next-gen wi-fi tech
Deal with your demanding networking needs
There’s a great deal of jargon surrounding Wi-Fi and routers, which can be quite confusing when you’re looking at upgrading to the latest and greatest
networking tech. However, there are a few key features you should look out for if you want to improve the speed and reliability of your home’s Wi-Fi network.
The current version of Wi-Fi used by most recent home routers is called 802.11ac, although there are still many people using routers based on the older 802.11n standard. Routers that use 802.11n have a maximum speed of 450Mbps (megabits per second), whereas 802.11ac steps right up to 1.3Gbps (gigabits per second) – an obvious improvement that makes it worth upgrading.
All 802.11ac routers also provide ‘dual-band’ features that allow them to transmit data on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. That’s important, as the 2.4GHz bandwidth has become increasingly crowded in recent years, so using the 5GHz band can help to reduce the interference that comes from that.
Mind you, 802.11ac itself is still a work in progress, and routers such as BT’s Home Hub 5 and Apple’s AirPort Extreme are actually known as ‘802.11ac Wave 1’. These Wave 1 routers can use multiple antennas to transmit multiple signals simultaneously in order to improve the overall rate of data transfer. This technique is called SU-MIMO, meaning ‘single-user, multi-in/multi-out’. The ‘single-user’ bit means that the router can only transmit data to a single device at a time – which might sound a bit odd as most of us tend to have multiple devices online at once.
your MacBook, then turn its attention to grandma on Skype, and then quickly back to Netflix again. You might not have too much trouble if you’re just using those two devices on their own, but throw a couple of smartphones and a games console into the mix and everything will start to slow down as your router struggles to juggle data between all those different devices.
Wave 2 routers, including the new BT Smart Hub, use more advanced MU-MIMO, or ‘multi-user, multi-in/multi-out’. This lets the router transmit separate signals to multiple devices simultaneously, for better performance and reliability when several devices are competing for a slice of Wi-Fi.
Wave 2 routers can provide greater speed, too. The fastest we’ve seen so far is Netgear’s R7800 router, which can reach up to 2.53Gbps, although its forthcoming R8500 claims to go as fast as 5.3Gbps. These high-end routers are designed for demanding applications such as gaming and streaming video that demand really high performance. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing new device types into our homes, often with different requirements.
Devices such as security cameras and thermostats don’t require superfast speeds, but they need to be power-efficient as they generally run 24 hours a day, and often off batteries. With that in mind, the next step in Wi-Fi evolution is 802.11ah, or Wi-Fi Halow.
Instead of higher speeds, 802.11ah adds the ability to transmit on frequencies below 1GHz, which don’t need very much power. These lower frequencies also provide longer range, so you can use your smart devices all around your home, or in larger buildings such as schools and offices. 802.11ah isn’t due until early 2017, and it already faces competition for control of the Internet of Things.
Some devices opt for rival technologies known as ZigBee and Z-Wave. TP-Link has announced a router, the SR20, designed for home automation that’ll combine standard 802.11ac Wi-Fi with support for both of these.
Meanwhile, there’s a more specialised form of Wi-Fi in the works: WiGig, or 802.11ad. This will operate at 60GHz, and is fairly short range but very fast, making it useful for 4K video services and virtual reality games, which need really high speeds but only need to stream to one or two nearby devices, such as a games console or some future Apple TV. We’ve already heard of a WiGig router from TP-Link, the Talon AD7200. More interesting are rumours the iPhone 7 will include WiGig for streaming your 4K video recordings.
WiGig will provide very fast speeds, making it suited to data-intensive applications such as 4K video streaming.
802.11ac Wave 2 routers will better support multiple family members being able to do different stuff online at the same time.