Wireless networking is kind of like an emergency kit for your car. You don’t really think much about it when it’s there, but you’re going to notice it’s missing when you need it. Also, you want to make sure it’s set up to give you the best possible experience.
And that’s exactly what I’m tackling in this week’s Ask Lifehacker column: figuring out a simple, but important aspect of your home wifi setup so your devices can connect at their best speeds.
I’ll let reader Danny explain:
“Is there an optimal way to allocate QUANTITY of devices to either the 2.4G or 5G WiFi band at home? I understand the range/speed considerations, but assuming all devices are dual band compatible, is it better to have 10 stationary devices near the router on 5G and 2 mobile devices on 2.4G or should they be allocated more evenly (ie. 6 on each) or based on bandwidth needs (ie. echo dots and thermostats on 2.4G and Nest cams/streaming devices on 5G) rather than parsing by stationary vs mobile devices?”
For those who aren’t as well-versed in the ways of wifi, allow me take a moment to explain what’s going on. Most modern routers — if they aren’t terrible — operate on two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. In practical terms, that means your router probably asks you to create an SSID and password two different wireless networks when you initially set it up. (Some routers allow you to use one SSID/password for both, and it’s then up to your devices to decide whether they connect to either 5GHz or 2.4GHz.)
I recommend you go the route of having a separate SSID for each band, so you can then allocate your devices based on your needs. Here’s why:
Connect to a wifi network on the 2.4GHz band, and you’ll probably have better range — you’ll be able to watch videos, read websites, and do whatever else on your devices from as far away as possible. Connect to a wifi network on the 5GHz band and you’ll give up some of this range for speed. It’s the only way you’ll get the best possible speeds for wireless-ac devices you own (when paired with a wifi router of similar capabilities), and the band is generally less congested when you’re connecting wireless-n devices (which can also run at faster speeds than on a 2.4GHz connection, depending on their capabilities and how far away they are from your router).
Got it? In other words. 2.4GHz is for range, 5.0GHz is for speed — a very simplified way to look at it, but a decent rule of thumb to go by.
Now, to address the root of your question, I’d consider the bandwidth needs of your devices above all else. For example, you’ll probably be fine to connect your smart speakers to your 2.4GHz band, as I doubt they need to pass very much data back and forth. Your smart TV? Same deal, unless you’re doing a lot of streaming (e.g. Netflix). Then, I’d probably go 5GHz to avoid interference and maximise speed — assuming your TV is close enough to your router for that to matter.
A tablet you keep in a room that’s fairly far away from your router? You might need to go 2.4GHz to get the best connection. (As I type this, I’m sitting on a 2.4GHz network with my wireless-ac laptop, which annoys me, but I get absolutely nothing to work with if I connect to this house’s 5GHz network. I’m just too far away from the router for that to help.)
Your Nest camera? You can probably get away with 2.4GHz, since it’s just streaming a 1080p video. (That likely eats up around 5Mbps, which is pretty negligible.) Your laptop? 5GHz all the way, unless you find that you’re unable to get a good connection at a distance. Same with your wireless-ac smartphone (if you have one).
While this advice might sound backwards, I’d use 2.4GHz for your devices that wouldn’t benefit from a super-speedy connection, and I’d save 5GHz for the devices where speed is a priority.
There are two reasons why you wouldn’t just dump everything on 5GHz, which feels like it would make logical sense — being the band that allows you to tap into faster speeds. First, there’s the aforementioned range issue. Second, the more devices you connect to one of a router’s wifi networks, the slower it might go. That’s not because you’ve simply connected a bunch of devices, since they won’t impact anything if they aren’t actively transmitting a lot of data. If you have 20 devices connected to 5GHz, however, and a number of them are actively eating up your connection, that could result in slower speeds for everything else.
Or, as Google puts it:
“Whenever a device connects to your Wi-Fi network, it has to fight with other devices for bandwidth (internet speed). A TV streaming Netflix, a laptop downloading, an Xbox Live gaming session — they all want the fastest connection. But there’s only so much bandwidth to go around. Your bandwidth is stretched thin, resulting in a slower connection.”
And here’s Netgear’s take:
“However, since the router’s wireless channel is shared between all the wireless clients, adding clients will inevitably result in slower network access for all clients. This will be particularly noticeable if some of the clients are using a lot of wireless bandwidth, for example by watching a video or doing a torrent download. Therefore, the maximum number of wireless clients that will operate satisfactorily while connected to the same router will vary depending on what the devices are used for. It will also vary depending on how much wireless congestion or interference are present in the location where the router is installed.”
I suspect this isn’t as large of an issue when you’re using a wireless-ac router, since you’ll have a lot more bandwidth on a typical AC1200+ router (at least 1.3Gbps) than a typical N300 or N600 wireless-n router (a maximum of 300Mbps on each band, but typically only 150Mbps on your 2.4GHz band). A number of connected, data-hungry wireless-ac devices will slow down service for all, but the effects on your much-slower wireless-n devices shouldn’t be that obvious—since they’re already slower to begin with.