Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6: What Are Their Differences?

Updated on Nov 25, 2020 by

Wireless local-area networks are essential for internet access users in places like homes, offices, factories, etc. These networks have different international standards, including Wi-Fi 1 (802.11b), Wi-Fi 2 (802.11a), Wi-Fi 3 (802.11g), Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) or even higher level. Current networks mainly use Wi-Fi 5, some of which have been upgraded to Wi-Fi 6. Then, what is the difference between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6? This post will focus on the comparison on Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 in detail such as Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 speed, battery life, capacity and spatial streaming, interference and latency, etc.


What are Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 5 is the fifth generation of the wireless networking protocol and is also known by its Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard name of 802.11ac. It was introduced in 2014 and brought several improvements over Wi-Fi 4 or 802.11n, including support for data rates that exceed one gigabit. It was also the second Wi-Fi version after 802.11a to use the 5GHz frequency band for data transmission.

As the name suggests, Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax is the sixth generation of Wi-Fi and a direct successor to Wi-Fi 5. Introduced in 2020, it builds upon Wi-Fi 5 by enhancing its total throughput to better deal with the increasing number of wireless devices in homes and corporate offices, including IoT products like smart home gear.

Differences between Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6

Here is the comparison table Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6, followed by the explanation of several main comparative items.

Parameter Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
Frequency 5.0 GHz 2.4 and 5.0 GHz
Modulation 256-QAM 1024-QAM
Data Transfer Speeds Relatively Lower Relatively Higher
Maximum Data Rate 3.6 Gbps 9.6 Gbps
TWT Not Support Support
Battery Life Relatively Shorter Relatively Longer
Access Technology OFDM OFDMA
Antennas 4 x 4 MU-MIMO 8 x 8 MU-MIMO
Performance in Crowded Areas Worse than Wi-Fi 6 Better than Wi-Fi 5
Device Response Time Longer Shorter
Interconnected Wireless Devices Supported Relatively Less Relatively More
BSS Coloring Not Support Support

Wi-Fi 6 has faster data transfer speeds

Wi-Fi 6 allows for potentially faster connection speeds. Faster Wi-Fi means better upload and download speeds (or throughput) due to the increased bandwidth afforded by Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 5 has a theoretical maximum data transfer speed of 6.9 Gbps. These are theoretical maximums however; in real-world situations, local networks may not reach this top speed. The rate at which a Wifi standard operates is dependent on the QAM (Quadrature amplitude modulation) and the number of devices connected to one access point or router. Wifi 5 uses 256-QAM modulation, which is much lower than Wi-Fi 6. The Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM modulation and boasts a theoretical maximum of up to 9.6Gbps. Higher order modulation increases the efficiency and speed of data transmission on the whole network. This technology can give up to 25% improvements in speed. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 has improvements in signal encoding, enabling devices to send more data in one transmission, resulting in speed improvements of up to 20%. Together, these two features provide up to 40% improvement in connection speeds.

Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 offers higher capacity and spatial streaming

MU-MIMO means “multi-user, multiple-input, multiple outputs.” It is a wireless technology that allows more than one user to communicate with a router at the same time. There is a massive difference in MU-MIMO capacity from WiFi 5 to WiFi 6. Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 5 APs also differ due to spatial streams, which are multiple multiplexed signals that antennas transmit in a single channel within MIMO environments.

The maximum number of spatial data streams supported by WiFi 6 has been increased from 4 in WiFi 5 to 8, that is, it can support a maximum of 8×8 MU-MIMO, which is one of the important reasons for the significant increase in the rate of WiFi 6.

Wi-Fi 5 uses a downlink, unidirectional 4×4 MU-MIMO, which only supports downlink, and can only experience this technology when downloading content. Once this limit of four simultaneous transmissions is exceeded, the Wifi becomes crowded and starts showing congested signs such as increased latency, packet loss, etc.

Wi-Fi 6 supports both uplink and downlink 8×8 MU MIMO technology, which means that MU-MIMO can be experienced when uploading and downloading data between mobile devices and wireless routers or APs, further improving the bandwidth utilization of wireless networks.

Wi-Fi 6 has better battery longevity

Wi-Fi 6 could support longer battery life than Wi-Fi 5 for Wi-Fi-enabled devices like smartphone, laptop, etc. because of its new “target wake time” (TWT) feature. When the access point is talking to a Wi-Fi—enabled device (for example, a smartphone), it can tell the device exactly when to put its Wi-Fi radio to sleep and when to wake it up to receive the next transmission. This will conserve power to some extent and make longer device battery life since the Wi-Fi radio can spend more time in sleep mode.

Wi-Fi 5 does not have the TWT feature and cannot regulate the extent of power consumption by peripheral devices. Therefore power consumption is higher when using Wi-Fi 5 than Wi-Fi 6.

battery longevity Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 has better security

Wi-Fi 5 supports the WPA and WPA2 protocols for a secure connection. Compared to the now obsolete WEP protocol, these are significant security improvements, but now it has several vulnerabilities and weak spots. One such vulnerability is dictionary attacks that cybercriminals can use to predict your encrypted password using multiple attempts and combinations. Wifi 6 has stepped up the game by incorporating the latest security protocol, WPA3. Thus Wi-Fi—enabled devices used WPA, WPA2, and WPA3 protocols together. Wifi Protected Access 3 improves multi-factor authentication and encryption processes. It has the OWE technology that prevents auto encryption and, lastly, scannable OR codes to connect to devices directly.

Wi-Fi 6 has lesser interference and latency

Wi-Fi 6 uses basic service set (BSS) coloring while Wi-Fi 5 doesn’t. This feature essentially codes traffic with “colors” (here means a number between 0 and 7) on a frequency to identify whether it can be used. Wireless access points (WAPs) near each other may be transmitting on the same channel. Under such circumstances, the radio listens and waits for a clear signal before replying. With Wi-Fi 6, WAPs near each other can be configured to have different BSS “colors”. For example, if a device is checking whether the channel is all clear and listens in, it may notice a transmission with a weak signal and a different “color.” It can then ignore this signal and transmit anyway without waiting, so this will improve performance in congested areas. This is also called “spatial frequency re-use”. The goal of BSS coloring is to diminish and prevent cochannel interferences, which can improve network efficiency.

The OFDMA and BSS coloring techniques introduced in Wi-Fi 6 reduce latency to as low as 20ms. OFDMA reduces channel collisions and improves spectrum utilization, and BSS coloring reduces co-channel interference. Unlike Wi-Fi 5 (30ms delay), Wi-Fi 6 meets the delay requirements of emerging applications such as VR/AR, panoramic live broadcast, interactive games, immersive conferences, and high-definition wireless projection.

Wi-Fi 6 uses both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands

One clear difference between WiFi 5 and WiFi 6 is the frequency bands of both technologies. WiFi 5 uses only the 5GHz band, which offers less interference. The downside is that the signals have a shorter range and decreased ability to penetrate walls and other obstacles.

WiFi 6, on the other hand, uses two band frequencies, the standard 2.4Ghz and the 5Ghz. In the Wifi 6e, developers will add a 6 GHz band to the WiFi family. The fact that WiFi 6 uses both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz means that devices can automatically scan for and utilize the band with less interference and better suitability. That way, the user gets the best of both networks, faster speed when a close range is optimal and a more comprehensive range when peripherals are not within the same location.



From all the above, there are many differences between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 such as Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 speed, Wi-Fi 5 vs Wi-Fi 6 access technology, etc. For better network performance, Wi-Fi 6 is likely to be a must for future needs given that more Wi-Fi-enabled devices would appear and need higher capacity of handling data. If you need faster data transfer speeds, better network performance, less device response time, etc., just upgrade to Wi-Fi 6.

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