Faster Wi-Fi is here, but it’s off to a slow start


Wi-Fi is starting to go through a generational change, the kind of big upgrade that only happens once every five years or so. But while this faster new version of Wi-Fi has shown up inside plenty of routers across the CES show floor this week, it’s had a poor showing in the one place that really matters: our actual computing devices.

Only a handful of laptops — and no smartphones, tablets, smart home devices, PCs, or other gadgets that we’ve seen — have been announced this week with support for the new generation of Wi-Fi. That means that, even though you can go out to the store today and buy a next-gen Wi-Fi router, very few devices can actually take advantage of its faster speeds.

The new generation of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, is supposed to reduce battery demand, pack more information into each broadcast, and allow more devices to be reached at a time. It won’t necessarily provide immense speed gains, but it’s designed to do a better job of holding up inside households with a multitude of Wi-Fi-connected devices, as our homes increasingly are.

Wi-Fi 6 has been in the works for a couple of years, and 2019 is supposed to be the true kick-off point. The Wi-Fi Alliance, the group that oversees implementation of the standard, plans to begin certifying devices in the fall, at which point momentum should really pick up. So the tepid introduction at this year’s CES isn’t necessarily unexpected — realistically, routers are the first place we’d expect the tech to arrive. We’ll just have to wait a little bit longer for Wi-Fi 6 to arrive everywhere else.

The faster speeds are coming, though. HP and Dell, two of the world’s top three PC makers, each announced a laptop that included Wi-Fi 6 at CES this week, as did MSI, Asus, and Asus’ Republic of Gamers. Intel also announced that its next generation of processors would support Wi-Fi 6. And while there were no smartphones with Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 855 processor at the show, it’s already been announced that the chip will include support for Wi-Fi 6, too. That processor is destined for many of this year’s flagship Android phones.

In an email, a spokesperson for the Wi-Fi Alliance said, “based on what we are hearing at CES, we expect to see more of those Wi-Fi 6 consumer products this year.”

Still, if you’re buying a new gadget this year, it’s not guaranteed that it’ll come with support for next-gen Wi-Fi. That doesn’t mean you’ll be missing out in any major way, but it does mean the transition will take just a little bit longer.

Very likely, the move to Wi-Fi 6 won’t kick off in earnest until 2020, when — assuming no more delays on Intel’s part — laptops will be refreshed with a new generation of chips that include Wi-Fi 6 support. Qualcomm might bring the tech down to less expensive phone chips by that point; with any luck, Wi-Fi 6 support could hit the iPhone alongside its expected 2020 upgrade to 5G. Some cheaper Wi-Fi 6 routers would be a big help, too.

But for now, don’t expect to see Wi-Fi 6 on every spec sheet. It’s just not there yet.

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