What is 802.11ax, 802.11ad, 802.11ac, and 802.11n? What is Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5 and so on?

We are living in the age of the internet and wireless connections, and most people have a wireless router in their homes. Wi-Fi has become a common term in our vocabulary, but wireless networking standards are not easy to understand or even pronounce. That is because they have complicated names, invented by network engineers and corporations. Do you know what 802.11ax is? What about 802.11ad, or 802.11ac? Did you hear the news that these names are changing into simpler terms like Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5, or Wi-Fi 4? Do you want to understand what all that means and why it matters? Read this article to find the information you need:

The Wi-Fi Alliance is in charge of developing wireless networking standards

The Wi-Fi Alliance is an alliance of computing manufacturers from all over the world that develops and publishes the Wi-Fi networking standards. The entire tech industry follows them and develops wireless devices that are compatible with each other, with the help of Wi-Fi standards.

The Wi-Fi Certified logo of the Wi-Fi Alliance

Without the Wi-Fi Alliance, we would not have good interoperability between wireless routers and wireless devices, such as your laptop and smartphone. The Wi-Fi Alliance publishes all the standards covered in this article. Let's discuss them one by one:

What is 802.11n, also known as Wi-Fi 4?

802.11n, under its full name IEEE 802.11n-2009, is a wireless networking standard that was published in 2009. Wi-Fi 802.11n is also referred to as Wi-Fi 4. 802.11n allows the use of two radio frequency bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and can deliver data transfer speeds of up to 600 Mbps. Wi-Fi 802.11n was also the first wireless standard that offered support for MIMO (multiple-input-multiple-output). MIMO is a technology that allows the use of multiple antennas to transmit more data by combining independent data streams.

ASUS RT-N18U - a wireless router that uses the 802.11n standard

Modern wireless routers use the Wi-Fi 4 standard on the 2.4 GHz band. Wi-Fi 4 is used to connect older devices to the network, or smart home devices like smart plugs, smart bulbs, sensors, and so on.

What is 802.11ac, also known as Wi-Fi 5?

802.11ac or IEEE 802.11ac is a wireless networking standard that was published in late 2013. Wi-Fi 802.11ac is also known as Wi-Fi 5. The 802.11ac is the most common wireless standard today, as most routers sold during the last few years are 802.11ac-compatible. This standard, just like the 802.11n before it, supports MU-MIMO, but it can offer maximum data transfer speeds of up to 2.3 Gbps. The 802.11ac standard works only on the 5 GHz frequency band but most of the wireless routers that support it also offer support for the 802.11n standard on the 2.4 GHz frequency band.

The properties of a wireless network that is using 802.11ac

802.11ac devices are split into two categories, called 802.11ac Wave 1 and Wave 2. The products that are sold as part of the 802.11ac Wave 1 were introduced to the market in 2013, while the ones in Wave 2 were introduced in 2016. Wave 2 is an improved version of the standard. The 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless routers have higher throughput and add support for MU-MIMO: while the Wave 1 routers can provide speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps, the ones in Wave 2 can deliver speeds of up to 2.3 Gbps. Therefore, if you buy a wireless router today, it is a good idea to check whether it offers support for 802.11ac Wave 2, to benefit from improved wireless speed and coverage.

What is 802.11ax?

802.11ax or IEEE802.11ax is a wireless networking standard that is still in the works and has not yet been approved. It is expected that it will be finalized and approved sometime during late 2019, as shared by ZDNet: Next-generation 802.11ax wi-fi: Dense, fast, delayed.

802.11ax is also referred to as Wi-Fi 6. It is also known as High-Efficiency Wireless (HEW) and is designed to work in the same 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands as the standards that we mentioned so far. It appears that it will also be capable of working with additional bands between 1 and 7 GHz, when they become available. The 802.11ax wireless networking standard aims to improve the average data transfer speeds by up to four times more than the 802.11ac standard. It should offer significantly improved speeds, especially in crowded places such as airports, train stations, restaurants, or coffee shops.

ASUS RT-AX88U - The first consumer wireless router with support for 802.11ax

Wireless routers and mesh Wi-Fi systems with Wi-Fi 6 have already shown up on the market. However, they tend to have a premium price, and most people can't afford them. As soon as the standard is approved and finalized, expect more affordable Wi-Fi equipment to be launched.

What is 802.11ad?

IEEE 802.11ad is a wireless networking standard that is also known as WiGig or 60 GHz Wi-Fi. It is a form of Wi-Fi that, instead of using traditional wireless frequency bands such as 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, uses a microwave section of the radio spectrum, running at about 60 GHz. It allows for incredibly fast data transfer speeds of up to 7 Gbps. However, because it works on a microwave range frequency, it has the significant disadvantage of not being able to pass through walls and has a range of only 3 to 32 feet (1 to 10 meters). It is "lightning fast," but it is designed to cover only one room when no walls or obstacles stand in the way.

Netgear Nighthawk X10: A wireless router with support for 802.11ad

There are few wireless routers on the market with support for 802.11ad, and few network devices that have support for it. One of the routers that we tested with 802.11ad is Netgear Nighthawk X10.

What is Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 4, and so on?

On October 3, 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced that it added a new naming for the wireless networking standards, to make it easier for people to identify them. After all, 802.11ax, 802.11ad, 802.11ac, 802.11n, and all the other similar names are not easy to remember, and most people have no idea what they mean. Their thinking is that Wi-Fi, followed by a number, is easy to remember. The rule is that the higher the number, the newer and the better the standard. You already know by now what Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 5, and Wi-Fi 4 mean. However, to summarize, here is what they are:

  • Wi-Fi 6 identifies devices that support the 802.11ax wireless networking standard
  • Wi-Fi 5 identifies devices that support the 802.11ac wireless networking standard, including 802.11ac Wave 2
  • Wi-Fi 4 identifies devices that support the 802.11n wireless networking standard

To help you understand what each of the modern Wi-Fi networking standards offers, we made a table which compares their frequency bands and maximum theoretical speed:

Comparing 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ax, and 802.11ad

Wi-Fi 1, Wi-Fi 2, and Wi-Fi 3 are not branded. That is likely because the Wi-Fi Alliance did not consider older Wi-Fi standards to be used much. However, for the sake of completion, we believe that the correct branding would have been:

  • Wi-Fi 1 should have been 802.11b. This standard was released in 1999, it uses the 2.4 GHz band, and it has a data rate of up to 11 Mbps.
  • Wi-Fi 2 should have been 802.11a. It was released in 1999, it uses the 5 GHz band, and it has a data rate of up to 54 Mbps.
  • Wi-Fi 3 should have been 802.11g. This standard was released in 2003, it uses the 2.4 GHz band, and it has a data rate of up to 54 Mbps.

802.11ax vs 802.11ac vs 802.11n or Wi-Fi 6 vs Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 5, and real-life speeds

If you read the specifications of each Wi-Fi standard, and the maximum theoretical speed that each can achieve, you are going to be impressed. However, in real life, the speeds you get are much lower. You can find out more about this subject, in this article: What does AC1200, AC1750, AC1900 or more, mean and what's the difference?

To give you a realistic perspective on the real-life speed you get from the different standards that are available, we took one of the most powerful wireless routers - ASUS ROG Rapture GT-AX11000 - and made some measurements with SpeedTest, on a laptop with an Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200 network card. Our internet connection offers a download speed of 1 Gbps, and an upload speed of 500 Mbps.

We first connected to the Wi-Fi emitted by the router, on the 2.4 GHz band, using the 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) standard, and the maximum download speed we measured is of 221.28 Mbps.

The speed you get when using Wi-Fi 4

We then switched to the first 5 GHz band of the two emitted by the router, using the 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) standard. The maximum download speed that we reached is 630.10 Mbps. The Wi-Fi 5 standard is 2.8 times faster than the Wi-Fi 4 standard when using this wireless router.

The speed you get when using Wi-Fi 5

Lastly, we switched to the second 5 GHz band, which used the 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standard. This time we reached a maximum download speed of 762.03 Mbps. That is 20% faster than Wi-Fi 5, which is a substantial improvement, but far from the maximum theoretical speeds that are promised by the Wi-Fi 6 standard.

The speed you get when using Wi-Fi 6

Hopefully, this quick comparison has given you a more realistic perspective of the speeds you can achieve, in real life, when using different Wi-Fi standards.

Do wireless routers use one or more Wi-Fi standards?

Yes, most of them do! Manufacturers make wireless routers that can work on one, two, or even three bands simultaneously, while supporting different wireless standards on each band. Most wireless routers today are dual-band or tri-band routers because they offer more speed and compatibility with various devices. All the wireless routers sold today have support for the 802.11n standard (usually on the 2.4 GHz band), and also add support for the 802.11ac standard (on the 5 GHz band). High-end wireless routers do all that, but can also include a third band (5 GHz or even 60 GHz), that is used for newer standards such as 802.11ac Wave 2, 802.11ax or 802.11ad.

Setting the wireless mode on a router

Whether you have a single-band, dual-band, or tri-band router, the good thing is that the firmware should let you choose what Wi-Fi standards and bands you want to enable and use. You can select whether to activate only the 2.4 GHz band and the wireless standards supported on it, or you can choose to activate only the 5 GHz band and the wireless standards supported on it. Furthermore, you can also enable all the bands and all the wireless standards available on your router, mixing everything to get the desired results for your network.

Do you plan on getting new devices that support newer Wi-Fi standards?

Are you using Wi-Fi 5 compatible devices? Do you believe that it is worth upgrading to the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard, or is it too soon to invest in it? Comment below and share your opinion about all the wireless networking standards, their naming conventions, and features.