You are going to hear a lot in the next few months about tri-band Wi-Fi routers. Netgear just announced its Nighthawk X6 AC3200 Tri-Band Wi-Fi Router (R8000), which starts shipping on July 11, and other vendors are sure to follow. What’s likely to jump out most for consumers about these routers are the advertised speeds: 3 Gbps and higher.
Yes, that is crazy fast throughput, far exceeding the 1Gbps wired speed of most consumer networking devices. But don’t get too excited.
Boosted Speeds Not Entirely the Goal
Upcoming marketing campaigns from router manufacturers will likely focus heavily on the beyond-Gigabit speeds. However, the real benefit of triple-band routers is to efficiently handle multiple devices connected to a wireless network, not to significantly boost throughput beyond 1300Mbps at 5GHz.
A dual-band router offers two wireless networks: one operating on the 2.4GHz band and the other on 5GHz. The highest-tiered dual-bands support speeds of up to 450Mbps at 2.4GHz and 1300Gbps at 5GHz.
Tri-band routers have three wireless signals: one at 2.4GHz and two on the 5GHz band. The Nighthawk X6 supports up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, and 1300Mbps on both 5GHz signals. Hence, the “AC3200” in the product name: 1300+1300+600. That 3200 is the combined speed of the signals, not the potential throughput of a connected client to the router.
That’s somewhat sneaky advertising. And Netgear is not the only router manufacturer guilty of it—they all do it. Of course, when a router is cited as supporting up to 1300Mbps or 450Mbps, that is throughput you will never see in your apartment or home. That’s speed clocked by engineers in environments with zero wireless interference; it’s not a real-world figure.
Then there is the issue of giving customers false expectations. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that while browsing at Best Buy, a customer is likely to reach for the router with the package that has “AC3200” over “AC1750,” thinking that means they are getting a better, faster router.
Not necessarily. First, as Netgear made explicit in its presentation about the X6 (kudos to them): If you connect two devices to a dual-band AC1750 router that supports up to 450Mbps at 2.4GHz and 1300Mbps at 5GHz, and then connect the same two devices to the X6, an AC3200 router, you are unlikely to see any performance gains.
Second: There will probably be the assumption among a few customers that higher numbers mean faster overall Internet connectivity. No, no, no, no! Remember, your Internet bandwidth is fixed based on your service terms with your provider. That said, I have seen a good router help bump up and optimize an Internet connection. Still, the priciest most tricked-out wireless router will not turn your 10Mbps down Internet speed into 25Mbps.
Lack of Supported Mobile Devices
Lastly, there is the issue that there still aren’t wireless clients with sophisticated enough wireless adapters to support the newest 802.11ac routers. Sure, more and more mobile devices are shipping with 802.11ac support. However, these clients have 2×2 wireless adapters. That means their chipsets support double stream transmit and receive signals. These high-end 802.11ac routers, including Netgear’s X6, support 3×3, or triple spatial streams for transmitting and receiving. That means that client-side technology is not yet as evolved as the router-side. The law of computer networking is that your network is only as fast as the slowest link. If you drop hundreds on upgrading to the best routers, switches, and any other networking equipment, your 2×2 wireless clients are still not going to be able to connect at the faster speeds of those devices.
My sources tell me 3×3 supported wireless clients will start coming to market by end of this year. I for one, want to test how well the first batch of these clients work with the 802.11ac routers already on the market for over a year before getting excited about how they work with tri-beam routers.
However, don’t let me stop you from eagerly anticipating the latest generation of Wi-Fi routers. We will be getting them in the PC Labs and testing them. Just know what you will or won’t get with these new devices before dropping a couple hundred dollars on them