Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Should You Upgrade?
Seven reasons why you should switch to Wi-Fi 6
Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, even if you still have devices and equipment based on the Wi-Fi 5 standard (or older). Wi-Fi 6 has faster speeds, supports more devices, and includes cool new technology to make your home networking better than ever.
Actually, scratch that. You should upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 Extended (Wi-Fi 6E) if you want the fastest wireless speeds possible. But the spec is so new, there are only a handful of devices that support it—for now, anyway.
The bottom line: you should get away from Wi-Fi 5 and older versions as soon as possible, but do so at a pace that’s easy on your wallet. The old spec had its run. It’s done. Move on to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E when you have the means.
Need more convincing? We’ll give you seven reasons why you should take the Wi-Fi 6 plunge.
Jump to: Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: Speed | Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: Streams | Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: Battery | Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: Data management | Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: Security | Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6E: The 6 GHz band | Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: Other goodies | Our verdict | FAQ
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Speed
First, let’s get the technical mumbo-jumbo about speed and why it’s faster in Wi-Fi 6 out of the way.
Data is nothing more than ones and zeroes, but we can string these bits into symbols. For example, a symbol may contain a zero and a one, while a larger symbol may contain three zeroes and three ones (in no specific order). The bigger the symbol, the more data you can transmit.
A quadrature modulator adds these symbols to carrier radio waves (we explain why here). This step is called quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), and the resulting modulated waves leave through the antennas.
Did you know?
A baud rate represents the number of symbols transferred per second. The higher the number, the more data transfers across a medium.
Wi-Fi 5 uses 256-QAM at most, so each data symbol contains eight bits. The number represents the total possible different states of these symbols—from 0000 0000 to 1111 1111 with 256-QAM, for example.3
Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM, which translates to 10 bits per symbol and 1,024 possible combinations. This uptick means faster speeds because Wi-Fi 6 can push more data through the same channel as Wi-Fi 5.
Take a look:
|Channel width||Wi-Fi 5 (256-QAM)||Wi-Fi 6 (1024-QAM)|
|20 MHz||N/A||143.4 Mbps|
|40 MHz||200 Mbps||286.8 Mbps|
|80 MHz||433.3 Mbps||600 Mbps|
|160 MHz||866.7 Mbps||1,201 Mbps|
|Channel width||20 MHz|
|Wi-Fi 5 (256-QAM)||N/A|
|Wi-Fi 6 (1024-QAM)||143.4 Mbps|
|Channel width||40 MHz|
|Wi-Fi 5 (256-QAM)||200 Mbps|
|Wi-Fi 6 (1024-QAM)||286.8 Mbps|
|Channel width||80 MHz|
|Wi-Fi 5 (256-QAM)||433.3 Mbps|
|Wi-Fi 6 (1024-QAM)||600 Mbps|
|Channel width||160 MHz|
|Wi-Fi 5 (256-QAM)||866.7 Mbps|
|Wi-Fi 6 (1024-QAM)||1,201 Mbps|
The listed speeds represent the maximum you can get per stream. Most Wi-Fi devices support two streams, so a Wi-Fi 5 smartphone may have an 866 Mbps maximum, and a Wi-Fi 6 smartphone may have a 1,200 Mbps maximum.
Channel width plays a big part too. Modern smartphones generally support 80 MHz-wide channels and smaller ones, while laptops support 160 MHz-wide channels and smaller ones.
What about the 2.4 GHz band?
Wi-Fi 5 doesn’t apply to the 2.4 GHz band—it adds the 5 GHz band only. The 2.4 GHz band remains locked to the older Wi-Fi 4 spec, limiting speed to 150 Mbps per stream.
Wi-Fi 6 covers both bands. The 2.4 GHz band now has a theoretical rate of 300 Mbps per stream, double that of Wi-Fi 4. The real-world speed is drastically slower, plus you need a Wi-Fi 6 device to see the improved speeds from a Wi-Fi 6 router.
So, what’s a stream? Glad you asked because that’s our next selling point for Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Streams
Routers broadcast data in spatial streams, different signals using different spaces (to avoid collisions) within the same channel. They radiate through different antennas and bounce around the environment until your devices receive them (unless your device supports beamforming).
Most wireless devices have two transmit streams (Tx) and two receive streams (Rx), so we write this as 2×2. Desktops and laptop adapters can go higher, like 4×4. The more, the better.
Wi-Fi 5 Wave 1 products certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance support 3×3 configurations on the 5 GHz band but can only handle one device at a time. This method is called single-user, multiple input, multiple output (SU-MIMO).
Certified Wi-Fi 5 Wave 2 products support 4×4 configurations on the 5 GHz band and can support more than one client at a time—this method is called multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO).
We explain more about the differences between SU-MIMO and MU-MIMO here.
The Wi-Fi 5 standard published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) actually supports 8×8 configurations on the 5 GHz band, but the Wi-Fi Alliance certified Wave 1 and Wave 2 configurations due to complexity and cost.1
All that said, the Wi-Fi 6 standard supports 8×8 configurations on the 5 GHz band. They’re usually split into two 5 GHz connections: four streams using lower channels and four using higher ones. The Wi-Fi 6E spec puts four streams on the 5 GHz band and four on the 6 GHz band.
Of course, you also have up to a 4×4 configuration on the 2.4 GHz band, so when you see Wi-Fi 6 routers advertising 12 streams, it’s generally four on 2.4 GHz, four on 5 GHz-1, and four on 5 GHz-2.
Overall, the more streams you have, the better a router can provide the fastest speeds to multiple devices, and Wi-Fi 6 does exactly that.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Battery
A Wi-Fi 5 router broadcasts a message (beacon) to all connected devices, announcing that data is ready for transmission. Every connected device wakes up and waits for its turn to receive and send data. All this waiting throughout the day and night drains your device’s battery.
Wi-Fi 6 introduces a feature called Target Wait Time to improve battery performance. The router and each connected device establish a time to wake up and transmit data. This schedule saves battery power and frees up bandwidth previously used when devices stay awake and put on hold.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Data management
This feature has a rather deep rabbit hole, so we’ll try to keep to the surface.
Imagine a single TV channel delivering different programs simultaneously by splitting the one channel into subchannels. There are empty subchannels (guard bands) in between to prevent overlap. This method is called Frequency-Division Multiplexing.
Wi-Fi 5 uses Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM). It removes those empty subchannels and overlaps the used subchannels in a way so they don’t interfere with each other. For example, the router divides a 20 MHz channel into 64 subchannels and a 160 MHz channel into 512 subchannels.
The problem is, OFDM operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so a single device occupies the entire bandwidth during a single time frame. It may not use all that bandwidth, but the remaining space is still reserved for that device.
Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) in Wi-Fi 6 supports multiple simultaneous users by dividing a channel into even smaller subchannels called resource units (RUs). The smallest RU contains 26 subchannels in a single 20 MHz channel, supporting nine users.
With OFDMA, the router determines how it needs to allocate bandwidth to each user simultaneously in any given time frame, which improves the throughput for all connected users on that channel.4
Keep in mind that OFDMA is typically associated with low-bandwidth data, like web browsing, emails, and IoT devices. High-bandwidth data uses spatial streams delivered through a different channel.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Security
The Wi-Fi Alliance introduced Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) in 2003 as a replacement for the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security protocol. The latest version included with Wi-Fi 6, WPA3, first appeared in 2018 with significant improvements over WPA and WPA 2.5 Here’s a list of highlights:
- Allows easy-to-remember passwords
- Enables password sharing via NFC and QR codes
- Uses GCMP-256 encryption
- Protects against offline password guessing
- Protects against data decryption if a password is compromised
- Creates a new key for each device
- Enables a more secure router-device handshake
Wi-Fi 5 supports WPA and WPA2 only.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6E: The 6 GHz band
The new 6 GHz band is the big selling point with Wi-Fi 6E, but we don’t insist you bypass Wi-Fi 6 altogether. The 6 GHz band is a new frontier, like 5 GHz once was, offering less interference and better speeds. You still get the 1,200 Mbps max per stream like vanilla Wi-Fi 6, but you have a better chance of hitting that mark than you would on 5 GHz.
Why? The two 160 MHz Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) channels on the 5 GHz band are shared with other services that take precedence over your Wi-Fi signal, like radar. You see slower than expected speeds, constant disconnections, or no connection at all if you live within reach of an airport, for example.6
The new 6 GHz band has seven new 160 MHz channels (or 14 new 80 MHz channels). The space is exclusive to Wi-Fi, so there’s no sharing airspace with radar and other disrupting equipment stationed miles away.
If you’re ready to invest in Wi-Fi 6E, take a look at our list of router recommendations below.
Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Other goodies
There are two other features you can’t get in Wi-Fi 5: BSS Coloring and Dynamic Fragmentation.
Basic Service Set (BSS) Coloring solves an interference issue when multiple networks are close to each other and use the same channel.
With Wi-Fi 5, there is no way to distinguish chatter between different networks on the same channel. When your network detects chatter from another network, your devices go quiet until the chattering stops.
Wi-Fi 6 adds an identifier, so your devices only go quiet when another device on your network speaks, not those heard from your neighbor’s network.
Dynamic Fragmentation in Wi-Fi 6 allows the router to fill RUs with data packets of any size, so there’s no wasted bandwidth. Wi-Fi 5 uses static fragmentation, meaning all data packet fragments have the same size.
Our verdict: Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 when you can
Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 if you still use Wi-Fi 5 or older equipment and devices. You get gigabit wireless speeds in some cases, better multi-device support, better security, and better battery longevity.
If you want the fastest Wi-Fi speeds to date, option for Wi-Fi 6E instead. But it’s a newer technology, so device selection is slimmer for now.
- Huawei, “What Are 802.11ac and 802.11ac Wave 2.” Accessed August 8, 2022.
- Qualcomm, “MWC 2022: Qualcomm FastConnect 7800 Makes Wi-Fi 7 and Next-gen Bluetooth Audio a Reality,” February 27, 2022. Accessed August 10, 2022.
- Wikipedia, “IEEE 802.11ac-2013.” Accessed August 10, 2022.
- Cisco, “What Is OFDMA?” Accessed August 10, 2022.
- Wi-Fi Alliance, ”Security.” Accessed August 10, 2022.
- Wi-Fi Alliance, “What Is Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS)?” Accessed August 10, 2022.
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Author - Kevin Parrish
Kevin Parrish has more than a decade of experience working as a writer, editor, and product tester. He began writing about computer hardware and soon branched out to other devices and services such as networking equipment, phones and tablets, game consoles, and other internet-connected devices. His work has appeared in Tom’s Hardware, Tom's Guide, Maximum PC, Digital Trends, Android Authority, How-To Geek, Lifewire, and others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on internet security.
Editor - Rebecca Lee Armstrong
Rebecca Lee Armstrong has more than six years of experience writing about tech and the internet, with a specialty in hands-on testing. She started writing tech product and service reviews while finishing her BFA in creative writing at the University of Evansville and has found her niche writing about home networking, routers, and internet access at HighSpeedInternet.com. Her work has also been featured on Top Ten Reviews, MacSources, Windows Central, Android Central, Best Company, TechnoFAQ, and iMore.