, it isn't a requirement for all Wi-Fi routers to support it. And unfortunately, different manufacturers like to dress it up with special names when bragging about it on the package. So you may want to look for variations of the word 'beam' such as Advance Beam Technology or Smart Beam Technology. But don't worry, no matter how the manufacturer words it, the beamforming will be compatible with your devices.