What is WiFi 6, and do you need it?

What is WiFi 6, and do you need it?
(Image credit: Netgear)

If you've been looking for a new router WiFi 6 is a term you may have seen on many of the listing (that or its other name, 802.11ax). Either way it's not the most common name, but as the number jump from WiFi 5 would suggest, it does mean a step up in both speed and delivery over current WiFi. So, do you actually need WiFi 6 in your life?

First up, if you want to get the most out of WiFi 6, you're going to need a compatible device to actually use with your router. Otherwise you've shelled out for one of the best wireless routers and have no gadgets that can actually push it to its limits. That said, it is still backwards compatible with older devices.

But what are the limits? And is it worth paying for WiFi 6 now so you're future-proofed for the best speed on all your future smartphones, laptops, consoles and the like? This feature will give you everything you need to know about WiFi 6.

What is WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 is the commercial name for the latest wireless standard IEEE 802.11ax, which can be used to send data between your router and home computer. This means it can be used as a faster than current 802.11ac transmission state from a compatible wireless router sending to a compatible data demanding device. 

Essentially, this is the next-generation of WiFi which will eventually be found across all devices.

Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000

(Image credit: Asus)

How fast is WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 is super, super fast. Like, faster than you'll likely need, fast. It is capable of speeds up to 9.6 Gbps, (or 9,600 Mbps). Compared to WiFi 5, or 802.11ac, that is currently the industry norm, that's a significant jump up from 3.6 Gbps.

Of course both of these numbers are just theoretical maximums. In real world use things like devices, interference and data distribution management can all bring that number way down.

At the time of publishing the average US download speed is 72 Mbps. Of course as gigabit broadband and more compatible devices roll out, that is changing fast so WiFi 6 will be a lot more useful in the coming months and years. Also, as more and more devices demand wireless access in the home and office, a wider bandwidth to work from makes a lot of sense. 

Do you really need WiFi 6?

While you might not look at WiFi 6 capable wireless routers for speed increases, primarily, what they are going to be very useful for is device range. Since the number of devices in use at home has gone from an average of five per household, when WiFi 5 released, to nine now – and is set to hit 50 in a few years – this is very much needed.

Older WiFi was fine for speeds, but wasn't designed to handle the demand of distributing all that data across lots of devices at the same time. Now with 4K and HDR video streaming on TVs, smartphones and tablets, all in the same home – not to mention gaming – the demand on wireless routers is huge. 

WiFi 6 lets routers communicate with more devices. It does this particularly well by allowing multiple devices to get data in the same broadcast. By letting the devices schedule check-ins with the router this is a two-way task that is better managed now.

Another big factor is battery life. Since devices can now plan out communications that means less time keeping powered on waiting for a signal delivery, so to speak. This Target Wake Time, as it's called, lets routers schedule check-in times with devices so for the rest of the time they can stay in low power mode. This is more aimed at low-power devices like sensors in the smart home.

Security has been improved for WiFi 6 with a new WPA3 protocol making it tougher for hackers to crack passwords or gain access, which is another advantage.

TP-Link Archer AX6000

(Image credit: TP-Link)

How does WiFi 6 work?

More speed and greater device communication is brought about by new chips, primarily, with the Broadcom BCM4375 found in lots of new wireless routers. But Intel, Qualcomm and many more are also leading the charge on compatible devices.

What they all have in common is MU-MIMO and OFDMA. MU-MIMO is Multiple User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output. This isn't exclusive to WiFi 6 and offers a way of broadcasting to up to eight devices at once, rather one at a time as many routers are limited to.

OFDMA, or Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access lets one transmission deliver data to multiple devices. Yup, this an MU-MIMO sound similar. But this is for low-bandwidth, small-packet applications such as IoT sensors.

So if MU-MIMO is adding more virtual delivery trucks to the router to dish out data, OFDMA is allowing each truck to carry more type of package within the larger container.

Apple iPhone 12

(Image credit: Apple)

What devices are WiFi 6 capable?

This is a fast changing list as lots of hardware manufacturers are moving to include the latest wireless capabilities on their devices. Many of the best smartphones are leading the way, but here are a few choice examples of WiFi 6 capable gadgets.

  • Phones
  • Apple iPhone SE, 11, 12 (Pro and Pro Max too)
  • OnePlus 8 Pro and up
  • Samsung Galaxy S20, Fold, Note 10 and up
  • LG V60 ThinQ
  • Huawei P40 Pro
  • Laptops
  • Asus Chromebook Flip c436
  • Dell XPS 13 (2020)
  • HP Spectre x360
  • Lenovo Yoga c940
  • Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
  • Others
  • Apple iPad and iPad Air (fourth gen)

There are lots of routers already appearing with WiFi 6 onboard and some are even affordable. Check out our list of the best wireless routers to find one that suits you.

Luke Edwards

Luke is a veteran tech journalist with decades of experience covering everything from TVs, power tools, science and health tech to VPNs, space, gaming and cars. You may recognize him from appearances on plenty of news channels or have read his words which have been published in most tech titles over the years. In his spare time (of which he has little as a father of two) Luke likes yoga, surfing, meditation, DIY and consuming all the books, comics and movies he can find.