At times, keeping up with technology can feel like a full time job. It seems that older technologies become obsolete every other month, and you need to stay current to maintain online privacy and to ensure that your computing devices are giving you the highest performance available. The latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11AC, offers lightning-quick wireless speeds that have never been seen before, and you need to know how this standard works to achieve the fastest home networking performance.
Current Compatibility Considerations
The precursor to 802.11AC was the 802.11N standard (also called ‘wireless-N’). Though wireless-N is still very fast even by today’s standards, too many consumers don’t understand how to take advantage of faster wireless speeds. For example, even if you purchase a wireless router that implements the 802.11AC standard, you won’t experience its benefits if your computing device is only capable of wireless-N. However, there is good news. Even if your computing device only has wireless capabilities that predate 802.11AC, your router will still be backwards compatible. You will still be able to connect to your wireless device, only at the slower data rate of the past standards.
802.11AC Data Rate Specifications
The first question everyone seems to ask themselves is, “How much faster is the 802.11AC standard?” Well, 802.11N had a theoretical maximum speed of 450Mbps. 802.11AC, on the other hand, caps out its theoretical maximum at an astonishing 1300 Mbps. That’s a whopping 1.3 Gbps which is incredibly fast. Though gigabit Ethernet connections are becoming more and more common, most of the existing Ethernet infrastructure in homes, hotels, and many offices caps out at 100 Mbps (for the Fast Ethernet standard). Essentially, 802.11AC is 13 times faster than Fast Ethernet!
However, these speed ratings are a little misleading and very atypical. Due to interference, obstructions, and distance from your wireless router, it is far more common to experience 802.11AC top speeds of 720 Mbps. Arguably, this is still incredibly fast.
Wireless Strength and Antenna Improvements
In addition, the 802.11AC standard can support up to a maximum of eight antennas. Unfortunately, it is very uncommon to see a home router with this many antennas. Manufacturers want to keep the cost of their products down as well as keep the size of their models small. Too many antennas increase the price and bulkiness of their routers.
You must also understand that 802.11AC will not really give you an improved range (conversely to the IEEE’s claims), but it does have the ability to give you a stronger signal within any given Wi-Fi coverage area compared to 802.11N. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but consider that both signals operate in the 5 GHz frequency. However, 802.11AC includes an intelligent feature called beamforming. Without this feature, your antennas act as omnidirectional antennas that transmit the signal equally in all directions. On the other hand, beamforming is able to understand what direction your wireless signal is coming from and increase the signal strength to that area. For a little help on selecting your next wireless router, check out my top selections for best Wi-Fi routers for 2015.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, most wireless routers that implement the 802.11AC standard are going to give you the best performance if you have 802.11AC compliant computing devices. It is doubtful that you will experience the quoted top speeds, but there is nothing faster on the market. In addition, 802.11AC will provide a single user (or even multiple users in some situations) with a wireless speed that is higher than their internet connection to ensure that you gain the highest speeds that your ISP provides.
You can also check out our pick for fastest VPNs to go with your new 802.11AC (Whenever you get it).