Think of wireless standards as a sort of Rosetta Stone for your Wi-Fi-enabled products—they make sure that all of your wireless gadgets are able to communicate with each other. This is important, since Wi-Fi enabled product shipments will reach 15 billion by the end of 2016—that’s a lot of devices that need to be able to cooperate.
The 802.11 standard is evolving quickly, with each new version outpacing the last. Over the last 12 to 18 months, the latest Wi-Fi standard (802.11ac) has gained notable market share. 802.11ac devices are incredibly fast, and blow the speeds of the previous standard (802.11n) out of the water. We know it can be tough keeping track of the whole 802.11 family, so let's stick to the real up-and-comers, the standards you'll be relying on for seamless 4K Netflix-ing in the very near future—their names are 802.11ad and 802.11ax.
Though it might seem simplistic, Wi-Fi actually works a lot like radio—signals travel along on various frequencies or "bands," like the common 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. If Wi-Fi is the heart of your connected home, these bands are the arteries that keep it pumping. But too much action on a single band can cause things to become congested. If you're streaming Hulu and downloading the latest iPhone update while your kids play Splatoon all on the 2.4 GHz band, your speeds will suffer.
That's why 802.11ad is creating its own fast lane, operating on a 60 GHz band that’s completely separate from all of today’s Wi-Fi standards and frequencies. And it really is fast—in addition to skirting interference, it packs speeds of up to 7 gigabits per second (Gbps). When just one gigabit equals 1,000 megabits, it’s quite the jump from 802.11n's average speeds of 300Mbps.
That said, 802.11ad Wi-Fi is limited in its range, only covering about 30 feet effectively. That makes 802.11ad best for in-room activities like:
- Consolidating and de-cluttering your desktop with a wireless docking station—the current use-case for 802.11ad
- Streaming from your PC or smart device to your smart TV or Chromecast.
- Transferring hefty media files, like 4K footage or raw images, at the office.
A word of caution, though. Despite the unmatched speed it advertises, some Wi-Fi product manufacturers may not support the 802.11ad standard if they feel it provides limited benefit to consumers (most of us do not require such lofty speeds, after all).
Today's iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and their smart device cousins support the 802.11ac standard. Its exclusive use of the 5GHz band keeps your whole house or office connected, with a combination of speed and range that makes it a solid choice for streaming, gaming, or just browsing Instagram.
So while the 802.11ad standard seeks to deliver incredibly fast Wi-Fi speeds over a short distance, the upcoming 802.11ax standard will serve as the speedier successor to the more versatile 802.11ac. It will also maintain backwards compatibility, something 802.11ad won’t offer. To help encourage this sort of throughput, devices on the new standard will use MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input-multiple output) technology, which uses antennas to send data streams to multiple devices simultaneously.
While past Wi-Fi standards have often focused on huge Mbps or Gbps figures, those numbers can be confusing, and not often a reflection of real-world connection speeds. 802.11ax will continue the trend of offering faster speeds, but the focus will be on delivering a fast connection to every device in every corner of your home, and improving your overall Wi-Fi experience. When 802.11ax hits, you can use it for day-to-day things like:
- Streaming movies and TV shows in 4K, Ultra-HD.
- Quickly downloading large files, like full retail video games.
- Playing those games online without experiencing the dreaded, Call of Duty-ruining "lag."
- Seamlessly using your entire family's collection of smart devices without noticeable speed sacrifices, since 802.11ax is designed for Wi-Fi-dense environments.
- Keeping all your smart home devices running 24-7 with maximum Wi-Fi coverage.
Of course, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (one of the leading wireless standards makers) doesn't expect to ratify the new 802.11ax standard until late 2017 at the earliest. But that just means you've got lots of Wi-Fi to look forward to.