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Consumers shopping for a wireless router this year will be hearing a lot about WiFi 6, a new standard that promises faster speeds, better coverage, and the ability to accommodate an ever-expanding fleet of connected devices.

Once known as 802.11ax, the improved wireless technology will appear this month in the first router models of 2019—but under the new shopper-friendly WiFi 6 name.

“Users need an easier way to identify which flavor of WiFi meets their expectations,” says Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing at the trade group WiFi Alliance, which oversees the standard and certifies devices as WiFi-compliant. “This simple naming scheme helps with that.”

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Going forward, the 802.11ac standard that debuted in 2013 will be known as WiFi 5 and the 802.11n standard of 2008 as WiFi 4.

WiFi 6 promises faster download speeds than WiFi 5 (10 gigabits per second vs. 7 gigabits per second), which means it will take less time to download a 4K movie from iTunes to your Apple TV. But it's designed to make dealing with WiFi less of a hassle for you, too.

According to the WiFi Alliance, the benefits include expanded range in your wireless network, a reduction in connection dropouts (particularly in dense environments like crowded apartment buildings), and enhanced security for your connected devices thanks to Day One support for WPA3, the latest wireless encryption standard.

The Alliance claims that WiFi 6's efficiency improvements can even reduce the battery consumption in your devices by waking them less often.

We'll know more about the veracity of those claims when we get the first WiFi 6-compatible routers into our labs to test their performance. One such router, the TP-Link Archer AX11000 (shown below), is due in stores in just a few weeks.

In the meantime, here are the answers to early questions about WiFi 6.

Billed as a gaming router, the WiFi 6-compatible TP-Link Archer AX11000 will arrive in stores this month, priced at $450.
Photo: TP-Link

Do I Need a New Router to Get WiFi 6?

Yes, in order to create a WiFi 6 network in your home you'll need a new router. Over the next few months companies like Asus, Linksys, Netgear, and TP-Link will release WiFi 6 routers at prices ranging from about $130 for the TP-Link Archer AX1800 to about $400 for higher-end models.

The higher-end models—see the Asus RT-AX88U, $350, in the photo below—typically add extra features like adaptive QoS, which helps improve network performance when you're playing online games like "Fortnite."

The Asus RT-AX88U—also tailored to gamers—can be purchased now for $350.
Photo: Asus

Will My Current Devices Work With WiFi 6?

According to the WiFi Alliance, the new standard is compatible with devices dating back to the early 2000s. So you don't have to toss out products designed for WiFi 4 and WiFi 5.

But don't expect your old laptop or tablet to get a sudden leap in performance. Even though the device will be able to connect to the network, it won't necessarily perform faster or have longer range.

To experience the tech's new benefits, products must be WiFi 6-compliant.

So Why All the Buzz?

As we mentioned earlier, the technology is designed to handle WiFi traffic from myriad devices with fewer hiccups along the way.

“It’s about improving the aggregate network performance rather than merely single-device performance,” says Robinson of the WiFi Alliance.

According to a major report, the average household will have about 50 connected devices by 2022, up from around 25 today, as consumers add smart speakerssmart door lockssmart thermostats, video doorbells, and other products to their wireless networks.

WiFi 6 can support eight simultaneous device connections, up from WiFi 5's four, making it possible for your smart TV and your daughter's laptop to stream hi-res video as your spouse takes a video call on a tablet and your son enters hour three of his nightly "Fortnite" session—all while your connected speaker is streaming music in the den.

Should You Upgrade Right Away?

If you've purchased a router in the last few years and you're happy with it, there's no reason to ditch it right now, especially if you don't plan to load up on other WiFi-6-compatible products.

But if you’re using a 10-year-old router that no longer receives security updates, it's not a bad idea to start shopping around.

That doesn't mean you have to spring for a WiFi 6 router, though. Why not look for a good deal on a WiFi 5 router instead?

“If you still have a WiFi 4 router but your smartphone, TV, and laptop all support WiFi 5, get a WiFi 5 router instead,” says Richard Fisco, who oversees router testing for Consumer Reports. “I would be very comfortable saying you’re good for five years—probably more.”

So if you don't plan to tax your wireless network with legions of smart home devices, go ahead and take the savings.