Wi-Fi connects the world together, but it


Enlarge / Wi-Fi connects the world together, but it’s still quite complicated.

Aurich Lawson

Today, the Wi-Fi Alliance launched its Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6 program. This means that the standard has been completely finalized, and device manufacturers and OEMs can begin the process of having the organization certify their products to carry the Wi-Fi 6 branding.

If you need a bit of a catch-up, Wi-Fi 6—aka 802.11ax—is the next generation of Wi-Fi. 802.11ax will, at least in theory, allow many more nearby devices to use the same Wi-Fi channels and frequencies without causing as much congestion and lag as Wi-Fi 5 (better known as 802.11ac) and Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) do. That’s the good news. The bad news is, very few of these benefits can be seen just from buying a Wi-Fi 6 router—you need most, if not all, of the devices in range (both yours and, ideally, any neighbors’) to also support Wi-Fi 6 before you see the improvements.

802.11ax also mandates support for the WPA3 encryption and authentication protocol. WPA3 provides considerably better security for your Wi-Fi network than WPA2 did, and due to its adoption of Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE), it will hopefully prove more robust toward future attacks as well.

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s certification program itself isn’t necessarily that important—Apple, for instance, has not bothered with public Wi-Fi Alliance certification or its associated branding for years. But its opening does signify that we’re ready to move beyond the “802.11ax draft” stage and into the design of routers and devices guaranteed to support the full spectrum of Wi-Fi 6 features. The presence of this program, and availability of its branding, should significantly accelerate manufacturers’ efforts to provide Wi-Fi 6 devices, as well as routers.

802.11ax requires hardware support, so you should not expect a new set of firmware or drivers to make your existing router or phone suddenly an 802.11ax device. Instead, make certain that moving forward, any new devices you purchase—especially expensive ones, like smartphones—support Wi-Fi 6, so you don’t end up with a technical deficit in a couple years’ time. Apple’s new iPhone 11 models all support802.11ax, as does Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10. Google’s as-yet-unreleased Pixel 4 will also support Wi-Fi 6, as will any other smartphone based on the Snapdragon 855 SoC.

Laptops with 10th generation (Ice Lake and Comet Lake) Intel CPUs should all have802.11ax support, since it’s baked right into the CPU. If you’re considering buying an older laptop, keep in mind that you would need additional hardware, like a USB dongle, for 802.11ax.

802.11ax support is also a little thin on the router and access point side for the moment, but it’s picking up steam rapidly. Netgear has802.11ax support in its RAX80 and RAX120 routers, as well as AX6000, a new 802.11ax version of its Orbi mesh kit. TP-Link is also launching Wi-Fi 6 versions of its line-up, including Deco X10 mesh and a new Archer AX6000 router. But although you should start looking for Wi-Fi 6 support in devices immediately, you might want to hold off on that router or mesh kit upgrade. This may seem counterintuitive, but a change to your router or mesh kit affects every device on your network, so you want to make sure you get that one right.

Ars will be reviewing 802.11ax router and mesh kits—with a focus on how well they perform with existing Wi-Fi 5 devices, to begin with—in time for holiday shopping.



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