Finally, we got Wi-Fi 6 for our increasing numbers of gadgets

Throughout the past decade, our homes have been packed with increasing numbers of gadgets, small and large, basic and sophisticated, all linked to Wi-Fi. Every device requires some of the time and bandwidth of your router, and this is becoming increasingly an issue— the more devices you have, the narrower the distribution of the power of your router. If that continues, speeds can slow down to a drag.

Throughout the past decade, our homes have been packed with increasing numbers of gadgets, small and large, basic and sophisticated, all linked to Wi-Fi. Every device requires some of the time and bandwidth of your router, and this is becoming increasingly an issue— the more devices you have, the narrower the distribution of the power of your router. If that continues, speeds can slow down to a drag.

That’s the problem Wi-Fi 6 is supposed to solve by making data transmission more effective to deliver faster speeds potentially, and the new Wi-Fi standard at CES this year finally felt like a reality. The show floor had ample Wi-Fi 6 routers and computers. Not only that, some of the routers have been affordable— a sharp change from the Wi-Fi 6 devices debut round last year. If you are purchasing gadgets soon, there is now a good chance that you will end up buying into the new standard and taking advantage of it.

At this year’s conference, the most significant leap forward for Wi-Fi 6 came from affordable Wi-Fi routers. Last year we saw lots of promises coming from routers soon, but when those routers appeared in stores, they seemed to get to the highest price points. It makes sense— Wi-Fi 6 is new tech, so obviously, it ended up first in the top-end routers. Yet strong acceptance depends on Wi-Fi 6, making it the most people buy into the lower-priced routers. Such new routers aren’t necessarily better than last year, but on the cheaper models, they’re replacing, they deliver a meaningful improvement.

More affordable routers have slowly began appearing over the last year. Routers revealed for indeterminate points in the future at last year’s CES have hit stores, with a small number coming in under $200 (a low-end TP-Link model is currently on sale for $70). Many more are being revealed this year that it offers prices on an equal basis with common existing models, placing them in the range of $100 to $200 or so that standard routers and mesh systems tend to sit in.

Most importantly, this year’s display was used by Netgear to launch the Nighthawk Router, which is the first router from a trusted brand to carry Wi-Fi 6 to an ideal price point for the market. A two-pack of routers sold for $230, and they’re supposed to work well with up to 400 Mbps internet connections, which is most home in the US.

Because they contain multiple units, mesh router systems tend to be more expensive than single routers. But they are increasingly also the preferred alternative for big homes. We also solve a problem that is closely related to what Wi-Fi 6 is expected to solve: the need for quicker, better Wi-Fi speeds around your home. Upgrading to a mesh network will offer even more benefits than improving to Wi-Fi 6 because of their expanded coverage, so it’s good to see these two upgrades work in tandem.

We are starting to see Wi-Fi 6 showing up across the board in more routers. TP-Link, D-Link, and Arris have introduced this week’s Wi-Fi 6 to mesh router systems, and Comcast revealed the Gateway’s Wi-Fi 6 version— a significant change as many people rent their routers from their cable providers.

And importantly, at last, Wi-Fi 6 is in the actual gadgets that we are buying. No product will do more for early adoption than the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, both of which feature Wi-Fi 6 and have sold millions since its launch in September. Yet CES has shown that support for Wi-Fi 6 is becoming the standard across the board in apps. Among the companies that announced new laptops with Wi-Fi 6 on board were Lenovo, Samsung, and Asus.

Wi-Fi 6 was never supposed to be so strong a system that it was worth upgrading for. This comes with improvements in bandwidth, up to 9.6 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5 from a theoretical maximum of 3.5 Gbps. But this extra bandwidth is more about allowing routers to spread through multiple devices in your house, rather than providing enormous speed bursts to any computer (your internet speed is probably nowhere to be found).

The benefits of Wi-Fi 6 will be seen in the long run as more users adopt the standard, and its data transmission efficiencies will speed things up— or at least prevent speeds from getting stuck. Wi-Fi 6 needs to be built into every new device for adoption to pick up, so it automatically ends up in the pockets and homes of people. In most cases, Wi-Fi 6 is still not in the cheapest of laptops and handsets. But more and more, there’s a lot of people buying: the better phones and tablets, plus the router systems that’s all you need.

That said, we saw there’s more to come with Wi-Fi 6, too. Such trends are worth watching for, but they aren’t a reason to hang on an update. Next, there’s something called Wi-Fi 6E that would increase the speed and capacity of Wi-Fi further. The problem is, it still isn’t real. Right now, Wi-Fi operates on two swaths of airwaves—2.4GHz and 5GHz— which were opened to the public by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC is considering opening another swath at 6GHz, and device manufacturers are eager to use it. Even chipmaker Broadcom unveiled chips this week to support then new spectrum. Yet right now, when the range opens, there’s no timetable. It is best not to think about that until that happens.

We also started watching Wi-Fi 6 get married to 5G, using the speedier Wi-Fi standard to deliver the faster wireless connection right across your home. This depends on 5G proving itself as a viable home internet offering, both in terms of price and reliability. That has not happened so far, and it seems that this would not be something that everyone needs (or is willing to) take advantage of anyway. But the idea is teasing to both Razer, and Linksys, so expect to see more.

Wi-Fi 6 won’t radically improve your wireless velocities overnight. The improvements will come as more and more of the devices you are actively using become those that support the new standard. It will take a while before that’s all—but we saw it start to happen at CES 2020.


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