When it comes to home networking questions, what we’re really looking for are two things: faster speeds and better reliability.
Any router that improves on one – or both – of these things takes a prominent position as the next best thing. But is it?
Several new(ish) high-priced routers are starting to make their rounds on the tech sites; the most notable of these being the Nighthawk X6 3200. Which, let’s admit, sounds really freaking cool.
But does it do anything your current router can’t? Will it be a significant improvement for your home network?
Breaking Down the Jargon
Internet connectivity is a jargon-heavy industry. 802.whatever, GHz, Mbps, AC technology, dual-band, and now tri-band routers feature enough tech terms to make your head spin. This new breed of routers features a few specific technologies you might not have known about; so let’s discuss.
Before the AC standard, we had a logical progression of letter-based choices for our routers: a, b, g, and n. One of the improvements in the AC standard was backwards compatibility. This allowed you to keep pace with current tech, while not sending older devices into obsolescence.
Speed was the other main selling point. However, it’s important to note that router standards don’t work in absolutes. Each speed cited is an estimated maximum speed and finally summed up in an aggregated maximum, meaning, you will never reach it.
The 802.11ac standard, for example, has a cited speed of 1.3 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means you could see speeds of up to 166 megabytes per second (MBps) or 1331 megabits per second (Mbps). Of course, that’s under the assumption you ISP could deliver speeds that fast.
Devices commonly run on one of two frequencies: 2.4GHz or 5GHz. Cordless phones, smart TVs, your laptop, etc.; all use 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands. The inherent flaw in this strategy is that your devices, as well as those of your neighbors, are all running on one of these two frequencies. That leads to network congestion, and diminished speed and reliability.
A dual-band router allows you to use both 2.4GHz or 5GHz simultaneously. The idea is to connect your devices to the least crowded frequency and/or channel to maximize signal efficiency. There are other factors at play here, but this is the simplified explanation.
A tri-band router acts like its dual-band counterpart, but has an extra 5Ghz channel built in. Why? Well, that’s where it gets somewhat complicated.
The maximum theoretical speed that the 2.4GHz band can achieve is 600Mbps, and 1300Mbps on 5GHz. In the case of the Nighthawk X6 3200, it’s advertised speed is 3200Mbps — but how does it achieve it? It’s important to remember the number is an aggregated throughput maximum for a tri-band router with one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands, hence a total max speed of 600+1300+1300, or 3200Mbps.
How a Tri-Band AC Router Works
I stated previously that adding the extra 5GHz channel made things confusing. The confusing point – in a consumer sense – is understanding why you would want to upgrade your router if the technology didn’t offer you better speeds.
The best analogy I’ve seen on this matter is the following, from D-Link:
“A good metaphor that explains why Tri-Band is better is freeway congestion. When there’s traffic on a freeway and you’re crawling along at 10mph, increasing the speed limit isn’t going to help anyone get anywhere sooner. If you were to add another lane, though, traffic would clear faster and, in the future, congestion would be less of a problem.”
So, while the stated speeds haven’t increased, you have lessened traffic on the road. This makes everything move a bit faster.
This is especially important for the tech-centric households (like mine) who could have upwards of a dozen (or more) devices connected to a single router. Any time you can split those up into different channels so they’re not all crowding one; you’re going to see better performance.
Is It Actually Faster?
Well, yes… and no.
The newest line of tri-band AC routers touting greater than gigabit speeds is a bit of sneaky – bordering on outright deceptive – advertising. In fairness, Netgear actually presented this fact when introducing their new X6, but let’s be honest, it’s really unlikely that a consumer is going to see an industry presentation about a new router. What’s more likely to happen is said consumer walking in to their nearest big box electronics chain, and picking up two Netgear routers – one AC1750 and the other AC3200 – before walking to the register with the obviously superior 3200. Manufacturers are well aware of this.
Okay, back to the point. Is it faster?
It all depends on how we’re defining the word. Is it going to give you better maximum speeds? No.
Are your devices going to seem faster since they are now sharing more channels? Yes.
So Why Does This Matter?
In all reality, most ISPs are nowhere near the max stated speeds of their existing routers. Even when those kinds of speeds do become available, you’ll never get them in your home. Maximum speed calculations are performed in a controlled environment, without interference, and under perfect conditions. Your home? Not quite as perfect. The average home deals with interference both internally and from neighbors, positioning issues, and a host of other problems that could affect your WiFi.
Wireless network set-up errors often make these even worse.
Should You Upgrade?
For most consumers, I wouldn’t suggest an upgrade at this point unless you have a few hundred dollars that you just can’t wait to get rid of. The performance increases will range from incremental to non-existent depending on just how connected your home actually is. Remember, this isn’t actually faster — in terms of maximum transfer speed — than existing router technology using the 802.11ac standard.
That said, there are scenarios that would benefit from a tri-band router: homes with a dozen or more connected devices. The extra band helps alleviate network congestion, providing a smoother experience overall.
Some of the new routers also claim that they’ll help increase in-home coverage. If that’s a problem you have, then it may be worth looking at a new router. However, it’s important to note that the fact it’s tri-band isn’t going to bring WiFi to your dead zones.
Do you own a tri-band router? Let us know in the comments how it’s helped your particular circumstance. If you don’t own a tri-band router, are you thinking about making the leap?