Why It's Safe to Ignore Wi-Fi 6 (for Now)

We're not ready yet

Key Takeaways

  • Wi-Fi 6 is designed to work great when you have lots and lots of devices on a network.
  • Most new phones and computers include it.
  • You won’t see big benefits until most of your devices support Wi-Fi 6, and by then Wi-Fi 6E may be ready.
D-Link AX1800 Wi-Fi 6 USB adapter
D-Link

Wi-Fi 6 is coming, and it’s fine, if your devices support it. And if not? D-link has a dongle that adds Wi-Fi 6 to your laptop, as if it was 20 years ago. But, for most of us, it’s best to just wait for the world to catch up.

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest Wi-Fi protocol, and it’s optimized for connecting lots of devices, and for ignoring the neighbors’ Wi-Fi packets. This, along with increased bandwidth, should make your connections more consistent, faster, and better. That’s fine, but the next Wi-Fi version, 6E, adds support for extra radio bands, and will be better still. 

"[Wi-Fi 6] feels like a bit of a Band-Aid solution to me, a short-term fix," technology writer Andrew Liszewski told Lifewire via Twitter. "6E seems like it will be nice to have five years out when faucets, toasters, blenders, bulbs, and immersion blenders are all fighting with 8K TVs for private bandwidth on a network."

Is Wi-Fi 6 Faster?

Yes it is. Wi-Fi 6 runs at up to 9.6 Gbps, compared to Wi-Fi 5’s 3.5 Gbps. But that’s not the whole story. It’s not even the most important part. Instead, it deals with congestion. 

Back when we first put Wi-Fi in our homes, we only connected a few computers, and maybe a printer. Then we got smart phones. Now, take a moment to count everything that’s hooked up. Your TV(s), smart speakers, your phone and tablet, your kids phones and tablets, and if you run a smart home, all those lightbulbs and thermostats also are connected. That’s a lot of traffic over the network. 

Worse, your neighbors probably have a similar setup, which is a lot of packets that your own network has to check and then disregard. 

Wi-Fi 6 fixes all that. 

Packet Delivery

"Wi-Fi 6 was originally built in response to the growing number of devices in the world," says TP-Link’s information page. "If you own a VR device, multiple smart home devices, or simply have a large number of devices in your household, then a Wi-Fi 6 router might just be the best Wi-Fi router for you."

Few of us have, or plan to buy, a virtual-reality device, but the point is clear: Our networks aren’t optimized for so many devices. Wi-Fi lets routers communicate with more devices at once. Routers also can send more data at once, and can send data to several devices with each "packet."

Abstract network of multicolored spheres- conceptual illustration of colored data packets.
peepo / Getty Images

Also neat is something called BSS (Base Service Station) Color. Essentially, this marks all the traffic from your neighbors with a "color" so that your router can ignore them. Imagine trying to listen to a podcast while your neighbor has a techno party next door. If your ears had BSS Color, then you could magically ignore all that noise. 

Wi-Fi 6 is fully backward compatible—you can connect your Wi-Fi 5 devices, no problem. 

Is Your Device Wi-Fi 6 Compatible?

The iPhones 11 and 12 both support Wi-Fi 6, as do many of Samsung’s latest models. You can see a short list here, but if you want to check for yourself, take a look at your phone/computer/tablet’s specs. The Wi-Fi section will look something like Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax. The "ax" on the end is what you’re looking for. That’s what designates Wi-Fi 6. 

Apple’s M1 Macs also support 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax.

Worth The Upgrade?

There’s not really much point in rushing to upgrade your network, unless you know you have specific needs. Wi-Fi 6 eventually will come to all your devices, and the next time you replace your router, you should make sure it has it. And your next phone and computer almost certainly will have it. But what about all your smart home gear, speakers, TV, lightbulbs, and so on? 

A family of five all using technology devices in the living room.
Peter Cade / Getty Images

"Don't expect your old laptop or smart TV to get a sudden leap in performance," writes Nicholas De Leon for Consumer Reports. "That’s because, even though the device will be able to connect to the network, it won't necessarily perform faster or have longer range."

Add to that the specter of Wi-Fi 6E, which has all of these benefits, and also can operate in the 6GHz band, in addition to the the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radio bands of existing Wi-Fi. That opens extra bandwidth, bandwidth that only will be shared by other 6E devices.

So, Wi-Fi 6 isn’t going to help you for a long time yet. Which also means you probably don’t need the D-Link dongle at the top of this post. If you do want to plug something into your laptop to speed up its network connection, try an Ethernet cable.

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