We're starting to see more Wi-Fi 6 capable devices hit the market, so naturally, the big question is: should you upgrade? Today we are taking a look at how some of these systems perform compared to those from the previous generation. The goal here isn't to recommend a specific brand or system, but rather to see how the new technology and features stack up.

When comparing the performance of a wireless network, there are a few key areas to measure. Transfer speed is the most obvious, but signal strength and network capacity are just as important. It's great if you can get fast speeds close to the router, but if they drop off a cliff once you go into the next room, then what good is it? Those will be the three categories we will use to rate a system's performance.

As with any major new release, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) brings a host of new features compared to Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). For a deep dive into the technology and each area of improvement, check out our Wi-Fi 6 Explained. TL;DR: Wi-Fi 6 allows more bits to be sent with each transmission for improved speed. It also makes better use of the wireless spectrum to improve multi-device performance in crowded environments. In less dense environments, Wi-Fi 6 allows for more simultaneous connections from each device to increase throughput.

While Wi-Fi 6 certainly offers faster speeds compared to previous generations, that's not necessarily its main goal. The newer standard focuses largely on optimizing existing technologies. Future enhancements such as Wi-Fi 6E will open up new chunks of spectrum for enhanced speed, but that's a year or so down the road.

For our test we'll be comparing four devices: two previous generation Wi-Fi 5 devices and two new Wi-Fi 6 systems. On both sides, we have one standalone router and one dual-unit mesh system. There are certainly many options for routers in either category, with different levels of performance and cost. We're currently working on a Wi-Fi 6 Mesh roundup for more details on individual systems but for now, and for the purpose of comparing Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 5, the units we've chosen are meant to be a typical example of the performance such a system can achieve, not necessarily the fastest on the market.

Our two Wi-Fi 6 devices are the Asus ZenWiFi XT8 which is a mesh system and the Asus RT-AX3000, a standalone router. On the Wi-Fi 5 side, we'll use the D-Link Covr 2202 for our mesh system and D-Link DIR-882 for our standalone router.

As of writing, these devices can be purchased for $430, $180, $280, and $130, respectively. Don't look too much into pricing since we're mostly focused on the technologies involved here and not the specifics of a device. You can get more affordable Wi-Fi 6 mesh systems for under $300 and conversely you can pay close to $400 for a high-end Wi-Fi 5 router.

The two mesh Wi-Fi systems tested

Our testing methodology was as follows: All units were placed in the same positions, shown in red in the map below, and performance results were measured from the locations shown in blue. We ran all tests with a single Wi-Fi 6 client first and then with both a Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 client at the same time. The test devices at locations 1, 3, and 5 used a high performance PCIe based Wi-Fi 6 adapter while the rest of the locations were tested on an Acer Swift 3 laptop with built-in Wi-Fi 6. The Wi-Fi 5 client was a OnePlus 6T and was used at all locations.

Data was transferred from each client to a server which tracked how fast the network performed. Tests marked with "wired" represent data transfer speeds to a server connected to our router via Ethernet, while tests marked as "wireless" were sent to a wireless server within the same network. In the wired set of tests, the data is sent over Wi-Fi once from the client to the router and then via Ethernet to the server. In the wireless tests, the data is sent over Wi-Fi twice: once from the client to the router and then again from the router back out to the server. The wireless tests are more demanding since the Wi-Fi connection must share the transfer in both directions.

This variety of devices and locations ensures we get a more realistic example of how the devices will perform. We found this to be a more meaningful setting than testing each device in an isolated environment.

Testing in an open environment means there are neighboring routers causing interference. These routers don't have the advanced spectrum sharing and client management algorithms that Wi-Fi 6 has, so we can't directly test those features. That would be the one time where an isolated chamber would be beneficial for testing. Besides that, our results are something that every home / small office users will be able to achieve.

Wireless Performance

Starting with signal strength, the units of measurement here are in dBm and represent the amount of signal power at the receiver. They are negative and larger values (closer to 0) represent a stronger signal. This scale is logarithmic so each increase of 3dBm represents a signal that is twice as powerful. There are federal limits to how much power a device can transmit, so this test is aimed at characterizing the antenna quality and how well each device makes use of its limited power budget.

In the 2.4GHz band, the Wi-Fi 6 mesh system generally offers the best signal strength. On the 5GHz side, it's more of a tie between systems. Once you start getting farther away, the benefits of a mesh network become clear.

The standalone devices could barely reach the opposite corner of the house. In that scenario however, the Wi-Fi 6 system does come out ahead slightly overall.

Looking at both bands as a whole, it's hard to draw any conclusions here. The upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 doesn't include any changes to transmit power and it still operates on the same 5GHz frequency band. Advances in beamforming and antenna technology over time will always give the edge to newer technology.

We'll move on to speed now. These results were obtained with iPerf3, an industry standard tool for benchmarking network throughput. Ideal performance is the first test and this was measured with the transmitter and receiver very close together.

This represents the fastest transfer speed the device is capable of operating at in a situation without any obstacles or signal degradation. It would likely be possible to achieve higher speeds in a lab setting without interference, but this is about the max that any user can typically expect to get.

At 950Mbps for the Wi-Fi 6 unit, this is the first time we've seen a wireless device bottlenecked by its gigabit Ethernet interface. That means you'll need to upgrade the rest of your networking equipment to 2.5Gbps or 10Gbps to be able to take advantage of the extra performance.

Google Fiber and xFinity offer 2Gbps internet packages, but this is an exceptionally rare scenario. In ideal circumstances, Wi-Fi 6 offers a roughly 50% performance boost over Wi-Fi 5. The two standalone units also outperform their mesh counterparts by about 10-20% percent. This is common between both generations as mesh systems typically consist of several less-powerful units. Because of this, using a mesh system in a small location will usually result in lower max speeds than a single unit.

The next test was done in the same room, but at a more reasonable distance. We see much the same story as with the ideal test, just slightly lower speeds. Adding a second device lowers speeds slightly on three of the four devices while the Wi-Fi 6 mesh system actually increased slightly. With more contention for the same wireless channel, the overhead results in total speed that is less than that of a single device. The single Wi-Fi 6 device is still the clear winner though. Keep in mind that these are actual file transfer speeds, not just theoretical marketing numbers.

Moving on, we have results from when the device is in the basement -- position 5 on the diagram. For the wired test, we see the two standalone units come out ahead since they are still within relatively close range. Adding a second simultaneous device into the mix, the single Wi-Fi 5 device actually comes out ahead. It doesn't see any performance gain or loss from the additional connection while the Wi-Fi 6 devices actually got slightly slower.

For the tests with a wireless endpoint located as position 3 on the diagram, we see significantly slower speeds all around. That same Wi-Fi 5 standalone unit that performed well with a wired endpoint really falls short. The two Wi-Fi 6 devices are the winners here.

We took the test outside to see how well signal traveled through an exterior wall. Since this location is still close to the routers, the single device results are still on top. Surprisingly, the older Wi-Fi 5 unit edges out our newer Wi-Fi 6 router.

It's interesting to see that we achieve a significant performance gain when testing two devices simultaneously for the mesh systems. That is likely because the testing location is roughly equidistant from both mesh points, so the two clients could be served between the two system units.

The next test location is two rooms away and is indicated by position 3 on the diagram above. This is right at the edge of where a mesh system starts to become faster. With a single client, the two mesh systems outperform the standalone units.

When we add a second device, mesh performance drops off slightly on the Wi-Fi 6 device but stays pretty constant on the standalone Wi-Fi 6 device and mesh Wi-Fi 5 system. The standalone Wi-Fi 5 device starts to struggle here and performance drops significantly. The Wi-Fi 6 system here is a bit faster, but not by much.

This last test is a worst-case scenario with the clients and endpoints located at opposite corners of the house and on different levels. Normally you would want to place your router in a more central location, but that's not always possible. The benefits of a mesh system are made evident here.

Connections on the standalone devices are almost unusable and the Wi-Fi 5 router failed completely with two connections. At this range, we can also see the performance improvements brought by optimizations in the Wi-Fi 6 standard.

Upgrade or Not?

That was a lot of graphs and numbers, so let's step back and talk about what this all means. The Wi-Fi 6 devices are clearly faster, but not by much. If you already have a working Wi-Fi 5 system that you're happy with, there's almost no reason to upgrade. The only scenario where it would be worth it is if you have a gigabit internet connection and you want to maximize that. We don't see the modest performance improvement justifying the upgrade otherwise. Most home use scenarios like streaming or web browsing won't saturate a connection like this.

If you aren't happy with your current system and are in the market for a new router, then we would certainly consider Wi-Fi 6.

Keep in mind that some of the big scalability and network management improvements from Wi-Fi 6 won't start having their full benefit until the majority of clients on a network have Wi-Fi 6. In a year or two from now when this is the case, it will become a no-brainer.

The two standalone Wi-Fi units tested

For a standalone unit, the cost premium for Wi-Fi 6 in the devices we tested today is about $50, but that will vary depending on the type of units, brand and so on. If you live in a smaller space that can be covered by a single unit, we do think Wi-Fi 6 is worth it. You'll see a modest performance improvement now and a much more substantial performance improvement down the road.

For mesh systems, the choice can get a bit trickier. Mesh Wi-Fi is relatively new, so if you already have one such system, it won't be very old, and you shouldn't need to upgrade just yet. A consumer looking at mesh options is one that needs coverage for a larger space and more devices. Wi-Fi 6 is great here, but only really shines when there are lots of Wi-Fi 6 clients. If you have older devices like phones, streaming boxes, or laptops and don't plan on upgrading in the next year or so, we wouldn't buy a Wi-Fi 6 system just yet. You can safely wait it out until more compatible devices are released. However, if you do have a new laptop or phone that supports Wi-Fi 6, you'll appreciate the performance improvement, so we'd be comfortable recommending the upgrade.

Stay tuned for our upcoming Wi-Fi 6 router roundup for recommendations on the best units you can buy.

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