Every WIRED reader is familiar with that constant question: Wait for new technology, or buy now? No matter how good a gadget is, there will almost certainly be something better arriving soon. Manufacturers work out the kinks and prices fall. Figuring out which new technologies are worth the early adopter tax, and which to pass on until they improve, is a real challenge.
Even shopping for something as utilitarian as a Wi-Fi router is a minefield. Wi-Fi 6 is an easy minimum recommendation for most folks right now. But perhaps you are eyeing the enhanced speed and performance of the newly opened 6-GHz band. You may be considering a Wi-Fi 6E system, but with Wi-Fi 7 on the horizon, should you wait?
If you need a better understanding of the differences, we have guides on Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 7 that dig into the details. But for our purposes here, we are looking at the opening up of the 6-GHz band. Until Wi-Fi 6E came along, we relied upon the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands for all our Wi-Fi needs. Wi-Fi 6E opened up the 6-GHz spectrum for the first time, but there are restrictions in place that limit its performance.
We spoke to Kevin Robinson, CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance, to find out more. When the FCC gave permission to use the unlicensed 6-GHz band for Wi-Fi, it had concerns about potential interference for current license holders. Utilities and emergency services rely on microwave links and other wireless connections on the 6-GHz band for things like power grid operations. It is also used for satellite link communications, wireless backhaul for carriers, and by some broadcasters. To mitigate those concerns, the FCC specified that Wi-Fi 6E systems would be limited to low-power indoor operation. (Note that these rules vary from country to country, depending on the body in charge.)
By restricting power for Wi-Fi 6E systems, the short range of the 6-GHz band is ensured, essentially restricting it to indoor use. The signal is blocked by walls, so there’s very little risk of any interference for incumbents. The problem is that this power restriction effectively curtails the 6-GHz band.
We have tested several Wi-Fi 6E routers and mesh systems, and while they allow for some impressively fast and stable connections, the range of the 6-GHz band is very limited. Expect lightning-fast connections in the same room as the router, but move next door or upstairs and they drop off sharply or hand you over to the 5-GHz band.
Despite the limitations, Wi-Fi 6E does offer benefits over Wi-Fi 6, but only in certain scenarios. Most folks don’t have many devices that can connect on the 6-GHz band. The current list includes recent Samsung Galaxy S phones and Google Pixels, but not Apple’s iPhones, though Apple has added 6E support to the most recent MacBook Pros and iPad Pros. There’s also no 6E support in the latest consoles, and it’s still scarce in laptops and computers outside the latest top-of-the-line models.
If you go for a single Wi-Fi 6E router, remember that you can only take advantage of the 6-GHz band when your connected devices support 6-GHz and are within range. For example, you have the router in your home office and a smartphone and laptop that support Wi-Fi 6E. The danger with a tri-band router is that you rarely have anything connected to the 6-GHz band. For most people, a tri-band system with one 2.4-GHz and two 5-GHz bands will work just as well, and probably better, than a system with a 2.4-GHz, 5-GHz, and 6-GHz band.
Most Wi-Fi 6E mesh systems currently use the 6-GHz band for backhaul (sending traffic back and forth from router to node), but you must place them relatively close together, ideally with line of sight to each other (imagine forming a Wi-Fi spine for your home). This feels counterintuitive for a mesh system and will not work well for folks with larger properties. But done right, this setup leaves the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands completely free for your devices. To get the most from mesh systems that allow devices to connect on the 6-GHz band, you must link them with Ethernet cables for wired backhaul.
You might feel that buying a Wi-Fi 6E system today covers you for the next few years, and that’s true to an extent. But Wi-Fi 7 is not that far away, and if you want to enjoy the substantial benefits it promises, you will need to upgrade everything again. Wi-Fi 7 requires new hardware in both routers and your devices.
Wi-Fi 7 will use the same three bands (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz) as 6E, so you may wonder what the big deal is. Well, there are a few reasons that Wi-Fi 7 will be better than its predecessor. Firstly, there’s the increase from 160-megahertz channels to 320-megahertz channels as the maximum channel width. That gets you double the throughput, with theoretical data rates of roughly 30 gigabits per second and beyond.
With all the Wi-Fi standards up to and including 6E, your device connects to a single band. At close range it might connect to 6 GHz, then hand off to 5 GHz as you move away from the router, and eventually switch to 2.4 GHz as you move farther off. (Some routers handle this better than others.) Wi-Fi 7 boasts multilink operation, allowing devices to connect on multiple bands simultaneously. It can aggregate channels to send data across both at the same time, or reduce latency by sending packets on whichever opens up first.
The final piece of the puzzle is the availability of standard power. Wi-Fi 7 routers will be allowed to use more power to boost that 6-GHz signal, expanding its range significantly. And they can do this because of automated frequency coordination (AFC). AFC systems make calculations based on device location. They cross-reference a database of microwave links in the area to tell the router which channels are available, to avoid interfering with incumbents. Put all that together, and you get leaps in speed, stability, and range.
The official certification process from the Wi-Fi Alliance could be ready before the end of the year. Robinson says it went into the technical development phase in June 2022, and it typically takes 18 to 24 months. But with TP-Link taking preorders on Wi-Fi 7 systems already, and many manufacturers announcing new lines, the first precertified routers will land within months. Of course, they will be very expensive at first, and there won’t be many devices that can take advantage of them, but, like previous versions, Wi-Fi 7 will be backwards-compatible.
All that is to say, if you need a new router now, you need it now. But temper your expectations about Wi-Fi 6E. For many people, spending a little less now, perhaps on a Wi-Fi 6 system, skipping Wi-Fi 6E, and saving to upgrade within the next couple of years as Wi-Fi 7 rolls out more widely is probably the better plan.