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WiFi has become so prevalent that it’s easy to forget the technology was almost useless just a decade ago. Early versions of wireless networking were hampered by limited range and slow speed, making connections difficult in all but the most favorable environment. Only the debut of 802.11g, which started to see adoption in 2003 and became popular in the years that followed, made WiFi useful for the average consumer.
The drive for innovation in WiFi standards didn’t stop with 802.11g, however. The quicker 802.11n standard started to take over in 2010 and now, just three years later, we have another standard called 802.11ac. This promises blistering speeds, but many consumers are just now getting around to upgrading to 802.11n, leaving many to wonder if the new version is worthwhile.
What Is 802.11ac?
802.11ac is, of course, a new WiFi standard. A standard is an agreed feature set that can be implemented by manufacturers of routers and wireless adapters, and it determines not just speed but also the radio frequencies used and modes of operation.
Since it’s the latest standard, it comes as no surprise that 802.11ac is the quickest yet. Maximum aggregate speeds from a multi-antenna configuration reach as high as 6.77 gigabits per second. The highest speed supported through a single antenna is 867 megabits per second, and the minimum speed required to conform to the standard is 433 megabits per second. In reality, most computers will likely see speeds between the latter two numbers, because the highest access speeds are achievable only with expensive multi-antenna routers and adapters.
802.11ac operates exclusively on the 5 GHz band. This is an improvement because the 5 GHz band is generally less congested; few other consumer devices use it. Less congestion means more bandwidth and better reliability.
One final feature of note is the addition of multi-user MIMO. What this abstract acronym represents is support for sending and receiving data to multiple users simultaneously on the same frequency. For home users, this likely won’t be important, but it could be great for businesses, because it will allow expensive routers with multiple antenna and spatial streams to use its extra capacity for providing faster and more reliable connections to multiple clients.
How Does 802.11ac Compare To 802.11n And 802.11g?
Chances are good that you already have an 802.11n or 802.11g router already, and are looking to upgrade rather than buy the first router you’ve ever owned. Naturally, you’ll be wondering what the difference is between this new technology and what you already own.
The biggest difference is, without a doubt, speed. As stated, the minimum speed standard for 802.11ac is 433 megabits per second. While an 802.11n network can theoretically achieve 600 Mbps, this is only possible with multiple data streams, which means you’d need a fancy router and a very fancy wireless adapter. Consumers usually have neither, and so see speeds between 150 Mbps and 300 Mbps. Users who are still on 802.11g are restricted to no more than 54 Mbps, which means 802.11ac is a massive upgrade.
Support for the 5 GHz is the other big change. While the 802.11n standard supported this, support was not required, which meant a lot of devices still used the less reliable 2.4 GHz band. 802.11g, meanwhile, operates on the 2.4 GHz band exclusively. With that said, the improvement you see will depend on your environment. Some users will notice a big change in connection reliability and strength, while others may see no change at all.
So far, 802.11ac seems great. Faster speeds, improved connection reliability; what’s not to like? There is, however, a catch. You need an 802.11ac router and an 802.11ac wireless adapter to enjoy any benefit.
This is less of an issue for desktop users, who can buy a new adapter along with an 802.11ac router and plug it in. For notebook owners, however, it can be a big problem. External adapters exist, but they always add some bulk to a system and consume a USB port, which is less than ideal. Smartphones and tablets are generally out of luck, as well, since there’s no way to upgrade their wireless adapter.
Even buying a new device may not help because not all computers, smartphones and tablets currently support the new standard. Adoption is starting to take off, but likely won’t become common until summer or fall of 2014.
Another potential issue with the standard is price. The most affordable 802.11ac routers are sold for about $80. That’s not a lot, but entry-level 802.11n routers go for as little as $15. A feature-filled 802.11ac router, meanwhile, will run at least $120 and can top out at almost $200 (take the ASUS RT-AC66U, for example).
In short, the new routers are more expensive, and that can be hard to justify given the lack of devices to use with the router. While some users may be tempted to buy an 802.11ac router to “future-proof” their home, waiting until next year to buy will no doubt result in savings.
Smartphones and tablets are generally out of luck, as well, since there’s no way to upgrade their wireless adapter.
Now that I’ve reviewed the 802.11ac standard and what it does, let’s tackle the original question; should you buy one?
Not yet. Though the standard will no doubt be awesome once widely adopted, the lack of compatible devices and the price premium tacked on to routers makes 802.11ac unattractive right now.
The best answer to “when should I upgrade?” is “when you have devices that support 802.11ac.” Though most computers, tablets and phones will have it by the end of 2014, you may not be due for any upgrade until 2015, 2016 or beyond. Since a new router won’t enhance the speed of old devices, there’s no reason to buy one until you have a shiny new 802.11ac compatible PC or tablet.