Wifi 5 vs. Wifi 6: Understanding the 10 Key Differences


Launched in 2014, Wifi 5 was the leading technology for wireless local area networks for several years. However, since 2019-2020, Wifi 6 has become prevalent, with large-scale shipments worldwide. This article explains the differences between Wifi 5 and Wifi 6, the pros and cons of each, and the rise of Wifi 6E, the latest offering. 

Wifi 5 vs. Wifi 6

Wifi is a prevalent technology used all over the world. Virtually every smartphone has some form of Wifi connectivity. Wifi refers to “wireless fidelity” and was coined as a tradename by a group of tech companies, the Wifi Alliance. It is a technology that uses radio waves to enable computers, smartphones, smartwatches, and other electronic devices to access the internet and also communicate with each other in a wireless personal area network. 

In its most primitive form as ALOHAnet, Wifi originated in Hawaii in 1971. WaveLAN was then developed in 1991 and became the precursor to today’s IEEE 802.11 Wifi standards. Since its advent, wireless technology, specifically Wifi, has kept evolving with the release of more sophisticated standards over the years. A few years back, Wifi 5 was the highest Wifi standard available. However, Wifi 6 has been released and has begun to penetrate the global market.

What is Wifi 5?

Wifi 5 or IEEE 802.11ac is the fifth generation of wireless networking standards in the IEEE 802.11 set of standards which provides high throughput in a wireless local area network (LAN) using the 5GHz band frequency. Wifi 5 was released in 2014 and brought several upgrades from the previously used Wifi 4. Wifi 5, while a wonderful innovation, has pros and cons. 

The pros include:

  • Wireless data transmission in Wifi 5 occurs on the less congested 5GHz band frequency. The previous Wifi standard, 802.11n, operated using both the 2.4 and 5GHz bands, while others used only 2.4ghz. The 2.4Ghz band is hardly ideal as it has many devices running using that radio frequency. To make it worse, other types of wireless networks also use the same frequency. Wifi 5 tries to solve this problem by using a different, less congested frequency channel, the 5GHz band.
  • Wifi 5 has better performance and speed than its predecessor, Wifi 4. Wifi 5 boasts a theoretical maximum attainable connection speed of 6.9 Gbps. This is a huge advantage considering that a few years ago, devices could only dream of a few bits being transferred per second. 
  • There is increased channel width with more advanced MU-MiMO technology allowing more significant amounts of data from up to 4 users to be effectively transferred.
  • Signal modulation of Wifi 5 is more efficient than the previous generation.

The cons are:

  • Signals cover a shorter distance due to the 5GHz band. 
  • Backward compatibility might be an issue as devices operating with 2.4 GHz may not work well with the 5GHz Wifi 5.
  • The initial cost of installing it can be high.

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What is Wifi 6?

Wifi 6 is the official market name for the wireless computer network operating in the 802.11ax standard. It is also known as AX Wifi or high-efficiency Wifi. It is the successor of 802.11ac (Wifi 5). Wifi 6 is quite an exciting improvement to the Wifi technology in general. Its principal design is to improve Wifi connectivity in highly dense environments such as malls, dense residential areas, corporate offices, buildings, etc. Released in 2019, IEEE 802.11ax uses the standard 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands, with the 6GHz band to be introduced in Wifi 6e. 

The pros of Wifi 6 include:

  • It preserves battery life by integrating Target Wake Time (TWT). Devices operating using Wifi 6 networks generally last longer. This is because Wifi 6 connections are automatically “switched off” when not in use, and the device goes to sleep. This comes in handy, especially in the setting of IoT devices that may not need constant Wifi activity. 
  • Wifi 6 offers faster speed than Wifi 5, both for a single device and much more when multiple devices are connected to one router.
  • It has better safety protocols for safe internet surfing. 
  • Backward compatibility with Wifi 5 and Wifi 4 devices, among other standards. 
  • Increased number of devices supported by one router.

It also has the following cons:

  • It involves a high cost of installation and devices when you purchase smartphones and laptops with Wifi 6 technology.
  • It has a relatively short range of connectivity.

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Wifi 5 vs. Wifi 6: 10 Key Differences

Keeping up with the constantly changing Wifi standards can be challenging. Each release has more modifications, better specifications, and increased usability. However, there is still some overlap with consecutive Wifi standards. This then requires every individual that uses Wifi and internet technology to know the critical differences between Wifi 5 and Wifi 6. These differences include: 

1. The name of Wifi standard

When Wifi was first released, names based on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11 standard were given to each unique medium. For easier marketing, the Wifi Alliance made the different standards adopt more specific names based on their position in the generations of Wifi standards. Wifi 5 used the designated name IEEE 802.11ac. The newer Wifi 6 standard is named 802.11ax. These two should not be confused with each other. 

2. Power consumption and battery life

The battery life of electronic devices is one of the most critical specifications individuals look out for when considering a new device. Even if the power supply is consistent enough, it is always neither convenient nor aesthetically pleasing to lug a charger around. Some devices, especially in the case of IoT device management, are not created for repeated charging. This means that a Wifi standard that can reduce the amount of power drained by Wifi connection will be a better option, as Wifi tends to strain battery reserves.

Wifi 6 offers this unique battery conservation benefit due to a new feature not found in previous generations called the Target Wake Time (TWT). TWT is a technology that allows the amount of unproductive time a peripheral device spends connected to the Wifi network to be cut down. 

Target Wake Time allows the access point to communicate with a device, instructing it to put the Wifi radio to sleep when not in transmission. Devices can determine when their Wifi will be active to send and receive data, thus increasing their sleep time. While this feature may not be convenient for active smartphone users, it is perfect for internet of things (IoT) setups that do not require a constant active internet connection with longer-lasting batteries.

Wifi 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 Wifi 5 than Wifi 6.

3. Network security protocols

The importance of network security in wireless networks can never be over-emphasized. Wifi as a wireless network allows multiple devices and users to be connected by one access point to the internet. Wifi is also commonly used in public places where there is less control over who can connect to a network. In corporate buildings, necessary information will need to be protected from malicious hackers trying to destroy or steal data. 

Wifi 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 Wifi 6-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. 

4. Speed of data transfer 

Speed is one significant and exciting feature new technology must work on before release. Speed is vital for everything that happens on the internet and every type of network topology. Faster rates mean shorter download times, better streaming, faster data transfer, better video and voice conferencing, faster browsing, etc.

Wifi 5 has a theoretical maximum data transfer speed of 6.9 Gbps. In real-life experience, the 802.11ac standard has an average data speed of about 200Mbps. 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 Wifi 6. In addition, Wifi 5 MU-MIMO technology comfortably allows just four devices to connect simultaneously. More devices mean congestion and bandwidth sharing leading to lesser speed for each device. 

Wifi 6, in contrast, is a much better option in terms of speed, especially when it comes to congested networks. It uses 1024-QAM modulation and boasts a theoretical maximum of up to 9.6Gbps. The difference between Wifi 5 and Wifi 6 speeds per device is not so vast. Wifi 6 is invariably faster, but the real speed advantage comes when multiple devices are connected to the Wifi network. The exact number of connected devices that will cause a significant drop in speed and internet strength for Wifi 5 devices and routers will hardly be noticeable using Wifi 6.

5. The approach to beamforming

Beamforming is a signal transmission technique that directs wireless signals towards a specific receiver rather than spreading the signal from different directions. Using beamforming, an access point can send data directly to a device rather than broadcasting the signal in all directions. Beamforming is not a new technology and has been present in both Wifi 4 and 5. In Wifi 5 standard, just four antennas were used. However, Wifi 6 makes use of eight antennas. The better the ability of the Wifi router to use the beamforming technology, the better the data rate and range of the signal. 

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6. Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA)

Wifi 5 uses a technology known as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM) for network access control. It is a technology that controls the number of users accessing a specific subcarrier at a particular time. In the 802.11ac standard, the frequency channels 20, 40, 80, and 160 MHz have 64, 128, 256, and 512 subcarriers, respectively. This dramatically limits the number of users that can connect to and use the Wifi network at a given time. 

On the other hand, Wifi 6 uses OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access). OFDMA technology multiplexes the already existing subcarrier spaces on the same frequency bands. By doing this, users do not have to wait in line for a free subcarrier but can easily find one.

OFDMA assigns different resource units to multiple users. OFDMA requires four times the number of subcarriers per channel frequency found in the previous technology. This means that in the 20, 40, 80, and 160 MHz channels, there are 256, 512, 1,024, and 2,048 subcarriers, respectively, in the 802.11ax standard. This results in lesser congestion and delays even when multiple devices are connected. OFDMA increases efficiency, reduces latency, and is ideal for low bandwidth operations.

7. Multi-User, Multiple Input, Multiple Outputs (MU-MIMO)

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. 

Wifi 5 uses a downlink, unidirectional 4×4 MU-MIMO. It means multiple users to a specific limit can access the router and a stable Wifi connection. 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.

In Wifi 6, 8×8 MU MIMO technology is used. This can handle up to eight devices connected and actively using the wireless LAN without any interference. Better still, the Wifi 6 MU MIMO upgrade is bidirectional, meaning the peripheral device can connect to the router on multiple bands. This means improved ability to upload information to the internet, among other uses. 

8. Frequency 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 6 family. The fact that Wifi 6 uses both the 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. 

9. The availability of BSS coloring 

BSS coloring is another feature of Wifi 6, differentiating it from its predecessors. It is an entirely new feature of the Wifi 6 standard. BSS or basic service sets itself is a feature of every 802.11 network. However, only Wifi 6 and future generations can decipher the BSS coloring from other devices using a BSS color identifier. This feature is crucial because it helps to prevent overlapping signals. 

10. Difference in latency 

Latency refers to the delay in transferring data packets from one location to another. Low latency speeds tending to zero are more optimal and indicate little or no delay. Wifi 6, compared to Wifi 5, offers lesser latency, making it perfect for businesses and corporate organizations. Home users will also appreciate this feature of the latest Wifi models because it means faster internet connections always. 

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Towards Wifi 6e: The Next Generation

In 2021, Wifi 6e was launched. This was barely a year after the release of the Wifi 6 standard. Wifi 6e simply means the existing Wifi 6 technology is extended to include the 6GHz band. Wifi 6e is not very much different from Wifi 6, yet it opens a whole new world of possibilities for the internet user. Both networks are not very different because they both utilize the same IEEE 802.11ax standard. This makes Wifi 6e an augmentation to Wifi 6 rather than another generation of Wifi technology. 

Nonetheless, there are some apparent differences between Wifi 6 and Wifi 6e. The most critical and defining difference between these two technologies is the opening up of an entirely new band frequency to Wifi technology. Wifi 6e operates on three bands, the overused and highly congested 2.4Ghz, the crowded 5Ghz, and the 6 GHz, unique to Wifi 6 devices. The 6 GHz band exists without interference or overlap. This means less latency and, of course, faster speed! As the world is rapidly tilting towards newer technologies like VR and 8k streaming, 6Ghz is the perfect step up to the future. 

Lastly, the new Wifi 6e has more channels, including seven 160 MHz channels on the 6 GHz band. This is a far cry from Wifi 6, which had only one 160 Mhz channel on the 5 GHz band. One minor drawback is that while the Wifi 6 bands are backward compatible, the Wifi 6e advantage of the 6 GHz band is only available for Wifi 6 network hardware devices. 


Wifi 6 is rapidly becoming the staple in wireless networking and will be central to IT infrastructure over the next few years. It is vital to understand the differences between Wifi 5 and Wifi 6 to be able to transition to a more robust networking landscape and decide which networking standard is applicable for which use case. As connectivity remains central to modern enterprises and enterprise IoT becomes the norm, knowledge of these differences and functionalities will become more critical than ever.

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