ZDNET - Feb 28, 2024

What is Wi-Fi 7 and just how fast is it?

What is Wi-Fi 7 and just how fast is it?World

Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor | Feb. 28, 2024 at 2:00 a.m. PT


Wi-Fi 7 is the fastest wireless network around - up to 5.8 Gigabits per second and beyond. Fast enough for you?


Recently, the Wi-Fi Alliance gave Wi-Fi 7, officially known as 802.11be, its blessing, and our homes and offices will soon see speeds of -- believe it or not -- almost 5.8 Gigabits per second (Gbps). 

Actually, just between us, I don't believe Intel when it states, "a typical Wi-Fi 7 laptop [will] have a potential maximum data rate of almost 5.8 Gbps." I've benchmarked too many networks to buy the top-end numbers. However, I can believe that a Wi-Fi 7 hookup can hit real-world speeds of over half that number, say 4Gbps, and that's more than fast enough for anyone not running a high-performance supercomputer cluster at home. 

Also: 10 ways to speed up your internet connection today

So, how will Wi-Fi 7 leave Wi-Fi 6E, which I've seen running at up to 1.5Gbps, eating its dust? The answer is that Wi-Fi 7 manages that kind of speed thanks to multiple new features, including:

  • Increased Channel Bandwidth: Wi-Fi 7 doubles the maximum channel bandwidth from 160MHz to 320MHz, allowing for faster data transmission. The bigger the MHz range, the more data you can pack into it. With this expanded bandwidth, you can see higher-than-ever wireless download speeds.

  • 4K Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM): This feature enables each signal to pack up to 120% more data into a channel than Wi-Fi 6E. 

  • Multi-Link Operation (MLO): This feature allows devices to spread connections across two or three bands (2.4 GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz), enhancing speed and stability. If one band is out of range, the device seamlessly switches to another without needing to reconnect. This process is called bonding or aggregation.

  • Improved Latency: The integration of all three bands reduces the airtime restriction, increasing the likelihood of immediate data packet transmission. This aspect is particularly beneficial for applications requiring low latency, such as online gaming and video conferencing.

  • MU-MIMO Enhancement: Wi-Fi 7 supports more multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output (MU-MIMO) spatial streams. This enables routers to communicate with more devices simultaneously. This feature enhances network efficiency, especially in crowded environments.

  • Multi Resource Units (RU): With legacy Wi-Fi 6/6E and earlier, when part of a high-speed channel is being used by another device, the entire channel is unavailable. With Wi-Fi 7, the channel can be shared if there's available room. 

Wi-Fi 7 operates on the same 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz bands, so it's backward compatible with previous Wi-Fi standards. But while older devices can still connect to Wi-Fi 7 networks, they won't benefit from its higher performance or most of its new features. Some features, however, such as beamforming, which targets devices, may deliver higher data rates.


By doubling the number of supported MU-MIMO streams to 8x8 MU-MIMO, Wi-Fi 7 can also talk to 16 devices at once. That capability could help your older devices as well -- if, and it's a big if, your router comes with 16 antennas. Many 6E routers, for example, which can support up to eight antennas, only come with four, while most Wi-Fi-enabled devices, such as phones and laptops, only come with two antennas. 

In other words, to get the most from Wi-Fi 7, you need all your gear to support the new standard. As always, the slowest link in your network connection will determine how much speed you get. 


What all that means for you is that with the right equipment, you'll be able to enjoy 8K movies, augmented reality/virtual reality gaming, and faster-than-ever large file downloads. 

Also: How to convert your home's old TV cable into powerful Ethernet lines

For home networks, Wi-Fi 7 enhances the performance of smart home devices, providing a more reliable connection for Internet of Things technologies. The improved bandwidth and speed are perfect for families, like mine, that have multiple devices streaming high-definition content simultaneously. Your overall Wi-Fi performance, whether it's just you or your family and friends, will see a dramatic improvement. 

In businesses, Wi-Fi 7 can support more devices with minimal interference. This capability makes it ideal for large offices and coworking spaces. The improved speed and stability facilitate seamless video conferencing and efficient cloud-based applications, which are essential for modern companies.

Also: The best mesh Wi-Fi routers: Expert recommended

All that's the good news. The bad news is that the 6GHz wireless spectrum uses shorter wavelengths. Short wavelengths are great for fast data transfers at close range, So, they're great for connecting to your Wi-Fi 7-enabled HDTV a few feet away from your router. However, short wavelengths are lousy at connecting at long distances and suffer greater interference from physical obstructions, such as dense walls or floors in a building. There, you're still using the 2.4GHz and 5GHz connections that you've been using since 802.11n Wi-Fi networks showed up in 2008.


Eventually, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will finalize the Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) system. This system will allow Wi-Fi 7 devices to operate at increased power levels. The fix, which firmware upgrades will distribute, will increase Wi-Fi 7's range and overall performance.

Some Wi-Fi 7 routers are already available. These devices include the Eero Max 7, $1,699.99; Netgear's Orbi 970 Series, $2,299.99; and the Netgear Nighthawk Tri-Band WiFi 7 Router, $699.99. What you'll notice from those figures is that Wi-Fi 7 routers are not cheap. And I don't see their prices dropping anytime soon. Of these, my favorite is the high-priced but extraordinarily fast Orbi 970.

Also: What is an AI PC? (And should you buy one?)

Now, you may be asking yourself, if the Wi-Fi Alliance only just started certifying Wi-Fi 7 devices, how can these routers already be available? Easy, this standard has been in the works for a long time. If you already have a Wi-Fi 7 router or you're going to get one, you can count on getting a firmware update soon to ensure that your devices will be compatible with the final standard.

If you really need bleeding-edge speed, you can go ahead and get Wi-Fi 7 devices today. After all, Wi-Fi 7, with its enhanced speed, increased bandwidth, and improved stability, is a significant leap forward in wireless technology. But, honestly, I think most people should wait until more devices support Wi-Fi 7 and the prices come down. 

Now, let's break everything down with answers to some frequently asked questions.


How fast is Wi-Fi 7?

Today, in theory, the technology can go as fast as 5.8Gbps. Eventually, it will hit a maximum throughput of 30Gbps. That's more than three times as fast as Wi-Fi 6's 9.6Gbps top speed. Keep in mind, though, that a network is only as fast as its slowest component. So, if you're stuck with, say, a 6 Megabit per second (Mbps) DSL internet connection, your internet is still only going to deliver 6Mbps speeds.


Is Wi-Fi 7 backward compatible?

Yes, it is. All your existing laptops, smartphones, and TVs will still run with a new Wi-Fi 7 router, the same as they ever did. However, devices manufactured before 2024 are unlikely to support Wi-Fi 7. That limitation means your older gear won't go any faster than with Wi-Fi 7. Again, it's a case of you'll only get the speed of your slowest network equipment. For example, a Wi-Fi 5-equipped laptop, with its top throughput speed of 7Gbps, won't be able to go any faster.


Will I need new equipment to use Wi-Fi 7?

Yes, you will. To make the most from it, you need a minimum of a Wi-Fi 7 router and a Wi-Fi 7-enabled device. That said, you can still use your older hardware with a new Wi-Fi 7 router.


What applications support Wi-Fi 7? 

All your existing applications will run just fine with Wi-Fi 7. Where you're going to want Wi-Fi 7 is with newer, high-end programs, such as augmented, virtual, and extended reality (AR/VR/XR) applications, immersive 3D training, and ultra-high definition (8K) video streaming. To make the most of those technologies, you're going to need Wi-Fi 7. 


Are there other benefits from Wi-Fi 7 besides speed?

You bet. Its built-in signal modulation tricks can help your network work when you're signal is competing with your neighbor's Wi-Fi network. Wi-Fi 7's latency -- the time it takes to send data from one device to another -- has also been reduced. That reduction means time-sensitive programs, such as AR/VR/XR and real-time games, will work better. If you're a competitive gamer, every millisecond of lag counts, and Wi-Fi 7 can help you win.


Can Wi-Fi 7 help me with older applications?

Yes, it can. For example, thanks to its built-in multilink operation, which enables devices to send and receive data over all three bands (2.4Ghz, 5GHz, or 6GHz), Wi-Fi 7 can shift between them, or combine them, as needed to give you the best possible speed. That way, if your downstairs neighbor kids start watching 4K videos on three separate TVs at once, your network will automatically adjust to make the most of the existing network space.


Does my iPhone support Wi-Fi 7?

Your older iPhones -- yes, even your brand-new iPhone 15 Plus -- don't work with Wi-Fi 7. iPhones, starting with the iPhone 11, only support Wi-Fi 6. The first iPhone to support Wi-Fi 7 is expected to be the iPhone 16 Pro and iPhone 16 Pro Max. These devices are expected to appear in September 2024.


Does my Apple Vision Pro support Wi-Fi 7?

No, it doesn't. Many people are expecting the next Vision Pro, again expected to arrive in September 2024, to support Wi-Fi 7. I'd be shocked if it doesn't.


What smartphones do support Wi-Fi 7 today?

At this moment, the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra is your only choice. The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra also has a Wi-Fi 7 compatible chip in it, but Samsung has yet to update its firmware to turn it on. Any time now would be good, Samsung; I'm just saying. With Qualcomm's latest Wi-Fi 7 chip having just arrived at Mobile World Congress, you can count on the next-generation model of your favorite smartphone having Wi-Fi 7 built-in and activated.


Can I add Wi-Fi 7 to my existing computer?

Maybe. You'll need a free PCIe NGFF 2230 M.2 slot in your computer. In that slot, you'll place a $40 Intel BE200 Wi-Fi 7 adapter. Your PC must also be running Linux or Windows and have an Intel processor. 


How does Wi-Fi 7 compare to Wi-Fi 6? 

Wi-Fi 7 is 2.4 times faster than Wi-Fi 6. Its double-large, 6GHz channel size -- 160MHz to 320MHz -- is like an interstate highway going from two to four lanes. In short, you get much more room for data.


Is Wi-Fi 7 worth it?

Do you need cutting-edge network technology, and are you willing to pay for it? Then, yes, it is. I do, and I've already upgrade most of my gear to work with Wi-Fi 7. But most people can afford to wait. I'd say the majority of early adopters should wait until the third quarter, September 2024. By that time, most top-of-the-line smartphones and laptops will support Wi-Fi 7. Everyone else can wait until the 2024 holiday season, when I expect most hardware will come with the technology ready to run.


Source: https://www.zdnet.com/home-and-office/networking/what-is-wi-fi-7-and-just-how-fast-is-it/?utm_source=flipboard&utm_content=topic%2Fmobile

ZDNET - Feb 28, 2024