Speaking Fluent Wi-Fi
When traveling abroad your trip can be more meaningfull and enjoyable if you spend a little time learning about some of the customs, phrases, and items on the menu before visiting your country of choice. In the same way, when shopping for home networking gear it helps if you understand some of the jargon and the most important features that can affect the performance of your network and your price at check out. This article and its accompanying video will help you become more well-versed in the language of Wi-Fi.
Simplified Naming Convention
The acronyms are confusing to the point of being meaningless to the untrained ear – Wi-Fi6, AX 802.11AC, 802.11AX, Wireless N. However, once you understand what all this mumbo-jumbo means it can be your guide to navigating your way around in the world of Wi-Fi standards and protocols. The IEEE attempted to make this less confusing for consumers by simplifying the naming conventions that track the progress of Wi-Fi technology.
802.11g or Wireless G is now WiFi 3
802.11n or Wireless N is now WiFi 4
802.11ac or Wireless AC is now WiFi 5
802.11ax or Wireless AX is now WiFi 6
The last two are the only standards that remain relevant in today’s world even though you may see an occasional Wi-Fi4 (Wireless N) device here and there.
Looking at the chart above it’s easy to believe WiFi 6 is 3 times faster than WiFi 5 when it’s actually only about 40 percent faster. The difference is spatial streams. A spatial stream is simply a single connection between a router and the device it’s connected to. As technology improves WiFi can handle more and spatial streams. WiFi3 could only handle one spatial stream at a time and all devices connected to that wireless router had to share that single stream. WiFi5 routers can handle up to 4 spatial streams and WiFi6 can handle as many as 8. It’s important to realize that until recently most Wi-Fi devices could only support 1 stream at a time and adding streams to your wireless router will not make that device any faster. With advances like MU-MIMO support, many new devices can handle more than one spatial stream at a time. You’ll see this feature specified on devices as “2×2” and on routers as “2X2” and “3X3.” When you see “2×2” that means it can support 2 input connections and 2 output connections simultaneously.
Still Remember WiFi 4?
Back in the day of WiFi 3 wireless routers usually had only one 2.4GHz band and one spatial stream. When WiFi devices became more popular single-band and single-stream wireless routers became overloaded and more was needed. Much more. So along came 802.11n or WiFi 4. WiFi 4 brought about a number of advances. One of them was dual bands. By adding a second band users had the choice between two different frequency bands – 2.4GHz and 5Ghz. The 2.4 gigahertz frequency band is slower than the 5 gigahertz band but it has more range and can travel through walls better than the 5 gigahertz band. The great thing about dual bands is these two bands could be used simultaneously in the same space without interfering with each other. This prevented wireless devices from being slowed down by other wireless devices on your own home home network.
Not enough explaining about bands and spatial streams is going on in the marketing world these days. They just keep combining streams and bands together in order to create other-worldly bandwidth specs for their advertising. What they fail to menton is most devices can’t even support these specs. By adding streams and bands up manufacturers give the impression they’re selling you some crazy super-fast wireless router. For example, you’ll see a Tri-band wireless router with 3 streams each band for a grand total of 9 spatial streams that comes out to over 5,000 Mbps. By printing those numbers on the box with no explanation it gives the impression if you take that wireless router home your devices will soon be running at over 5000Mbps! Unfortunately, most devices can only pick up one or two spatial streams but that doesn’t prevent manufacturers from using this as a marketing gimmick.
On the router above, we have two streams on the 2.4 gigahertz band. 150 times 2 equals 300. Then you put three streams on the 5 gigahertz band. 3 times 150 is 450. Then they would add all these together and call it 750 megabits per second wireless router. Well yeah, that sounded good by WiFi4 standards but it really only serves the purpose of comparing it to other wireless routers. You wouldn’t really get 700 megabits on a WiFi4 device because most devices could only support one or maybe two spatial streams at a time. So even though a router said it was a 750 megabits per second router you could only get about 150 to 300 megabits per second on a wireless device. Even so, WiFi 4 was still a huge improvement over WiFi 3.
WiFi 5 Arrived Just In Time
The innovations of WiFi 4 kept people happy for a few years but as usual, people can’t get enough of a good thing. Soon people were confronted by the limitations of WiFi 4 so WiFi 5 was born. The introduction of WiFi 5 is when things started getting crazy mostly due to the enormous amount of bandwidth required by online gaming. Somehow winning online games became synonymous with having the biggest, baddest wireless router with the most antennas and the most bandwidth printed on the side of the box. This brought about the phenomenon known as “gaming routers.” Some gaming routers actually have useful features for gamers such as DumaOS that actually enhance the gamer’s performance and experience but at a cost. For everyday users Wireless AC or WiFi 5 still had many advantages. For one thing, it’s three times as fast as WiFi4 and the newer “Wave 2” devices introduced a new form of MU-MIMO called MU-MIMO which is basically MIMO for Multiple Users (MU).
A limitation of WiFi 5 is it only works on the 5GHz band. A typical dual-band WiFi 5 router you find on the market will have 5GHz on one band and 2.4GHz on the other.
If you have 3 spatial streams on the WiFI5 side that comes out to 3×450 = 1300Mbps.
If you have 3 spatial streams on the WiFi4 side that comes out to 3×150 = 450Gbps
so they add those two together: 1300Mbps + 450Mbps = 1750Mbps and say this is 1750 Mbps router.
For comparison purposes this is accurate but in actuality it’s misleading.
Another important thing people miss is in order to benefit from these WiFi5 speeds you need a WiFi 5 device or a WiFi 5 adapter for a laptop that supports WiFi 5. In addition, if you want to connect to more than one spatial stream at a time that device also has to support MU-MIMO which we’ll get into that in the next section.
So what it all boils down to is if a device is connected to the wireless router above with only one spatial stream on the 5GHz band you’re only going to get a maximum of 433 megabits per second. That’s before you subtract 30 percent for overhead and other types of interference not to mention distance. Once you take all the real-world factors into account your actual connection speed is going to be a lot less than what is advertised on the box. A device that supports MU-MIMO (See below) will get twice that.
WiFi 6 Steps Up To The Plate
With WiFi 6 the trend continues. A WiFi 6 signal is actually only about 40 percent faster than WiFi 5 but with the ability to support as many as eight spatial streams and its increased channel width you get another exponential jump in performance. Keep in mind that in order to realize the advantages of WiFi 6 you want to have a WiFi 6 device or get an adapter for your device that supports WiFi 6.
Other Important Wi-Fi Features
MU-MIMO is an improvement on the old MIMO that came with WiFi4 wireless routers. It’s simply MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) for multiple users. The advantage of MIMO was that devices no longer had to share a single spatial stream from their wireless router. Each device took turns with its own dedicated connection to the wireless router. This took place on multiple streams and happened so fast which made it seem to the devices that they each had their own dedicated wireless router. Unfortunately, as you added more devices there was an eventual slowdown because even though each device is getting its own dedicated connection it had to wait and turn with the other wireless devices. So along came MU-MIMO to the rescue with WiFi 5. MU-MIMO didn’t really hit the streets until “Wave 2” came out. Just because you have a WiFi5 device doesn’t mean it supports MU-MIMO. You need to look at that device’s documentation to make sure. With MU-MIMO each device gets its own dedicated stream of WiFi goodness from the router until the number of devices exceeds the number of spatial streams. At that point, things start slowing down.
BEAMFORMING – MU-MIMO also works very well with something called beamforming. Beamforming existed on WiFi 4 but because of various limitations, the two struggled to get along very well. Now you’ll rarely see one without the other. As you may remember with previous standards the signal of the wireless router basically just spewed out in all directions. If it hit something – fine. If it didn’t – whatever. This resulted in a lot of wasted energy trying to establish signal connections with plants and lampshades. With beamforming once a connection is established it locks onto the device and concentrates its signal in the direction of that device. This results in a much stronger and more stable wireless connection. A good way to think about beamforming is by comparing the intensity of a light bulb with the intensity of the beam from a flashlight. You could probably stare at a light bulb all day and it wouldn’t bother you too much but you wouldn’t want to stare directly into a flashlight beam for too long. That’s a good illustration of how much stronger a Wi-Fi signal with beamforming is.
QoS – Another acronym you’re going to see a lot of is QoS. QoS stands for Quality Of Service. QoS is a set of rules that guarantees certain types of traffic on your home network have priority over others. For example, if you’re watching a movie or playing a video game you don’t want to get hit with a bunch of lag because Mom is busy downloading a recipe for blueberry muffins in the kitchen. When you’re setting up QOS on your home network you can specify certain types of traffic such as video streaming or gaming over file transfers. You can also prioritize certain devices such as your gaming computer or the tv in the living room over the computer in the guest bedroom. Each wireless router manufacturer has its own implementation of QoS. The interfaces will be different. Some of the terminologies will be different but it all boils down to the same thing. You’re basically just assigning priorities to different devices or different types of traffic.
AIRTIME FAIRNESS – Another feature that’s becoming more widespread these days is called airtime fairness. What airtime fairness does is it simply keeps the slower devices on your network from taking up so much of everybody else’s time and slowing things down. The word “airtime” in airtime fairness simply means the time a piece of data takes to travel through the air before it reaches its destination. The standard way of dividing things up between devices on a network used to be with packets. What would happen is a WiFi device would get to deliver 10 packets then a WiFi 5 device would get to deliver 10 packets etc…etc. As they take turns the end result is the WiFi 5 device spends more time waiting for the WiFi 4 device to send its packets than it does sending its own packets. Instead of dividing things up by packets airtime fairness divides things up by time. Now the WiFi 4 device will get a certain amount of time and then the y55 device would get an equal amount of time. The result is the WiFi 5 device gets an opportunity to deliver more packets because it’s so much faster than the WiFi 4 devices. This doesn’t really slow the WiFi 4 device up that much and the end result is the total efficiency and throughput of the network measurably increases.
SMART CONNECT – Another feature you’ll see a lot of on WiFi 5 wireless routers in particular is Smart Connect. What smart connect does is as simple as it is ingenious. It simply puts your slower devices on the slower bands and your faster devices on the faster bands. This keeps your faster devices from being slowed down by the slower ones. There’s really not much configuration involved you just have to turn it on and it works. Smart Connect is not a perfect solution. Like any “auto-magic” feature in today’s world, it takes up processing resources and can cause complications with other features. It’s really up to you if you want to use it or not. If you’re having problems with Smart Connect not doing everything automatically for you the simple solution is just to manually connect your devices to the proper network.