What is 802.11ac and do I need it?

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What is 802.11ac and do I need it?

Now that you know all about the benefits of separating your modem and router in your home, you might be in the market for a new router. If you've spent time looking around recently, you will no doubt run across routers with "802.11ac" promoted across their packaging that promises better speed and reliability. But what exactly is 802.11ac, and do you really need it?

Wireless devices connecting to a router.

The Basics

Just like routers that list B, G, and N wireless support, AC is simply the newest wireless standard. With every iteration of new wireless transmission standards, there are improvements that make the network smoother and your connection stronger. 802.11ac continues this trend by offering 2 major benefits.

Better Speed

Speed is always the headline feature when a new wireless standard is introduced, and it's no different with 802.11ac. The new AC standard can achieve theoretical maximum outputs that's 3x the speed over the previous N standard. But in real life terms, where there are walls and furniture, the gains are a more modest doubling. But even with more conservative estimates, the performance difference is between 50-150Mbit vs 250-300Mbit of transfer speed. This means with an AC router you can transfer data on your internal network much faster, and if you have a super fast internet connection, your new AC router will give you the best wireless performance your connection can deliver.

Better Range

The second benefit has to do with the way wireless signals are broadcasted. First, 802.11ac broadcasts only in the 5GHz spectrum. The 5GHz spectrum tends to be "quieter", meaning there are less cordless phones and baby monitors interfering with your wireless signal.

But more importantly, some 802.11ac routers include a technology called "beamforming". This technology allows those routers to create a "beam" of signal that's aimed directly at the device wherever it may be in the house, instead of broadcasting a wireless signal uniformly in every direction. Think of beamforming like a focused flashlight vs a traditional router that's more like a candle.

With beamforming, you will get better reception at every corner of your house since the router can concentrate energy and broadcast signal specifically to your area.

The (Big) Caveat

For you to take advantage of these 802.11ac features from your router, you will need a 802.11ac compatible device.

More and more laptops and smartphones today include 802.11ac as a standard feature. For example, iPhones since the 6 and Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy 5 and up all have 802.11ac support. Laptops and streaming devices are also gaining support. The new Apple TV and Google Chromecast both support the AC standard and so does every laptop Apple makes, along with other major PC manufacturers like Dell, HP & Lenovo.

As a general rule of thumb, if you bought a new wireless device in the last 6 months, there is a good chance it supports 802.11ac. If you're not sure, refer to your user manual.

So do you really need it?

Yes and no.

If you are in an environment where a majority of your devices are wireless and are AC compatible, you will probably see performance improvements across your entire network. If those performance gains are important to you, it could warrant an upgrade today, even if your current router is working fine.

Alternatively, if you are in the market for a new router anyways, it could be a worthy investment to choose an AC compatible router for "future proofing". Unlike smartphones or computers, wireless standards change (relatively) slowly, (For example, the N standard was approved in 2009)

Of course, purchasing higher-end router equipment is an investment in itself. It can still cost upwards of $150 to purchase a decent AC compatible router. So if you live in a small space, have older devices, or are just a casual internet user that does not have high transfer speed & streaming demands, you can certainly save your money now and eventually upgrade when AC routers become more affordable.

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