Mobile carriers have spent millions touting the benefits of 5G over the past several years. Their bragging makes it easy to forget that most devices spend a significant amount of their time connected to Wi-Fi. This is true even of smartphones and, of course, absolutely true of your PC.
Yet people pay relatively little attention to their Wi-Fi network. Most tuck the router provided by the ISP in a corner and call it a day. That’s a mistake. Upgrading your home Wi-Fi can make every internet-connected device in your home more enjoyable to use.
Wi-Fi deserves your attention. Here’s what you need to know.
Wi-Fi 6 is a big upgrade
Wi-Fi 6, less frequently referred to as 802.11ax, is the latest Wi-Fi standard. Wi-Fi 6 routers have technically been available since 2019 but, as usual, the technology did not immediately arrive in budget routers. Odds are you don’t have a Wi-Fi 6 router unless you purchased a router in 2021. The same is true if your router is provided by your ISP.
It’s an important upgrade. Wi-Fi 5 is fine, but Wi-Fi 6 improves on it by offering new radio channels that provide more bandwidth. Wi-Fi 6 also uses a pair of technologies, MU-MIMO and OFDMA, to improve a router’s ability to manage traffic between devices.
The difference in speeds can be dramatic. The TP-Link Archer A7 can deliver speeds up to 450Mbps in my testing. The TP-Link Archer AX50, a basic Wi-Fi 6 router, can push speeds up to 680Mbps in the same situation—a 50 percent improvement.
These figures are nowhere near the maximum potential performance of Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a far more useful comparison than quoting theoretical bandwidth. Most people buy budget routers. Luckily, choosing a budget Wi-Fi 6 model over a budget Wi-Fi 5 model still nets a big gain in Wi-Fi performance.
If you happen to have an even older Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11n) router, well, you’re going to be amazed at the improvement. Wi-Fi 4’s maximum theoretical bandwidth to a single device is 300Mbps, but in real-world use, PCs connected over Wi-Fi 4 are lucky to beat 100Mbps. A direct upgrade from Wi-Fi 4 to Wi-Fi 6 is like upgrading from Intel integrated graphics to an Nvidia RTX 3060.
Even this understates the Wi-Fi 6 router’s advantage because it retains an advantage at range and in trouble spots. The Wi-Fi 5 router failed to deliver acceptable Wi-Fi at the far corner of my home and didn’t provide an acceptable signal to a detached office in my backyard. The Wi-Fi 6 router had no trouble reaching these spots.
In fact, I’d say reliability is where Wi-Fi 6 truly shines. I’ve tested a number of additional Wi-Fi 6 routers, including models from Linksys, Netgear, and TP-Link. All delivered remarkably consistent performance. Speeds several rooms away from the router top 300Mbps with all Wi-Fi 6 routers I’ve tested. None of the Wi-Fi 6 routers I’ve tested had trouble providing a strong signal to devices in every room of my house or in the detached office.
Time to ditch Ethernet?
I mentioned that Wi-Fi 6 is the latest Wi-Fi standard. This is actually half true. Wi-Fi 6 recently received an upgrade, Wi-Fi 6E, that can deliver even better performance.
Wi-Fi 6E is mostly the same as Wi-Fi 6 but adds a new, 6GHz wireless band. If you buy a router with Wi-Fi 6E, and you’re using a Wi-Fi 6E-compatible device, it will appear in the list of available Wi-Fi networks alongside the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands you’re used to seeing.
This new band has a very high frequency that provides very high bandwidth, but can have trouble at long range. This has proven true in my testing.
A Netgear RAXE500 router connected to a Samsung S21 Ultra hit Wi-Fi speeds up to 827Mbps, and exceeded 780Mbps several rooms away. In a detached office, however, the 6GHz band was slightly slower than 2.4GHz.
Speeds this high can replace Ethernet in most homes. I have a Gigabit internet connection which, in practice, tends to achieve about 900Mbps when connected to a PC over Ethernet. A Wi-Fi connection of 827Mbps is extremely close.
Okay, faster Wi-Fi is possible. What router do you need?
2021 is an excellent time to buy a new Wi-Fi router. Prices have come down and routers, unlike some consumer electronics, are not difficult to find in stock.
If you want to go all-in, I’d recommend a Wi-Fi 6E router like the $600 Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500. It’s a steep increase in price, but if you’re going high-end, you should go Wi-Fi 6E. The performance gain is real and Wi-Fi 6E devices will become common over the next two years.
How to get great Wi-Fi on your PC
Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are backwards compatible. This means a Wi-Fi 6E router can connect to devices that only support older standards and vice-versa.
However, performance will be constrained to the slowest standard between the two. Connect a Wi-Fi 5 laptop to a Wi-Fi 6E router, for example, and you’ll still be seeing Wi-Fi 5 speeds.
Wi-Fi 6 support is common among modern PCs but not guaranteed among budget systems. If you buy a new Dell Inspiron 3000 laptop, for example, you could end up with an older Wi-Fi 5 wireless adapter. The same is true of most laptops and desktop PCs sold on Amazon for $500 or less.
PCs that ship with Wi-Fi 6 support currently use Intel AX200/201 or Intel Killer Wi-FI AX1650 adapters (this includes AMD Ryzen laptops). Both work well. The Intel Killer Wi-Fi AX1650 adapter does tend to hit higher speeds, especially at range, so it’s worthwhile when available.
Can you upgrade your PC to Wi-Fi 6?
Upgrading a PC with Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6 is harder than you might hope.
Wi-Fi 6 USB adapters exist, but they’re rather expensive and can be hard to find in stock. D-Link’s Wi-Fi 6 USB adapter sells for $70 on Amazon, about three times more than a typical Wi-Fi 5 USB adapter. I’ve also read that this D-Link model uses a Realtek Wi-Fi adapter that does not support the fastest wireless channels available to Wi-Fi 6, so it may not perform as well as you’d hope.
Desktops have more choice in adapter upgrades and typically pay less. MSI’s internal Wi-Fi 6 adapter is about $40. Most desktop adapters use the same Intel wireless adapters found in laptops, which perform well, and have an external antenna that can be moved to a better position. Installing an internal adapter means you’ll have to open your PC’s case, however, and may void your warranty.
It’s possible to replace the internal Wi-Fi adapter on many PC laptops. Wi-Fi adapters often plug in to a laptop’s motherboard and can be replaced. This is a difficult install for most people, though, and some laptops are not designed to be opened. As with a desktop, this upgrade may void your warranty.
Can you upgrade your PC to Wi-Fi 6E?
Wi-Fi 6E support is only beginning to come to PCs. Intel’s AX210 is arriving in laptops such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4. Intel has also announced a Killer Wi-Fi AX1675E adapter, though it is not in any currently available machine. I expect these adapters will be common in high-end PCs by the summer of 2022.
The Intel AX210 is also starting to hit stores in the form of internal laptop and desktop wireless adapters. They’re not expensive, though availability seems rather limited. Unfortunately, USB adapters with support for Wi-Fi 6E are not yet available.
It’s a great time to buy better Wi-Fi
A new Wi-Fi router is by far the best bang-for-your-buck upgrade in computing right now. $200 won’t even buy you a CPU or GPU with performance that was cutting-edge three years ago. Spend that on a router, however, and you’ll be set for years. If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge, you might be able to squeeze some extra performance from your Wi-Fi network with some simple router tweaks or by adding a range extender.