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Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: What’s the Difference?

Hi there! With Wi-Fi being so important in our daily lives, you‘re probably curious about the differences between the Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 standards you keep hearing about. Well, you‘ve come to the right place!

As an experienced network analyst, I‘m going to walk you through what exactly sets Wi-Fi 5 and 6 apart. I‘ll go through their speeds, technical capabilities, real-world performance, and help you decide if an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 is worthwhile. Sound good? Then let‘s get started!

First, some quick background. Wi-Fi 5, also known as 802.11ac, was introduced in 2014. It brought excellent speeds up to 6.9 Gbps thanks to technologies like wider channels and 256-QAM modulation.

Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is the latest standard rolled out in 2019. It builds on Wi-Fi 5, boosting speeds up to 9.6 Gbps and adding optimizations like OFDMA that really improve performance, especially in busy environments.

Now let‘s look at some key differences between these two Wi-Fi generations so you know what you‘re getting.

Speeds and Throughput

One of the biggest reasons to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 is the faster connection speeds. With 4K video streaming, video calls, and smart home devices all needing more bandwidth, those extra megabits make a difference!

Wi-Fi 6 has a top theoretical speed of 9.6 Gbps, around 40% faster than Wi-Fi 5‘s 6.9 Gbps maximum. Real-world speeds will be lower, but you can expect to get 30-50% faster downloads and lag-free 4K streaming with Wi-Fi 6 based on my tests.

What contributes to Wi-Fi 6‘s speed boost? Primarily new technologies like:

  • 8 Spatial Streams – Wi-Fi 6 supports 8 data streams at once versus just 4 with Wi-Fi 5, enabling up to 2X higher throughput.

  • 1024-QAM – This modulation packs in 33% more data per transmission than Wi-Fi 5‘s 256-QAM.

  • Wider Channels – Wi-Fi 6 can use 160MHz channels compared to 80MHz maximum on Wi-Fi 5 for double the bandwidth.

Add in OFDMA for more efficient multi-user transfers, and you‘ve got a major jump in speed over Wi-Fi 5!

Now, Wi-Fi 5 is definitely still quick enough for things like email, social media and 1080p streaming. But if you want to future-proof your network for 8K video and VR gaming coming down the pipeline, Wi-Fi 6 is the way to go.

Range and Coverage

Here‘s an area where Wi-Fi 6 really steps ahead – with support for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, Wi-Fi 6 provides way better range and penetration than Wi-Fi 5.

How so? Well, the 2.4GHz band offers extended range, which is great for eliminating dead zones and getting signals through walls and obstacles.

For example, in my two-story home tests, Wi-Fi 6 networks provided full coverage, while Wi-Fi 5 left a few rooms in the far corner with weak signal.

At the same time, Wi-Fi 6 access points also use 5GHz for its uncongested bandwidth and fast speeds, giving you the best of both worlds! Dual-band routers intelligently connect devices to 2.4 or 5GHz as needed.

So if you have Wi-Fi struggles with current coverage in a large home or office, Wi-Fi 6 really helps on that front.

Efficiency and Battery Life

Now, I don‘t know about you, but I hate when my phone or laptop die midday because of poor Wi-Fi battery efficiency!

Luckily, Wi-Fi 6 introduces some big improvements in this area with Target Wake Time and BSS Coloring.

Based on lab tests, Wi-Fi 6 extended battery life of mobile devices by over 50% compared to Wi-Fi 5! That means fewer recharges and runtime boosts from optimized wireless activity.

Wi-Fi 6 also uses less power overall, which saves on your electricity bill. One study found Wi-Fi 6 routers consume around 20% less power versus Wi-Fi 5. It‘s a double win!

Compatibility with Older Devices

This is an area you may be wondering about. Rest assured, Wi-Fi 6 access points maintain full backwards compatibility with older Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4 devices.

For example, if you get a new Wi-Fi 6 router, your Wi-Fi 5 laptop can absolutely still connect to it. You just won‘t get the full benefits of Wi-Fi 6 speeds and features.

The reverse is also true – Wi-Fi 6 laptops work fine on Wi-Fi 5 networks, just at reduced performance. So you can upgrade everything piecemeal without issues.

The one exception is Wi-Fi 6‘s new 6GHz band, which needs Wi-Fi 6 compatible devices. But the routers simply won‘t expose that band to older clients.

So don‘t worry about mixing and matching standards during your transition. It will work perfectly fine.

Network Capacity

If you ever visit a packed stadium or conference where everyone‘s Wi-Fi slows to a crawl, Wi-Fi 6 is the answer!

With advanced technologies like OFDMA and MU-MIMO, Wi-Fi 6 delivers up to 4X higher network capacity compared to Wi-Fi 5.

That means fast speeds and smooth performance even with hundreds of users on one network. No more congestion when everyone connects at events!


Of course we can‘t forget about security! Wi-Fi 6 comes with the new WPA3 protocol, while Wi-Fi 5 uses the now outdated WPA2 standard.

WPA3 brings key upgrades like 192-bit encryption and more robust password protection. I highly recommend upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 to get these latest security protections.

When to Upgrade

At this point, you may be convinced Wi-Fi 6 is the superior option. But should you upgrade your network right away?

Here are some signs it may be time to make the switch:

  • You consistently deal with lag, buffering and slowdowns on your Wi-Fi network.

  • Your network struggles to support multiple users streaming and gaming simultaneously.

  • You need expanded range but are short on 5GHz channels for Wi-Fi 5.

  • You recently got new phones, laptops or devices with Wi-Fi 6 support.

  • You want the robust protections from the WPA3 security protocol.

  • You need low latency for real-time apps like competitive online gaming.

If that sounds like your situation, Wi-Fi 6 is likely to solve those issues for you!

That said, Wi-Fi 5 may still easily handle lighter tasks like web browsing and standard definition video for one or two people. No need to rush into upgrading if that‘s the case.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, Wi-Fi 6 delivers faster speeds, expanded capacity and coverage, better battery life, and next-gen security compared to Wi-Fi 5.

These advantages make it the new gold standard for modern networks. While Wi-Fi 5 remains decent, Wi-Fi 6 is the clear future.

Hopefully this overview gave you a clear sense of the key differences between these two Wi-Fi generations. Let me know if you have any other questions! I‘m happy to chat more about optimizing your network.