Faster Wi-Fi is in laptops and routers you might actually buy
Illustrator by Alex Castro / The Verge
Over the past decade, our homes have filled up with more and more devices, small and large, simple and complex, all connected to Wi-Fi. Each device demands some of your routers time and bandwidth, and thats increasingly become a problem the more devices you have, the more your routers capacity is spread thin. If this continues, speeds could slow to a drag.
Thats the problem Wi-Fi 6 is meant to solve by making data delivery more efficient to ultimately offer faster speeds, and at CES this year, the new Wi-Fi standard finally felt like a reality. Wi-Fi 6 routers and devices were plentiful on the show floor. Not only that, some of the routers were affordable a stark change from last years debut round of Wi-Fi 6 products. If youre buying devices in the near future, theres now a good chance youll actually end up buying into and taking advantage of the new standard.
The biggest leap forward for Wi-Fi 6 at this years conference came from affordable Wi-Fi routers. Last year, we saw lots of promises of routers coming soon, but when those routers showed up in stores, they tended to arrive at the highest of price points. This makes sense Wi-Fi 6 is new tech, so of course it ended up in the highest end routers first. But widespread adoption depends on Wi-Fi 6 making it into the lower priced routers the majority of people actually buy. These new routers arent necessarily better than last years, but they offer a meaningful improvement upon the cheaper models theyre replacing.
Over the past year, more affordable routers have slowly started to appear. Routers announced at last years CES for indeterminate points in the future have hit stores, with a small number of them coming in below $200 (a low end TP-Link model is currently on sale for $70). This year, even more are being announced that deliver prices on par with popular existing models, putting them in the $100 to $200 or so range that quality routers and mesh systems tend to sit in.
The Nighthawk Mesh Wifi 6 System isnt the fastest set of Wi-Fi routers out there, but its among the more affordable options for both mesh and next-gen Wi-Fi. Its a dual-band system, offering 1,500 square feet of coverage per note with 1.8 Gbps of bandwidth. A two-pack costs $230, and as a nice perk, the system supports EasyMesh, so compatible third-party nodes can be mixed in.
Most notably, Netgear used this years show to debut the Nighthawk Mesh, which is the first mesh router from a trusted brand to bring Wi-Fi 6 to a typical price point for the category. A two-pack of the routers sell for $230, and theyre supposed to work well with internet connections up to 400 Mbps, which is most homes in the US.
Mesh router systems do tend to be more expensive than singular routers since they comprise multiple units. But theyre also increasingly the recommended choice for large homes. They also solve a problem thats very much related to what Wi-Fi 6 set out to solve: the need for faster, stronger Wi-Fi speeds throughout your house. Upgrading to a mesh system may provide even more of a benefit than upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 due to the expanded coverage they offer, so its important to see these two upgrades working in concert.
Were starting to see Wi-Fi 6 show up in more routers across the board. TP-Link, Arris, and D-Link also added Wi-Fi 6 to mesh router systems this week, and Comcast announced a Wi-Fi 6 version of its Gateway an important change since a large number of people rent their routers from their cable providers.
And importantly, Wi-Fi 6 is finally in the actual gadgets were buying. No product is going to do more for early adoption than the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, which both include Wi-Fi 6 and have sold millions since launching in September. But CES showed that Wi-Fi 6 support is becoming the norm in devices across the board. Lenovo, Asus, and Samsung were among the companies announcing new laptops with Wi-Fi 6 on board.
Wi-Fi 6 was never meant to be a technology so powerful as to be worth upgrading for. It comes with speed increases, up to 9.6 Gbps from a theoretical maximum of 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5. But that extra bandwidth is more about allowing routers to scale across the multitude of devices in your home, rather than deliver incredible bursts of speed to any one device (your internet speed is likely nowhere close to that maximum anyway).
The benefits of Wi-Fi 6 will really be seen over time, as more devices support the standard and its data delivery efficiencies are able to speed things up or, at the least, prevent speeds from getting bogged down. For adoption to pick up, Wi-Fi 6 needs to be built into every new device so that it naturally ends up in peoples pockets and homes. Wi-Fi 6 still isnt in the cheapest of laptops and phones in most cases. But increasingly, its there where many people are buying: the nicer phones and laptops, plus the has-everything-you-need router systems.
That all said, we also saw that theres more to come for Wi-Fi 6. These developments are worth watching out for, but they arent a reason to hold off on an upgrade.
Wi-Fi 6E is still a dream
The first is something called Wi-Fi 6E, which would further expand Wi-Fi speeds and capacity. The problem is, its not real yet. Right now, Wi-Fi operates on two swaths of airwaves 2.4GHz and 5GHz that the Federal Communications Commission opened up to the public. The FCC is considering opening up another swath at 6GHz, and device makers are eager to start using it. The chipmaker Broadcom even debuted chips to support then new spectrum this week. But right now, theres no timeline on when the spectrum will be opened up. Until that happens, its best not to worry about this.
We also started to see Wi-Fi 6 get married to 5G, using the speedier Wi-Fi standard to deliver the speedier wireless connection throughout your home. This is dependent on 5G proving itself out as a viable home internet offering, when it comes to both price and reliability. Thus far, that hasnt happened, and it seems like this wouldnt be something everyone wants (or is able) to take advantage of anyway. But both Razer and Linksys are teasing the idea, so expect to see more.
Wi-Fi 6 isnt going to radically improve your wireless speeds overnight. The improvements will come as more and more of your actively used devices become ones that support the new standard. Its going to take a while before thats everything but at CES 2020, we saw it starting to happen.
Faster Wi-Fi is in laptops and routers you might actually buy