The Differences Between 802.11ac and 802.11n

If you’re like most people, you probably have a tough time keeping up with the latest developments in home computing technology. Even I.T. professionals have trouble staying up to date and learning all of the latest hardware and technology changes, and it’s their full time job! One common area of confusion among technology consumers seems to revolve around misinformation and myths about wireless technology standards, but we’re going to put those myths to rest once and for all. But before we start digging into the raw specifications of 802.11ac and 802.11n wireless technologies, we first need to know where these specifications come from.

The IEEE

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is one of the major standards bodies in the world that ratifies new technology, and they were formed back in 1963. Today, however, the organization has grown to contain a staggering 400,000 members around the globe, and they are still growing. It would take an army of technical writers to cover all of the technologies they have created, adopted, and legitimized over the years, but today we are mostly concerned with one small subset of their standards.

wirelessstandards3Due to their numbering system and organization, all of the LAN (Local Area Network) and MAN (Metropolitan Area Network) standards are all contained within the 802 family. That is, whenever you see a standard start with the numbers 802 (followed by various numbers and letters), you can correctly assume that you’re looking at an IEEE network connectivity standard. And whether you knew it or not, you use their standards on a daily basis every time you fire up a web browser or use a mobile device.

For example, the 802.3 standard deals mostly with Ethernet technologies such as Fast Ethernet. In addition, the 802.3ab standard describes gigabit network interfaces connected to common twisted pair wiring (such as the typical Ethernet cable you use to connect devices to your router). Likewise, any standard that starts with “802.11” is going to be a form of wireless radio technology, such as that found in your wireless router, tablet, and laptop. There have been several wireless technologies over the years, and the following outlines them in chronological order:

  • 802.11a

  • 802.11b

  • 802.11g

  • 802.11n

  • 802.11ac

Naturally, the older standards are much less sophisticated than the newer standards. Also note that you may see common networking equipment, such as the wireless card in your laptop, labeled with multiple versions of these standards – such as 802.11a/b/g/n. This is due to the fact that most wireless cards are backwards compatible with older versions of the 802.11 standard.

However, note that they aren’t universal. By that I mean to say that most home routers need to be configured to specifically use a certain standard to accommodate old legacy devices. Such is the case with 802.11a, but the standard is so old that it is extremely rare for it to be used. With that understanding, let’s take a closer look at the two latest standards: 802.11ac and 802.11n.

802.11ac

wirelessstandards1802.11ac is the newest of the wireless standards, but some of the raw specifications are extremely misleading. First and foremost, note that the most frequently quoted speed of 802.11ac is 1.3 gigabits per second. Take care to note that a gigabit is one eighth of a gigabyte, and at this speed, the maximum throughput comes out to be approximately 166 megabytes per second (Mbps).

This is a tremendous improvement over its prevailing predecessor, 802.11n, which only had a maximum data rate of 450 megabits per second. On the surface, it may appear that 802.11ac is nearly three times as fast as 802.11n. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, as we’ll soon discover. The largest problem with these quoted figures is that they are all theoretical maximums, and the real-world speeds of these connections are typically a lot slower. 1.3 gigabits is simply as fast as the developers could make the technology work in a lab environment, but there are many nuances to consider that affect the actual speed of the connection.

For example, the further your computer or device is from the wireless antenna, the weaker the signal. As such, your connection will be slower. In addition, you also have to account for any obstructions between your computer and the wireless antenna; doors, aluminum building materials, and other such barriers that dampen the signal. Lastly, understand that the more wireless devices there are using a single wireless router, the slower the data transfer speeds will be because wireless signals are a half-duplex medium.

So what does it all boil down to, you ask? Well, there are commonly accepted ranges of speeds for each wireless standard at various distances. Most typically, people can reasonably expect a transfer rate of 50-150Mbps with 802.11n and 250-300Mbps with 802.11ac. And before we move into the discussion about the range of each technology, take a word of caution.

You’ll see wireless routers on the market that claim fantastic super-duper speeds of as much as 1.75 gigabits per second. But in truth, you’ll never experience that speed on a single device. Really what they are doing is making their product look superior to other competitor’s products, when in reality, it only accounts for total router throughput. You see, they simply added the theoretical maximum transfer speed of 802.11ac and 802.11n together.

Wireless Signal Strength

The range and strength of a wireless signal is more important than most people realize, because the strength of the signal, in part, determines the speed of the connection. For starters, understand that 802.11ac operates solely within the 5GHz band of radio frequencies. On the other hand, older technologies like 802.11n would actually operate in both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz ranges. But the problem with the 2.4GHz range is that it is rather overcrowded, and your wireless signal can experience interference from other wireless devices, such as a cordless land line phone.

Fortunately, the 5GHz range is a lot less chatty, but there’s one additional advantage it has over 802.11n. Believe it or not, 802.11ac has a wireless technology called beamforming, whereby the router will actually direct its wireless signal at a wireless device instead of broadcasting its signal in every conceivable direction with the same amount of power. There’s no two ways about it: 802.11ac simply has a much stronger and smarter wireless signal.

Final Thoughts

802.11ac is still a relatively new wireless standard that has been officially legitimized and ratified by the IEEE. But should you go out and buy one to supercharge your Internet speeds? Well, that really depends on your situation. Not only would your computers and mobile devices need to support 802.11ac themselves, but you would also need a rather fast Internet connection. Remember that most ISP subscriber lines are a thin bottleneck, and that you won’t see any speed gains on the web unless you have enough raw bandwidth from your service provider.

On the other hand, it is becoming more common for people to have gigabit Internet connections, in which case the opposite is true. If your current router is the bottleneck, then upgrading to 802.11ac will cause massive performance gains online. Lastly, regardless of how fast your Internet connection is, remember that 802.11ac will certainly help with LAN traffic. If, for example, you transfer a lot of large files locally on a shared drive or NAS device, and 802.11ac router will help speed up file transfers (as well as other types of local network traffic).

Aside from that, you’ll also want to consider what VPN you use, and for that, we’ve prepared a list of some of the best VPN and DD-WRT enabled routers.

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