Why It's Time to Buy a WiFi 6 Router
Affordable models from Asus, Linksys, TP-Link, and others can move data faster and handle more devices in your home
A year ago, consumers didn’t need to go out of their way to upgrade to a WiFi 6 router, which boasts faster speeds and better coverage than previous WiFi routers.
But this year is different. "If you're going to buy a router now, it should be WiFi 6," says Richard Fisco, who oversees electronics testing at Consumer Reports.
What changed? For one thing, availability.
A year ago, WiFi 6 routers were relatively rare and expensive, aimed mostly at demanding users such as gamers. But after the Consumer Electronics Show in January, manufacturers including Asus, Linksys, and TP-Link expanded their WiFi 6 router lineups.
More routers were released and at cheaper prices, and they easily can be found at retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, and Target.
That breadth of WiFi 6 choices is reflected in our ratings.
A year ago, we had a grand total of one WiFi 6 router in our ratings: the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 (RAX80).
Today, that number has grown to 13. The most expensive of them costs more than $400. But you can also find WiFi 6 routers in our ratings for around $200, along with a less expensive options, especially during holiday sales.
The Technical Stuff
WiFi 6 is the consumer-friendly term for 802.11ax, the latest version of the 802.11 wireless networking standard. The wireless industry decided a name change was needed because “802.11ax” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Thus, WiFi 6 is the name you’ll see advertised online and in stores.
Consumer Reports still uses the formal 802.11ax term in our ratings when talking about WiFi 6.
And if you’re wondering what happened to the older WiFi standards 802.11ac (which debuted in 2013) and 802.11n (2008), those were retroactively renamed WiFi 5 and WiFi 4, respectively. WiFi 4 routers have all but vanished, but you can still find brand-new WiFi 5 routers on store shelves—and for well under $100 in some cases.
To be clear, you can unwrap a WiFi-5 router fresh from the store right now and it will work with all the new WiFi 6 gadgets you purchase in the next few years. The different generations of WiFi devices are all designed to communicate with each other.
But the new standard can transfer much more data faster, and manage it all across more devices.
“You have a much bigger bucket of data, and you can deliver that data to a lot of different devices all at the same time," says Jesse Burke, a staff marketing manager at Qualcomm, which produces WiFi 6 chipsets used in devices like laptops and smartphones.
As for pure data transfer, WiFi 6 tops out at 10 gigabits per second compared with WiFi 5’s 7 gigabits per second. (You’re unlikely to see those sorts of speeds in the real world for a bunch of reasons.)
The new routers' ability to handle lots of simultaneous connections is important now that our homes have more WiFi gadgets, including smart TVs, gaming consoles, and laptops as well as internet-connected thermostats, security cameras, and speakers.
WiFi performance has become more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people working or attending school from home.
“In the past, investing a couple hundred dollars in a new router was oftentimes predicated on leisure activities,” Burke says. “But now the things that we do with our networks are much more mission critical, whether that’s the ability to do your job successfully, learn remotely, or simply maintain the connections and relationships in your life.”
Another big advantage of WiFi 6 routers is that they're the first to have built-in support for WPA3, the latest wireless encryption standard, which makes it harder for hackers to access your private data. Device manufacturers also may provide security updates for these routers longer than for WiFi 5 routers.
Will All Your Devices Work With WiFi 6?
WiFi 6 routers are compatible with all devices dating back to the early 2000s, meaning that your old laptop will be able to connect to the internet without interruption.
In fact, because WiFi 6 routers are more efficient, your older devices may see improved performance, especially as you add more WiFi 6 devices to the mix.
“Say you replace your old smartphone with a new, WiFi 6-certified smartphone,” says Qualcomm’s Burke. “That device is going to get off the air more quickly, consuming just the amount of airtime it needs,” thereby freeing up space for your older devices.
And according to Burke, a “vast majority” of devices being sold in the next few years—including PCs, smartphones, tablets and TVs—will be WiFi 6-certified.
Many may already be on your holiday shopping list this year. They include the new iPhones (but not, curiously, the new iPad Air laptop), Samsung’s Galaxy S20 and Note 20, new laptops from Dell and HP, and the Sony PlayStation 5—though not, oddly, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X video game console.
“The mass-market proliferation of WiFi 6 is happening very, very fast,” Burke says.