Dear Lifehacker, My wireless router is slow as dirt, and I've been looking for a new one. I've heard about this new thing called 802.11ac. What is it? Is it faster, and will it make my home internet faster too if I buy a router that supports it? Sincerely, Need for Speed
Dear Need for Speed,
It's tempting, isn't it? 802.11ac is a hot new wireless technology that boasts faster speeds at ranges longer than 802.11n, the current king of wireless standards. It does promise some seriously impressive speed improvements over 802.11n, but there are some things to consider if you're thinking about investing in it. Here's what you need to know.
What Is 802.11ac?
You're probably familiar with 802.11a/b/g/n, all of which are protocols for the 802.11 wireless networking standard. You can safely bet that any device with Wi-Fi connectivity, from your laptop to your smartphone, supports at least wireless B or G, and if it came out within the past few years, it should support wireless N. 802.11n (or the latest draft of it, 802.11n-2009) is the fastest of the ones that are currently widely available. 802.11ac is a new Wi-Fi protocol and is intended to be the natural successor to 802.11n. You may have heard it called "5G Wi-Fi" or "Gigabit Wi-Fi". Chart: Tom's Hardware.
The best thing about 802.11ac is that it boasts throughput and data transfer speeds up to three times faster than 802.11n -- theoretically. Industry experts behind the standard note that it should be particularly good for streaming media (especially HD video), gaming and speedy data transfer. 802.11ac also extends the range of Wi-Fi networks, which should make it easier to cover your entire home with a single, powerful router.
All of this sounds great, but it's important to remember that the spec for 802.11ac is not finished yet. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has labelled it a draft, and there will likely be improvements to it in the future, which means firmware updates, better, more efficient routers and wireless cards, and (hopefully) more affordable components in the future. For more information on 802.11ac, check out this article at TechRadar, which goes into more detail about some of the promising technologies that 802.11ac routers will -- if they make it to market -- offer.
Is 802.11ac Available Now?
Technically, 802.11ac is already available. We say "technically" because there are routers available that support 802.11ac (and most of them are also backwards compatible with 802.11n) on the market, but most of them are very expensive for what you get. Also, there are very few 802.11ac wireless adaptors and cards by contrast. That means that while you can snag an 802.11ac router, you may have some trouble finding an adaptor and the appropriate drivers to make your computer work with it. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's similar to how 802.11n got its start. Routers started popping up, but there were no supporting devices for a while thereafter, so it had a slow start. Picture: CNET
That's not to say the hardware isn't out there if you look hard enough. Tom's Hardware has a great rundown of 802.11ac routers, and Ars Technica previewed the next generation of 802.11ac routers at CES this year. CNET also has a list of the best routers available. Most of the companies making 802.11ac routers are also making adaptors, so you can pop one into your USB port and make use of the extra speed the router has to offer.
Still, to say "802.11ac is available now" is a bit of a stretch. You're not going to go to the library or out to a cafe and find an 802.11ac hotspot, and those supporting routers probably aren't on store shelves at your local electronics retailer just yet. Even worse, most of them will cost you at least a couple of hundred dollars.
Should I Invest in 802.11ac?
We don't think you should run out to buy 802.11ac just yet. Don't get us wrong, if you run out and buy an 802.11ac router today, buy a bunch of adaptors and make all of your wireless devices ready for it, you can get some great performance on your home network (except on your smartphone or tablet, since there are none that support the new standard). That's where the benefits stop though. No matter how fast your home network is it's possible you'll be constrained by the slowest device on it, and you'll always be constrained by your connection to the internet (and even then, your connection to whatever service, website or application you're using.) Picture: TechRadar
802.11ac can definitely make file copies, streaming HD video, backups and other on-network tasks faster. But the price tag (which will be quite large considering you would have to get a new wireless card for each of your PCs) just doesn't make sense for most consumers just yet. This is exactly how 802.11n rolled out as well -- some people ran out and set up their whole home networks with it, and while they definitely enjoyed the speed, it wasn't until PC, smartphone and tablet manufacturers started building their products with 802.11n adaptors inside that the standard really caught on.
The same will happen with 802.11ac. There's already a rumour that Apple is hiring test engineers for 802.11ac, and that Macs coming out this year will feature it. As soon as we start seeing laptops shipping with it, expect the floodgates to open and prices to come down. That's when you'll know it's time to do your research, find a great router and buy in.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.