Pocket-lint is supported by its readers. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

(Pocket-lint) - We've come a long way from the early wireless routers introduced decades ago. Wi-Fi has gone from being high technology to a commodity that's almost everywhere.

We're now seeing a new generation of Wi-Fi devices launched. The different flavours of Wi-Fi have long had complicated names but, in an attempt to remove confusion, the Wi-Fi Alliance has renamed the current, past and next-generation versions of Wi-Fi. 

We'll explain what’s happening and why it'll be important for future wireless devices you'll have in your home. 



Why we've got new names for Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi standards you use in your home have been renamed and, as we mentioned, there’s a new name for the most recent Wi-Fi standard (802.11ax), which is called Wi-Fi 6.

Before now, wireless standards have been referred to a technical name - the name they were originally given by the IEEE, which is the organisation that defines networking standards.

Now the following will be used:

  • Wi-Fi 6 means 802.11ax technology - the new generation of Wi-Fi, present in many routers you can buy today
  • Wi-Fi 5 means 802.11ac technology - effectively the previous generation
  • Wi-Fi 4 means 802.11n technology - many people will have networking gear based on 802.11n, but it was replaced by 802.11ac in many new routers from 2013 on.

It's worth noting that all the wireless standards referred to here are backwards compatible. So your devices won't suddenly stop working as Wi-Fi 6 becomes more common.

Essentially, the names are now easier to understand. If you have a new router from the last couple of years, chances are it will support 802.11ac and older standards including 802.11n. or, in the new nomenclature, it will support Wi-Fi 5 and 4.

There are also new graphics to go with the three new names:

Wi-FI Alliance What Are Wi-fi 5 And Wi-fi 6 Why Wi-fi Is Introducing Catchy Names For Different Standards image 2

What Wi-Fi 6 provides

Wi-Fi 6 (or 802.11ax) offers a speed improvement of around 30 per cent. But the changes are more wide-reaching than just a headline number. 

Latency is also cut significantly and there's a change to the way this version of Wi-Fi handles multiple devices. That change means it can deliver a lot more data to each device simultaneously. 

And yes, that does mean that places where you have vast numbers of devices - like exhibitions, press conferences, stadiums and similar - should get more robust networks in future.

Wi-Fi 6 routers have different streams of wireless connectivity, with different products capable of dealing with various amounts of connected devices as a result (essentially you can think of these as 'pipes' with capacity for a set amount of data). The best have 8 or 12 streams.

What about Wi-Fi 6E?

As the name suggests, Wi-Fi 6E is still a part of the Wi-Fi 6 standard, but it has one key difference. Wi-Fi 6E can use the 6GHz band, whereas regular Wi-Fi 6 is restricted to the traditional 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands.

As with all the other Wi-Fi standards, 6E is backwards compatible with everything else, but if you want to use the 6GHz band, you'll need a 6E compatible device along with a 6E compatible access point.

The advantage of using the 6GHz band is that it's less crowded. The Wi-Fi Alliance says that Wi-FI 6E allows for "14 additional 80 MHz channels and 7 additional 160 MHz channels."

In the real world, this means better performance in areas with congested radio bands, like city apartment blocks, offices and convention centres.

Wi-Fi 6E devices took a little longer to hit the shelves than standard Wi-Fi 6 products, as the use of the 6GHz band required regulatory approval. In the US, at least, this was granted on April 23 2020.

Best laptop 2022: Top budget and premium notebooks for professionals, students and casual users

What Wi-Fi 6 products are available?

Initially, it was limited to high-end routers from the usual suspects - Netgear, TP-Link, Asus and D-Link but has since expanded to cover the majority of networking equipment being released today. 

Netgear What Are Wi-fi 5 And Wi-fi 6 Why Wi-fi Is Introducing Catchy Names For Different Standards image 3

Wi-Fi 6 and 6E have also been included in many recent mesh network systems. Meaning you can not only get faster and more reliable speeds but better coverage in your home too.

Of course, this extends to modern smartphones, laptops and high-end smart home products, too. In 2022, it's unusual to find a brand new phone or laptop that doesn't have Wi-Fi 6 support.

Confusion from older packaging is still a small problem though. For example, some marketing materials promoting 802.11ac networking gear will still call it that rather than Wi-Fi 5, simply because spec sheets, products and packaging are already out there and won't necessarily be updated for the new names.


Writing by Dan Grabham. Editing by Luke Baker.
Sections Laptops