Should I upgrade to the 802.11ac router?


Home networks used to be something only hardcore techies would dare set up. Now with smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, streaming video boxes and video game consoles all requiring the Internet, home networks are practically mandatory.

Fortunately, today’s networks are much easier to set up, thanks to wireless networks. No one likes running cables all over the house, after all.

For all the convenience, wireless networks do have a few drawbacks, mostly in the areas of speed and range. But these both improve with every generation of Wi-Fi.

The latest 802.11ac standard is no exception. Manufacturers boast speeds more than 3 times faster than the previous generation of Wi-Fi. That’s quite a jump!

To get that speed, you’ll need to buy a new router, of course. So the big question is if it’s worth the cost.

For those not up on the jumble of letters and numbers that relate to wireless standards, let me explain. 802.11 is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers designation for Wi-Fi. The letter following 802.11 indicates the version of the standard.

Up until this point, consumer routers have mainly used 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n, which are usually listed as ‘b,’ ‘g’ and ‘n’ on product packaging. You’ll also see 802.11a support on some routers, but don’t confuse that with 802.11ac.

In each newer Wi-Fi standard, speed and range increase. Plus, there are new encryption methods for security, new frequencies and plenty of other complex behind-the-scenes technology.

Now that there are more than 26 revisions to the 802.11 standard, we’re into the double letters. That makes the newest consumer version 802.11ac, or Wireless AC, or ‘ac’ or however else companies will choose to brand it.

So, back to whether or not you should buy. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

On the pro side, 802.11ac is blazing fast. At an advertised 1.75 gigabits per second, it’s actually faster than a high-end wired home network, which is impressive. Or at least it will be until 10 gigabit wired networking arrives.

In fact, 802.11ac is fast enough to stream high-definition video to several gadgets at once. In a media-heavy home, that is a definite plus.

As far as range goes, solid figures are hard to come by. It really depends on your home, router placement and other factors. Still, you should generally see a much more solid connection than you do with older Wi-Fi standards.

Unfortunately, that’s about it for the pro side. The cons are going to take a bit longer.

The major drawback is compatibility. To take advantage of 802.11ac features, you need gadgets that support the standard. Even after a year of 802.11ac routers on the market, very few gadgets do.

I’ve seen some laptops with it, and a few smartphones, including the Samsung Galaxy S4, now have it. The newest Apple products, such as the MacBook Air and Mac Pro include it. But it will take a while before every new gadget has it.

Just supporting 802.11ac isn’t enough either. To get the full benefit, the gadgets have to support the correct sub frequencies or have multiple antennas, and lower cost models probably won’t for a while.

So, you might get anywhere from 450Mbps to 1.75Gbps performance depend on your gadget. While even basic 802.11ac support is going to give you a very fast connection, it isn’t the connection you thought you were paying for.

Don’t forget that buying new 802.11ac gadgets as they appear is going to cost you.

Of course, nobody said you have to upgrade right away. Routers with 802.11ac also support all the old Wi-Fi standards, so your existing gadgets will still work. They just won’t be any faster than they already were.

Speaking of cost, though, routers with 802.11ac aren’t cheap. They start at $160 online and go up from there. So it’s not a small investment.

On the plus side, these are high-end routers, so you get all the latest encryption, parental control extras, multiple networks, multimedia packet shaping and so on, plus a gigabit wired connection. Once you buy one you shouldn’t have to upgrade for quite a few years.

In the end, it comes down to how you use the Internet. If you have one or two gadgets you use for social media and email, 802.11ac isn’t for you. You’re much better off sticking with your current router, or buying a low-cost 802.11n model.

If, however, you need a new router, and your home is filled with gadgets that are pulling down gigabytes of Internet traffic a day, definitely give 802.11ac a look. It might not do you good right away, but it will definitely help in the future.

For everyone else, I’d wait until 802.11ac routers drop in price and you already own a few 802.11ac gadgets.