Everything you need to know about Wi-Fi on the Mac, iPhone, or iPad
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Even the simpler Wi-Fi numbering system doesn't help explain the technology, speeds, and limitations all that well. This essential guide will explain all you need to know about the names and terminology of Wi-Fi networking.
For most people, their knowledge of Wi-Fi extends about as far as entering the network password from their Internet provider's router into their iPhone or iPad. In many cases, that's all anyone should care about, but that all changes when you have to go into making your own Wi-Fi network.
Though this guide won't talk you through trouble-shooting network issues or how to set up a Wi-Fi network from scratch, it will go over some of the names and concepts that you will need to know about if you need to take charge of your home network.
What is Wi-Fi?
Simply put, Wi-Fi is a wireless network between devices, using short range radio waves. Devices that connect to a Wi-Fi network contain antennas and components that can both transmit radio signals and receive them, with the radio messages consisting of packets of data.
Many people associate Wi-Fi with Internet access, but Wi-Fi isn't the Internet connection itself. Wi-Fi is one of the ways that a device can establish a connection to other computers or devices, like a router, which has a connection to the Internet that it shares.
This isn't always the case, as a Wi-Fi network can be set up to function without offering any Internet access to users at all, such as to share files between computers offline.
Typically a Wi-Fi network offers a way to connect to a wider network within a building, and operates alongside a wired Ethernet network. Depending on how the network is set up, Wi-Fi devices are generally able to communicate with wired hardware and vice versa, with little friction.
Much like other technologies that advance, there are elements of backwards compatibility built in to hardware, allowing it to be used with newer and older hardware. In practice, this would allow a new iPhone that works with the latest commercial standard to still work with Wi-Fi networks using older standards fine, albeit at slower speeds than the newer standards allow.
Lastly, the name Wi-Fi is largely meaningless, as it is a mutation of Hi-Fi, which is short for High Fidelity and discusses audio systems. Though Wi-Fi could be read as "Wireless Fidelity," this is a somewhat meaningless phrase that has been adopted globally.
How fast is my Wi-Fi?
One of the more intimidating elements of Wi-Fi is the names given to different Wi-Fi standards, defined by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) since the 1990s. All of the standards start with the same 802.11 number, but the ending changes depending on the version of the standards in use.
The suffix is made up of either one or two letters, used to identify the 802.11 variant in use, for example 802.11ac. Confusingly, the letter changes do not go in alphabetical order over time, but instead jump around.
Furthermore, as 802.11's standards cover a large range of bands, there are also letter codes that relate to bands that are not typically used for Wi-Fi, such as mmWave and Light (for Li-Fi) connections, or have unusual use cases. For this guide, we're sticking to those typically used for standard Wi-Fi.
Each version typically builds upon the previous, and makes small changes that can improve the connection in different ways. These can include coverage of different bands of frequency, the amount of bandwidth in a band, the modulation, the supported range, the number of allowable MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) streams, and most importantly, the stream data rate.
The stream data rate is the most understandable to consumers, as it is effectively the maximum theoretical speed of transfers per stream, or how much data could be passed over the connection. Generally, the higher the number, the better, though other factors such as approximate range of usage can also play a part.
In terms of current Wi-Fi networks, the slowest people will encounter will be 802.11b, which has a maximum theoretical speed of 11Mbps. Both 802.11a and 802.11g offer theoretical speeds of up to 54Mbps, but they function using different frequency band ranges.
|IEEE Standard Name||Wi-Fi Alliance Name||Maximum Throughput||Bands|
|802.11a||Wi-Fi 1 (unofficial)||54Mbps||5GHz|
|802.11b||Wi-Fi 2 (unofficial)||11Mbps||2.4GHz|
|802.11g||Wi-Fi 3 (unofficial)||54Mbps||2.4GHz|
|802.11n||Wi-Fi 4||600Mbps||2.4GHz, 5GHz|
|802.11ax||Wi-Fi 6||9,806Mbps||2.4GHz, 5GHz|
Generally, Wi-Fi operates in either 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands, radio frequency ranges that offer different benefits. The 2.4Ghz band is generally better for range, but generally at slower speeds, and it can be interfered with by microwaves and other appliances. While 5Ghz is typically faster, its range and weakness against solid items like walls make it more useful for open areas with good line-of-sight lines and fewer obstacles.
In the case of 802.11b and 802.11g, they use the 2.4Ghz range, while 802.11a opts for 5Ghz.
For 802.11n, the maximum speed possible is 600Mbps, with the jump attributed to being the first Wi-Fi standard with support for MIMO to increase the data rate by having four streams instead of one. It also takes advantage of both 2.4Ghz and 5GHz frequency bands.
The introduction of 802.11ac brought with it gigabit speeds, with a maximum possible connection of 6,933Mbps under ideal, but highly excessive, conditions with multiple devices. In reality, as routers and cards can have varying amounts of antennas and other related components that limit what they can handle, the actual achievable bandwidth is closer to 1.3Gbps.
Its improvements are due to increasing the size of channels within a band from 20 and 40Mhz to 80 and 160MHz, as well as up to eight streams, beamforming, multi-user MIMO, and other extras. Oddly, it only supports 5GHz bands, though routers that are marketed as supporting it also offer 2.4GHz networks by taking advantage of other standards that use it, such as 802.11n.
The latest official standard in use is 802.11ax, which was released in 2019. Operating in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges, it boosts the limit of four MU-MIMO streams at a time to eight, as well as the use of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) to split down each stream in four, making it ideal for device-heavy environments.
As the newest, it also has the fastest theoretical speed of 9,806Mbps. This is a highly impressive figure, but again this is under ideal conditions and refers more to the maximum throughput of a router handling multiple devices than reality, though users can still expect gigabit-level speeds.
While 802.11ax is faster than its predecessor, remember the core benefit is in how it handles large numbers of devices in a graceful manner.
With all of the speeds, people do have to bear in mind that these are theoretical maximums, and that they will almost certainly operate at slower speeds in practical use. Also, Internet connections will always be limited to a maximum speed of whatever the connection offers, and generally it won't be enough to saturate a Wi-Fi network's total bandwidth availability.
What is Wi-Fi 6?
In October 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to try and simplify the naming structure of Wi-Fi networks, by asking its members to use a new naming system. Instead of trying to keep track of 802.11 suffixes, the Wi-Fi Alliance instead opted to go for the simpler "Wi-Fi" followed by a number.
While it does the same job as before, indicating what standards a device is compatible with, it does so by increasing the number. As higher-value numbers are newer, they tend to be faster, and will be backwards compatible with the previous few generations.
The naming scheme officially started with 802.11ax, which is being referred to as Wi-Fi 6. The 802.11ac and 802.11n versions are named Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4 respectively.
Rather than referring to 802.11b, a, and g as Wi-Fi 1, 2, and 3, the Wi-Fi Alliance instead declined to officially name them as such, and they instead retain their original designations. While Wi-Fi 1, 2, and 3 technically don't exist, they can be inferred to mean those three generations.
What is the future of Wi-Fi standards?
The next generation of Wi-Fi standards are already being worked on by the IEEE, with the in-development standard "802.11be" the strongest candidate for the job. As it is still being worked on, and with an expected final version by 2024, it has features that are still being worked on that may not necessarily be added to the final standard.
For a start, 802.11be could take advantage of 6GHz spectrum, bands that regulators around the world are working on to free up for public networking usage. With more bands to use, this means there's more potential bandwidth to take advantage of by networks, but only if regulators playball.
There may also be improvements to MIMO. While MU-MIMO allowed a Wi-Fi access point to send data to multiple client devices at the same time, UL MU-MIMO (Uplink MU-MIMO) will do something similar for transmitting data from clients to access points.
Meanwhile, CMU-MIMO (Coordinated MU-MIMO) will take advantage of mesh networking and the possible increase to 16 streams to enable multiple access points to service a user with data at the same time. For home users, this could involve improvements in mesh networking, with better speeds using multiple routers simultaneously.
As the Wi-Fi Alliance officially controls what is known by the Wi-Fi Number system, there's no guarantee that 802.11be will be Wi-Fi 7, but there's already some changes afoot.
In January 2021, the WI-Fi Alliance suggested it could use the term Wi-Fi 6E to refer to hardware that not only supports Wi-Fi 6, but is also capable of "6GHz operation." In effect, this would mean a router could be set up to function with not only 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, but also 6GHz.
While this would bring Wi-Fi 6E hardware into the territory of Wi-Fi 7's planned support, it would do so by being an alteration to an existing standard, rather than an entirely new generation.
What's the difference between dual-band and tri-band routers?
The terms dual-band and tri-band refer to ways a router and other Wi-Fi hardware can connect to each other, specifically with regards to the amount of bandwidth it can muster.
A dual-band router is typically capable of providing two signals for Wi-Fi connectivity, with one in the 2.4GHz spectrum and one in 5GHz. Some older routers may only be able to offer bands in one or the other, but not both simultaneously.
For home users, this gives the benefit of supporting older 2.4GHz hardware not capable of using 5GHz networks, or connecting to a 2.4GHz network in areas where the 5GHz network is unavailable. As bandwidth is finite, it also means there's two different ways a device can connect to the network, with the user able to separate devices out to even out connections and reduce bottlenecks.
While a tri-band router may suggest it uses a third band other than 2.4GHz or 5GHz, in reality it's the ability to assign one more band for usage. For example, while a dual-band router may provide one 2.4GHz signal and one 5GHz signal, a tri-band version may offer one 2.4GHz signal but two for 5Ghz.
This is typically performed by having the two 5GHz signals working on two different channels, subdivisions within a frequency range, that it operates through. This effectively allows for two 5GHz signals to operate without interfering with each other or consuming each other's bandwidth.
The usefulness of this is largely to allow more 5GHz-supporting hardware to connect at faster speeds, by again dividing devices between the two.
As devices connect to one signal and not to two or more, generally there isn't any aggregation of signal at play, namely that you can't take advantage of two completely clear 5GHz signals to have double the bandwidth of one signal for a particular device. It is plausible for a device capable of maintaining two Wi-Fi connections simultaneously to take advantage of the extra bandwidth, but given that such bandwidth-intensive operations usually rely on wired networking, this isn't a common scenario.
What are mesh networks?
One last related Wi-Fi subject to touch upon is mesh networking. The brief version is that it is a router and multiple access points working together to create a single Wi-Fi network across a large area.
Mesh networking has its benefits compared to Wi-Fi repeaters, such as the latter typically creating a secondary network for users to connect to, which won't have the same network credentials as the original. As a mesh system works in concert, there's typically only one actual network in use, no matter the number of access points, allowing for continuous coverage without reconnecting when one router hands off to another after a device moves location.
The concept of multi-band usage is essential for mesh networks to give optimal performance to users, as it increases the amount of bandwidth that's available to use. As the access points have to pass data along to others to reach the router, this can considerably increase the amount of data being transferred across the network at a time.
For tri-band hardware, this opens up the possibility of using one of the three band allocations to handle backhaul, namely the passing back of data between access points until it reaches its destination. By taking advantage of unused bands, or by dedicating a band just for this activity, this frees up the remaining bands for consumer use, minimizing the impact the inter-access point transfers may have on a user's experience.
What Wi-Fi does Apple's products support?
As to be expected, Apple has included Wi-Fi support across practically its entire range of products. There are some support differences across the ecosystem, but it's nothing to worry about.
For Macs and MacBooks, all models include support for 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) and backward compatibility for previous generations, though the Mac Pro has the opportunity to use Wi-Fi 6 by taking advantage of PCIe expansion and installing an aftermarket wireless card.
While iPads have the same support for Wi-Fi 5, the current iPad Pro range supports 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) under "simultaneous dual-band Wi-Fi," so it is capable of connecting to 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks at the same time. This is more a convenience feature than performance, improving the connectivity between multiple networks for the user.
Current-generation iPhones including the iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11, and iPhone SE all support Wi-Fi 6, while the iPhone XR and iPhone XS both are compatible with Wi-Fi 5 networks.
Furthermore, all of the iPhones include MIMO support, which means it can send and receive more packets of data over Wi-Fi than one without. All of the versions listed use 2x2 MIMO antennas. While the iPhone 11 Pro spec sheet mentions 4x4 MIMO, this only applies to the LTE connection, not Wi-Fi.
The Series 3 and Series 5 Apple Watch list their specifications as working with 802.11b, g, and n networks with 2.4GHz bands. Both the Apple TV 4K and Apple TV HD connect over Wi-Fi 5.
Generally speaking, the entire Apple device catalog offers decent networking opportunities, as well as a considerable level of future-proofing that should ease most user's connectivity worries for the coming years.
As a member of the Wi-FI Alliance, Apple is also expected to push forward with support for newer standards as they become available. As evidenced by the 2019 iPhones and the iPad Pro, Apple is prepared to introduce the standards where appropriate, and as an ardent early adopter, it is likely that whatever comes next, Apple will also seek to include.
Is my router's Wi-Fi fast enough?
Knowing that Apple's current range of hardware supports the faster Wi-Fi networking standards is comforting, as you can be assured that your iPhone, iPad, or Mac will get decent speeds across both the network and from the network's Internet connection. However, it is only part of the equation.
The problem with backward compatibility in technologies is that it brings speeds down to whatever the slowest device is capable of using. Switching from one network to another may induce connectivity whiplash, as a user may find their high-bitrate video streams suddenly devolve to a pixelated mess, simply because they moved from a network supporting newer Wi-Fi generations to an older version.
For your home network, it is more likely that the router will be the bottleneck than Apple hardware connecting to the network. Most people are willing to set a router up but then leave it for considerable lengths of time, refusing to update it because it's still working and providing just enough speed to provide a decent-enough Internet connection.
If you feel the router may be slowing down your network due to only supporting older standards and not newer versions, consider upgrading it to a newer model. Even if it's a router supplied by your Internet provider, it can either be worked around by passing the Internet connection through to a new router and letting it handle Wi-Fi duties instead of the original, or asking tech support if it can be replaced with a newer model that does support Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6.
Routers can also slow down in a number of other ways, such as having too many wireless devices connected to it. Try reducing the number of Wi-Fi connections in use, and if the router is dual-band or tri-band, consider setting devices to connect over specific bands and even out the bandwidth usage.
In built-up areas, there's also more chance that other Wi-Fi networks will be competing for airwaves, which can also be a problem. Many routers are able to check channels within a band to determine where there is free space for its own network to operate, something that can usually be triggered within its settings menu.
This search can also be performed manually, with iOS users able to take advantage of a "Wi-Fi Scanner" function within Apple's AirPort Utility app. Once enabled via Settings, the app will provide a "Wi-Fi Scan" option that will list Wi-Fi networks in the area, as well as their currently-set channels, which can help in deciding which channel to use for your own network.