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(Pocket-lint) - We've come a long way from the early wireless routers we saw nearly 20 years 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. 

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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'll buy from now on
  • 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 when Wi-Fi 6 becomes more common.

Essentially, the names will be 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 6.

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

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

What Wi-Fi 6 promises

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 in 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 eight or 12 streams.

What Wi-Fi 6 products are available?

Wi-Fi 6 is quickly appearing in more and more products.  Initially, it was limited to high-end routers from the usual suspects - Netgear, TP-Link, Asus and D-Link but has since expanded to many more products. 

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

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

Confusion from older packaging may well still be a problem though. For example, some marketing materials promoting 802.11ac networking gear will surely 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.

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Writing by Dan Grabham. Originally published on 5 October 2018.