Why you should care about 802.11ac Wi-Fi

It's like the Wi-Fi you're used to, but better in every way

Wi-Fi is changing. The new 802.11ac standard is set to take over from the 802.11n most of us are currently using, but you're probably wondering what the difference is…

What is it?

It's like the Wi-Fi you're used to, but turbocharged.

What happened to 802.11n?

Don't worry – your trusty 802.11n Wi-Fi is still with us but, in case you hadn't noticed, it has its limitations. Its relatively narrow 2.4GHz band is crowded with computers and mobile devices, leaving barely enough room to swing an HD movie stream.

How much faster is it?

It's up to three times faster than n. While the older n specification maxes out at 450Mbps, the ac specification is capable of up to 1.3Gbps. However, that's in laboratory conditions – in the real world you'll get a still-spankingly-fast 800Mbps.

What else is new?

802.11ac also has a longer range which should spell the end for dead spots in the far reaches of your home, thanks to its cunning 'Beamforming' technique. Rather than pinging out its Wi-Fi signal equally in all directions, it will lock onto connected devices and concentrate the signal at their direction.

802.11ac isn't a very catchy name.

Neither was 802.11n, but you still use that every day. If you want to call it by a different name, it's also referred to as 5G Wi-Fi, Gigabit Wi-Fi or occasionally AC Wireless.

Why haven't I seen it around?

Technically it's still a draft version of the specification, meaning that while it works, the fine details of the standard haven't been nailed down – so not everyone has jumped onboard (yet).

Can I buy gadgets with 802.11ac in them?

Absolutely. There are a handful of new routers available, but the rest of your wireless gadgets will need to be ac-equipped to make use of the higher speeds. The new Apple MacBook Air, AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule are some of the first big-name products to feature the new tech.

Will my old kit work with it?

Yes – 802.11ac is backwards compatible with 802.11n products, which is most of the tech from the last five years. However, an 802.11ac router won't work at full speed in the compatibility mode required.

Okay I'm sold. So when should I upgrade?

By all means, if you're currently in the market for a MacBook Air or AirPort Extreme, dive right in, but 802.11ac is unlikely to be widespread for a couple of years. If you wait a little while it will come down in price, so at the moment it's only really essential if your current setup is struggling with streaming hi-def video or other bandwidth-munching activity within your own home, as your internet connection speed will still be limited by your outside connection to your ISP.