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While wireless standards Understanding the Most Common Wi-Fi Standards Understanding the Most Common Wi-Fi Standards Wi-Fi can be a bit confusing because there are a handful of different standards being used. Here's what you need to know. Read More lack a logical progression in terms of letters, the technology advancements under the hood is notable, and with each new release we get one step closer to painless connectivity.

If you’ve bought a wireless router in the last year or so, there’s a good chance it uses the AC standard. Prior to that, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE or IEEE-SA) had run through a number of additional letter-based standards that tried to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical router-associated jargon.

1997 saw the release of the 802.11 standard, and since then (June 7th, if you’re curious), we’ve basically exhausted can after can of alphabet soup looking for the next best thing. Here’s a quick timeline:

  • a (1999)
  • b (1999)
  • g (2003)
  • n (2009)
  • ac (2013)

So What Do These Letters Mean?

The letters don’t mean much of anything, but the importance of them lies within the standard they represent.

Each standard improves upon previous editions by adopting new technologies and adapting previous technologies in order to improve speed, connectivity, and ease of use amongst consumers. For example, when the IEEE approved the AC standard, and jumped from “n” to “ac” we dropped the crowded 2.4GHz spectrum and went fully to the 5GHz frequency for less signal interference Wireless Feng Shui: How to Optimize Your House For Best Wi-Fi Reception Wireless Feng Shui: How to Optimize Your House For Best Wi-Fi Reception Setting up a Wi-Fi network should be an easy prospect, shouldn't it? I mean, a house is a closed-in box, and you'd think when you place a device that transmits wireless signals in all directions... Read More from competing devices, like cordless phones.

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We also saw the addition of extra channels, MIMO streams, and an overall improvement in connectivity (like backwards compatibility) and additional range.

What Are the Benefits of the AC Standard?

More Spectral Bandwidth

Spectral bandwidth, in its most simplified form, is the amount of data you can transmit over a channel in a single or defined range of frequencies.

It’s probably best to think of this as liquid moving through a straw: the thicker the straw, the more liquid moves through it in the same amount of time. Spectrum bandwidth does the same thing for your data. While the actual spectrum is invisible, the data travels through a specific channel in the same way liquid moves through a straw. Widening the spectrum allows more data to be transmitted.

If you’re currently using 802.11n, you’re using 4 spatial streams (4 x 4 MIMO – or – multiple input, multiple output) and a channel width of 40MHz (or 20MHz if connecting to some older devices). Comparatively, 802.11ac can use 8 spatial streams at 80MHz – which can also be combined to make 160MHz channels.

So this means the AC standard has a maximum spectral bandwidth Monitor Your Network and Watch Your Bandwidth With NetworkMiner Monitor Your Network and Watch Your Bandwidth With NetworkMiner When your Internet connection slows down to slow motion, it's not always the ISP's fault. The culprit could be in your house! Let's see how you can identify it. Read More of 8 x 160MHz as opposed to the 4 x 40MHz of the N standard.

Better Modulation

802.11ac also improved the modulation on the spectrum by introducing 256-QAM modulation (as opposed to 64-QAM in 802.11n). What this means to you is an increase in the number of signals broadcast over the same frequency (256 versus 64). With QAM, the signal beaming from your router to your laptop or mobile device is not only more efficient, but with a jump from 64 to 256-QAM, it also allows for increased data rate transmission by carrying more bits of information per symbol (an integer number of transmitted bits).

Put simply, you can transfer data from your router to your device quicker than ever due to a more efficient way in which the data is carried.

Compatibility

It’s rare that wireless standards play nice with one another, so the backwards compatibility of the AC standard is a huge plus. Unlike past standards, 802.11ac is backwards-compatible with devices currently made to use the B, G, or N standard, meaning your existing devices should still work like a charm after you inevitably make the upgrade.

While it’s compatible with older devices, you won’t get the full benefit of owning an AC router unless it’s used to connect an AC-compatible device.

Increased Range

The most notable benefit to speed is coming straight from the switch to 5GHz. In your average neighborhood, the 2.4GHz spectrum is so full of signal noise, it often proves to be a significant detriment to a reliable and uninterrupted wireless signal.

Everything from cordless phones to home routers uses 2.4GHz which could leave you with a lot of competition in your local airspace. 5GHz, on the other hand, is significantly quieter and offers fewer opportunities for competition with everyone else on your block.

While dual-band routers How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes Using a router that supports the dual-band standard can significantly boost your Wi-Fi speeds in many circumstances. Read More still make use of the 2.4GHz channel, the switch to 5GHz on the AC standard gives you additional options to split your devices into one of two available spectrums to improve household connectivity.

The importance of this in terms of range and speed can’t be understated. Using dual- or tri-band routers (see below for recommendations) allows you to separate devices in order to free up space on crowded spectrums. With the number of connected devices in each home on the increase, this alone could make a significant difference in the quality of your Wi-Fi signal.

Additionally, “beamforming” makes up the second key factor for enhanced range in the AC standard. Traditionally, Wi-Fi transmitted an omnidirectional signal that reached all devices as well as a lot of dead space between them. Beamforming allows the router to locate your devices and send a concentrated signal in their direction which helps to intensify signal quality by amplifying the signal where it’s needed as opposed to just broadcasting it to every corner of your home.

beamDiagrams

Better Maximum Speeds

Here’s the point of caution when chasing new router standards. Each standard touts significantly higher max speeds than its predecessor. While speed increases are an inevitably when improving router technology, it’s important to note that max speeds are “theoretical maximums,” meaning, you’ll never experience them in real life.

When testing for theoretical maximums, the conditions of the test are controlled in a lab environment. Your home, on the other hand, doesn’t offer the same sort of control as you compete with neighbors for airspace and ISPs for just about everything else. Your home isn’t the ideal environment, but you can improve speed from the router 10 Ways To Improve The Speed of Your Current Router 10 Ways To Improve The Speed of Your Current Router Here are a few simple router tweaks that could make a world of difference on your home Wi-Fi network. Read More .

Okay, now that we’ve covered that, the speeds offered by AC routers are indeed faster. While manufacturers tout gigabit speed, the truth is the fastest real world speeds are topping out around 720Mbps, so while the AC standard is indeed three times faster than N, it’s just at a lower scale. Real world number suggest that this is closer to 720Mbps for AC as opposed to 240Mbps for N. Don’t be fooled. It’s faster, but the crazy speeds suggested on the box are nowhere close to reality.

3Speed

Is it Worth Upgrading?

Yes, a million times over, yes. The performance upgrade offered by a router using the AC technology is significant, and the prices are very reasonable. You can still snag a good router What You Need To Know When Buying A WiFi Router For Your Home What You Need To Know When Buying A WiFi Router For Your Home Many people find that they don’t know much about routers when it comes time to buy one. There’s no shame in that. Consumers usually don’t bother to learn much about them because we don’t often... Read More with AC standard capability for under $150, and it’s a worthy investment for anyone that takes Internet performance seriously.

While you’re upgrading, make sure your new router is a dual- or tri-band model Are Tri-Band Wireless-AC Routers Actually Faster? Are Tri-Band Wireless-AC Routers Actually Faster? When it comes to home networking questions, what we're really looking for are two things: faster speeds and better reliability. Read More so that you can split your devices into 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies for even bigger performance gains. It’s not an expensive upgrade as most newer routers that are even remotely decent are already at least a dual-band.

D-Link AC3200 ($289.99)

d-link-ac3200

Features:

  • Tri-band, AC router
  • Maximum simultaneous speed: 600Mbps on 2.4GHz, 1300Mpbs on 5GHz, 1300Mpbs on 5GHz
  • Smart Connect feature that keeps devices from slowing performance by using older protocols
  • Advanced AC Smart Beam: Helps to eliminate bandwidth by finding and delivering beams of bandwidth where they’re needed.

NETGEAR Nighthawk X6 AC3200 ($279.99)

netgear-nighthawk-x6
Features:

  • Tri-band, AC router
  • Maximum simultaneous speed: 600Mbps on 2.4GHz, 1300Mpbs on 5GHz, 1300Mpbs on 5GHz
  • Bandwidth prioritization
  • Beamforming+ focuses your Wi-Fi signal where you need it to eliminate dead zones
  • Six high performance antennas

ASUS RT-AC66U ($149.99)

asus-router
Features:

  • Dual-band, AC router
  • Maximum simultaneous speed: 450Mbps on 2.4GHz, 1300Mpbs on 5GHz
  • Wall mountable
  • IPv6 support
  • VPN server support
  • 2 USB ports for printer or HDD sharing

TP-LINK Archer C9 ($139.99)

tp-link-archer-c9
Features:

  • Dual-band, AC router
  • Maximum simultaneous speed: 600Mbps on 2.4GHz, 1300Mpbs on 5GHz
  • Beamforming technology
  • 1GHz dual-core processor
  • USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports

Do you have an AC router in your home? We’d love to know what kind, and what kind of performance increases you’ve noticed by switching from N to AC. Sound off in the comments below.

Image Credit: Socket for Internet Connection via Shutterstock

  1. Ivan Diaz Granados
    May 31, 2016 at 11:27 am

    I have now a RT-AC68U. It works perfect, and the difference in connectivity and speed, taking into account that I have a VPN set in the router, is amazing. My ISP provides 75mbps, and it goes down to 40mbps with the VPN, so, the encryption seems to work very good. Before, I had just 2mbps with a linksys N router.

  2. Holman
    May 13, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    I didn't understand the explanation of 256-QAM ... she tangled me :P

  3. Robin
    February 28, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    recently upgraded from n300 router to tp-link archer c7 ac1750. I am really happy with the performance!

  4. Aattia
    January 9, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    Can't get my tp link archer d9 to work on ac mode in pull down menu only b,g,n or mixed available in 2.4ghz . 5mhz dimmed plse help me

  5. Raymond Lulling
    July 8, 2015 at 5:42 am

    Have had many routers, mostly Linksys. Got some decent signal from old WRT54G routers. But they they actually had antenna. Tried several more recent models. The E4200 and the AE6400. The joke was on me because with each update, it got harder and harder to get a signal. Switching out the band, the frequency, no good. I tried all the tricks.

    Found out that modern LinkSys are all Belkin now, so no good Cisco hardware under the hood. Just cheep junk. Even the Web Interface makes me mad, its got some perks, but requires way to much scripting.

    To keep this short, g bad might have been slower but i got better signal and it was stable. N band was ok but 40Mhz made no improvements. AC band and all 5Ghz were invisible unless in the same room. Complete waste of time.

    Now I just have a 50Ft cat 6 snaking its way around the rooms, bridging the 33ft diagonal line that made up the distance that was so impossible to serve signal over.

  6. Matthew Day
    July 7, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Brief description of QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) - a standard also used for cable digital.
    The number of possible states or each signal point increases, from 2 (actually BPSK - binary phase shift), 4 (QPSK - quadrature phase shift), through 8, 16, 64, 256 (32 & 128 are sub-optimal and not used) - representing 1 bit, 2, 3, 4, 6 & 8 bits.

    Moving from 64QAM to 256QAM represents a 33% increase, not (as you may have thought) a 4x increase - the downside is that the error margin decreases, so it can fall back to lower levels if needed.

    For really tough wifi situations, the key is additional access points (or routers set up to act as access points - usually cheaper!) fed by wired Ethernet or homeplug links.

    Repeaters cost throughput, as the bandwidth is split between them receiving and retransmitting

  7. likefun butnot
    July 6, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    @Bryan Clark,

    If your house is hostile to high radio frequencies, it's going to be hostile to high radio frequencies unless you're working with transceivers that have to have health hazard warnings on them.

    You definitely can get high power APs, but unless your clients are immobile and can have high gain antennas of their own, you're just not going to have tons of luck sending signals through steel and rebar. That's just physics.

    In your specific case, what I'd probably do is either do direct runs of Ethernet to as many places as possible so that I could put wireless access points where I need them, or I'd do the same thing but add Homeplug equipment as an intermediate. You probably don't need multiple hundreds of megabits of bandwidth. You probably just want your kid's tablet to have a good signal in their bedroom.

    Wireless extenders are basically a bad deal because they're actually reducing the bandwidth available on the whole wireless network since they're also acting as a client. So the best thing to do is run a cable to places that need them and then use a $50 access point.

    That being said, something like a $75 Ubiquiti UAP-LR can output a ridiculously strong signal (and again, it's a device that actually warns against installation within 2m of where human beings might conceivably want to be). I've installed them in garages and other places that are fairly hostile and had good luck maintaining strong signals over wide areas.

    • Bryan Clark
      July 7, 2015 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for the info. I think we're probably going to go the ethernet route and have it installed throughout the house. The explanation is much appreciated though... it's frustrating. Nothing we've tried has come close to providing anything resembling good Wi-Fi.

  8. likefun butnot
    July 6, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    @Charles Carter,
    High frequency radio needs more amplification power and/or higher antenna gain to penetrate obstacles. Given the normal 200mW amplifier in a typical home router, 2.4GHz signals will travel about twice as far as 5GHz.

    That's usually not a big deal, since a typical 5GHz access point will nicely cover 1000 square feet, which dovetails nicely with the amount of living area that most humans will have where having a high speed wireless network might be useful.

    Personally, I use access points rather than home routers. I have a Ubiquiti UAP-AC for my wireless network needs. I can't say that I've noticed any specific performance improvement but I will say that I get coverage over a much wider area; my WLAN is visible and connectible from half a city block away.

    • Bryan Clark
      July 6, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      Tell us more about your access point setup. I live in a large house that's made of concrete and rebar. Wi-Fi is the worst. I'd love to play around with something that allowed for better coverage.

      • David Bobb
        July 8, 2015 at 5:27 pm

        It's tricky if neither the 2.5GHz or 5Ghz frequencies won't penetrate your walls, I would recommend you buy a dedicated access point, mount it in a place that would give good reception and run an ethernet cable from the AP to your router. Similar to what Linus (from LinusTechTips) does here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUBdUJjgmQY

  9. Charles Carter
    July 6, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Do I remember correctly that the 5 MHz band degrades more with obstructions like walls?
    Also, aren't there dual band adapters? When my Windows 8.1 machine detects networks, it seems to allow me to choose one band or the other. I thought somehow I could use both but haven't gotten around to sorting it out or how to do so.

    • Bryan Clark
      July 6, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      That's correct, Charles. 5MHz requires additional power to penetrate obstacles and travel the same distances as 2.4GHz. That said, it's far less crowded.

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