Q: I’m shopping for a new Wi-Fi router and want to understand what all the numbers and letters mean.
A: Shopping for a Wi-Fi router can be one of the most confusing experiences until you can decode all those numbers and letters.
The first thing to understand is which generation of Wi-Fi the device supports, which will generally tell you how fast the connection between the router and your wireless devices will be.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) created the 802.11 standards for Wi-Fi and each generation is designated with letters to help consumers know what they are buying.
There are currently 6 generations of Wi-Fi:
- Wi-Fi 1 designated as 802.11b
- Wi-Fi 2 designated as 802.11a
- Wi-Fi 3 designated as 802.11g
- Wi-Fi 4 designated as 802.11n
- Wi-Fi 5 designated as 802.11ac
- Wi-Fi 6 designated as 802.11ax
Today, you’re probably only going to see routers for sale with the n, ac or ax designation followed by a series of numbers.
Those numbers represent speed classes, but the numbers themselves don’t always directly translate to the device’s speed (part of the confusion). The good news is that the higher the number, the faster the speed between your wireless devices and the router.
Does this speed matter?
The way that you use Wi-Fi, the number of simultaneous devices and how much bandwidth each device uses will play a factor in deciding which standard makes the most sense for you.
If your primary use is for connecting to the internet, your internet connection speed is probably slower than just about anything you’re going to buy.
The theoretical maximum data speed of an 802.11n router is between 72 and 450 Mbps and the average home internet connection is generally slower — you can get a good test of your connection at www.testmy.net/.
If you’re paying for a really fast internet connection or if you transfer a lot of large files between devices on your network, the faster throughput numbers matter a lot.
Current 802.11ac devices have a theoretical maximum data speed of 200 Mbps to 1.73 Gbps, while 802.11ax devices will range between 143 Mbps and 2.4 Gbps.
Keep in mind, your wireless devices must also support these faster standards in order to take advantage of the speed.
Dual & tri band
Older routers operated at the 2.4Ghz frequency, which is slower but can travel farther distances, and newer routers added the 5Ghz frequency, which is faster but won’t have as much of a reach in distance.
When you see “dual-band” in the description, it simply means that both bands are available (recommended), so you can put items that don’t need the speed on the lower band.
If you see “tri-band” in the description, it means that there are three separate network connections — one at 2.4Ghz and two at 5 GHz. This type of router is best for households with lots of different wireless devices that need to be connected.
You may also see “mesh” in the description, which indicates it’s a system devised to use multiple connection points, which can be critical if you have a large home.
If you see this designation, which means Multi-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output, it tells you that a more sophisticated antennae system is being used.
Having multiple antennas allows the router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, which can be beneficial in households with lots of high bandwidth needs, such as gaming and video streaming.