When the pandemic changed our lives, many of us were forced to stay home and take our jobs and hobbies to the internet. Office meetings and classrooms have been replaced by video calls. We jumped into Netflix, played more video games, and shopped online.
The result: We have equipped our home Wi-Fi networks with more devices that do more than ever before. Our congested internet connections, which contributed to spotty video calls and sluggish downloads, became the # 1 technical problem.
Now, a new generation of Wi-Fi known as Wi-Fi 6 has arrived to solve this problem. It brings faster speeds and wider coverage. Most importantly, wireless technology is sharing a data connection more efficiently across a large number of home devices such as phones, tablets, computers, smart speakers, and televisions.
With Wi-Fi 6, if a device is consuming a lot of data, such as For example, a video game console downloading a large game does not slow down the entire network as it did with previous Wi-Fi technologies.
Wi-Fi 6 debuted in 2018, but didn’t hit mainstream until that year when it became more affordable, with devices costing just $ 70 and becoming widely available on new internet routers. Many newer smartphones and computers now also contain chips that allow them to use Wi-Fi 6.
How exactly does it work? Imagine cars driving on a road. In older Wi-Fi networks, the cars, which are devices that transmit data, travel on a single lane. A device that takes a long time to complete a data-intensive task is like that disgusting slowpoke that forces everyone behind it to hit the brakes.
Wi-Fi 6 reduces traffic jams by directing traffic. There are now multiple lanes: carpool lanes for the newer, faster devices, and a slow lane for the older, slower ones. All vehicles are also full of people presenting large amounts of data being transported over the network at the same time.
“Wi-Fi 6 can be a lot more efficient, getting more cars on the road faster,” said David Henry, senior vice president of networking company Netgear.
I recently tested two new Wi-Fi 6 routers and compared them to a previous generation Wi-Fi router, which resulted in mediocre results and more surprising improvements. Here’s what I learned:
There are typically more than two dozen internet-connected devices running, including smart speakers, a thermostat, and bathroom scales. That seemed to make my home an ideal test environment for Wi-Fi 6.
The Wi-Fi 6 routers I selected were Amazon’s Eero Pro 6, which costs around $ 230, and Netgear’s Orbi, which costs $ 380. I compared it to a Google Wifi router, which was around $ 130 when it released in 2016.
One test involved downloading an episode of the Netflix series “The Final Table” to two smartphones and a tablet while streaming video to another tablet.
The Wi-Fi 6 routers did better than the older routers, but only marginally:
On the Eero and Netgear routers, it took about 45 seconds for all three devices to finish downloading the TV episode. On the older Google router, the task took 51 seconds, 13 percent slower.
When I tried to stream a high definition video on a tablet while the other devices were downloading files, there was no noticeable delay in playing the streaming video on the Wi-Fi 6 routers or the older router.
I ran the routers through many tests like the one above, including downloading video games while on a video call. The results were often not convincing. So what’s up?
Nick Weaver, the executive director of Eero, Amazon’s router maker, said the benefit of less congestion with Wi-Fi 6 is more visible in an environment with many more devices, such as an office with hundreds of computers doing heavy-duty tasks same time.
“It’s less important in the home setting,” he said. Most households still don’t have that many devices.
Keerti Melkote, the founder of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company that provides Wi-Fi products for businesses, offered a different theory. Most of the devices in my house would need to have chips that make them compatible with Wi-Fi 6 before the benefits are more pronounced, he said. Only about a quarter of my internet connected devices have this.
These weren’t great results. But the good news was that with Wi-Fi 6 I noticed subtle changes all over my house.
For one thing, my smart speakers from Amazon are now reacting faster. In my bedroom, I ask Alexa to control a pair of internet-connected light bulbs. When I said, “Alexa, turn the lights on” with the older router, there was about a two second delay before the light was on. Now it’s less than half a second.
I noticed something similar with MyQ, with which I can control my garage door with a smartphone app. Before that, after pressing the button, I waited a few seconds for the door to open. Now the wait is a split second.
My video calls also look clearer than they used to be and take less time to connect.
This suggests that Wi-Fi 6 is a long-term investment. The more internet-connected devices that get into people’s homes in the coming years, the more the benefits will become apparent.
“It will take time, but the improvements will be real,” said Melkote.
Of the two Wi-Fi 6 routers I tested, I preferred the Eero Pro 6. It’s $ 150 cheaper than the Netgear Orbi, and both routers were equally fast in my tests. Setting up the Eero was easier too.
But who should buy?
My experience has shown that people who have bought a router in the past five years probably wouldn’t see major improvements right away, so there’s no rush to upgrade.
Those customers should probably better wait for Wi-Fi 6E, a newly released technology that is said to offer even more improvements to reduce network congestion in dense areas. Routers that use Wi-Fi 6E are just getting started – and are very expensive – so it can take several years to consider upgrading.
However, if you bought a router more than six years ago, upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 would increase the speed significantly, and the general benefits would be more noticeable. This is mainly because in 2015 the Federal Communications Commission lifted restrictions that limited wireless transmission performance from WiFi routers, making new ones 20 times more powerful.
Here’s an even simpler rule of thumb: once you are happy with your home internet connection, stick with what you have and update when you see necessary. Even Mr Melkote didn’t make the leap to Wi-Fi 6. He said he planned to do this this year because his family was working from home and attending school for the foreseeable future.
While the improvements over my older router have been minor, there is no going back for me. I add half a dozen new devices to my network every year, so I need these extra lanes.