Everything you need to know about current Wi-Fi standards
Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E—what does it all mean?!
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Wi-Fi is a technology most people use every day, whether streaming music on their phone or scrolling through Twitter on their computer. But there are a few different Wi-Fi standards out there, and not all treat internet data in the same way. Some standards are faster, and some devices only support one standard, but not others.
These differences are only likely to become more apparent as technology advances. So it’s worth asking: what exactly is a Wi-Fi standard and why should you care?
Okay, what is a Wi-Fi standard?
A Wi-Fi standard sets rules for devices, routers, and other network equipment, both to make sure they work together and to comply with government regulations. Wi-Fi standards are created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a non-profit professional organization, and managed by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Wi-Fi differs from other wireless standards, like Bluetooth or your smartphone’s 4G/5G connection. All three rely on radio waves, but Bluetooth and 4G/5G are not Wi-Fi and aren’t compatible with any Wi-Fi standard.
Devices that support Wi-Fi are branded as “Wi-Fi” with a version number, such as Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6
Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 are the Wi-Fi standards most often supported by Wi-Fi devices sold right now.
First released in 2014, Wi-Fi 5 is an older and less capable standard. Wi-Fi 6 was introduced in 2019, so it’s newer and quicker. The exact difference will depend on your home network, but in our testing, we’ve found that Wi-Fi 6 is frequently much quicker than Wi-Fi 5.
While an older Wi-Fi 5 router, like the TP-Link Archer A7, may hit speeds up to 450Mbps in real-world conditions, a similar Wi-Fi 6 router, like the TP-Link AX50, can achieve nearly 700Mbps. Wi-Fi 6 also tends to be more consistent at long range, so you’ll worry less about dropped or slow signals.
There are a lot of technical reasons for these improvements, but they boil down to efficiency. Wi-Fi doesn’t send a smooth, consistent flow of data but instead sends data in bursts. Wi-Fi 5 can only send data to one device (per Wi-Fi channel) with each burst, but Wi-Fi 6 can send data to multiple devices with each burst.
Congestion is less of an issue for Wi-Fi 6, as well. Wi-Fi 5 devices must wait for a channel to be clear before transmitting, no matter the source of the interference. Wi-Fi 6 understands whether the interfering transmission is from its own network. If it’s not, it will continue to transmit.
Together, these changes mean Wi-Fi 6 can send more data, and do so more reliably, than Wi-Fi 5.
Wi-Fi 6 is also more secure than Wi-Fi 5, as it supports the WPA3 security standard. This mitigates WPA2’s vulnerability to brute force attacks and enables encryption of network traffic even among devices connected to the same network. (WPA2 could do this, but it was optional.)
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E
Wi-Fi 6E is a version of Wi-Fi 6. It’s based on the same technical standard as Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), but adds a 6GHz radio band. This is in addition to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands you’ve likely noticed on your existing Wi-Fi network.
The 6GHz band can achieve even higher speeds than regular Wi-Fi 6 because it uses a higher radio frequency. It also uses a radio spectrum with less interference, which can improve reliability,
It’s not all good news, though. The 6GHz band can have more trouble with obstacles than the 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands, so it can be unreliable at long range or through thick walls.
The improved performance of the 6GHz band is meaningful, but device support is still uncommon and Wi-Fi 6E routers are expensive. This will begin to change through 2022 and into 2023.
Wait ... what’s 802.11ax?
Wi-Fi versions used to be advertised by the name of the technical standard, 802.11, with newer versions earning an affix, like 802.11b or 802.11g.
Eventually, the Wi-Fi Alliance realized this was baffling to most people and rebranded Wi-Fi as, well, Wi-Fi. Newer versions have a higher version number, so again, Wi-Fi 5 is older than Wi-Fi 6.
802.11ax and Wi-Fi 6, for example, are the same thing. 802.11ax is the name of the technical standard, while Wi-Fi 6 is the branding routers and devices advertise.
Should you upgrade to a new Wi-Fi standard?
Wi-Fi 6 is better than Wi-Fi 5, and Wi-Fi 6E is, at least in some ways, the best. But should you scramble to Amazon and buy a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router right away?
We recommend an “if it ain't broke, don’t fix it” approach. There’s no need to upgrade if you are already happy with Wi-Fi in your home. But if there’s a room where the signal is spotty, or download speeds are often way below what a PC wired directly to your internet modem can achieve, then an upgrade could help.
If you do need a new router now, we have some recommendations based on our testing. If you're not too worried about Wi-Fi 6 at the moment, and just want something affordable that can handle your basic internet load, our most highly recommended router right now for most people is the Linksys EA7500 AC1900. It can deliver speeds up to 600 Megabits per second (Mbps) to nearby laptops and tablets and works well even for homes with a lot of connected devices.
If you're looking to move up in the world and get a Wi-Fi 6 router, our top pick right now is the Netgear RAX200 Nighthawk. This zippy batwing isn't cheap, but it is powerful, capable of sending up to 12 separate streams at once (four at 2.4GHz and eight at 5GHz). It's able to handle massive data loads for multiple users, such as several people playing online games, streaming to Twitch, watching Netflix, and internet browsing all at once—without breaking a sweat. During our testing, it also consistently sent and received data at over 700Mbps.
Wi-Fi standards and backward compatibility
So you’ve decided to upgrade your Wi-Fi network—do you also need to upgrade your devices?
Wi-Fi is backward compatible, meaning new standards also support older standards. It’s technically possible for Wi-Fi 6 to support all standards dating back to the 802.11a/b standards from 1999.
However, while new Wi-Fi routers and devices are compatible with older standards, they will only work at the slowest speed supported by two connected devices.
For example, a Wi-Fi 5 device connected to a Wi-Fi 6 router will offer Wi-Fi 5 speeds, and the same is true if the roles are switched. Both a router and the device connected to it must support Wi-Fi 6 to use Wi-Fi 6. This is also true of Wi-Fi 6E and future Wi-Fi standards.
Breaking it all down
Still a bit confused? Here’s what you absolutely must know.
- Wi-Fi standards are defined by a version number, like Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6. A higher number is better.
- New Wi-Fi standards are quicker and more reliable.
- Wi-Fi is backward compatible, so old and new devices can work together.
- Performance is limited to the slower of the two connected devices.
Wi-Fi standards can be intimidating, but understanding the basics is worthwhile. Choosing devices that support the latest Wi-Fi standard can deliver a noticeable boost to both network performance and reliability.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.