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Understanding Different Types of WiFi Standards (B,G,N,AC what?)

WiFi is a convenient technology that we find in our laptops, mobiles, and tablets. However, when it comes to troubleshooting the wireless network, nothing appears easy and convenient. For many of us, WiFi is just a simple method used to connect to the internet wirelessly. But in reality, it is far more complex terminology that comprises of numerous technical jargons often misunderstood by people.

Our routers and laptops use a lot of different types of WiFi standards such as 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. You will find this combination of a few different numbers and letters tagged on the end of the wireless router spec sheet, but many of us generally don’t bother about them while purchasing a router. The later standards are backward compatible with earlier ones, so they don’t put much impact on the basic functionality. The problems arise when the speed and performance of the connection aren’t as good as you’d expected. You’ll need to scrutinize the problem yourself to find a fix and that means you need to have some knowledge about different WiFi standards.

What are WiFi Standards and who created them?

WiFi standards decide the range and speed of a WiFi network. These standards are created and managed by an organization known as the WiFi Alliance, a worldwide network of companies that promote a common standard for wireless Internet connections.

Following are the most common WiFi standards that you should know about. There are some others too, but they are just a minor extension to the previous ones. In most cases, it just adds to the speed.

802.11: The initial standard

Created in 1997, this standard built the foundation for all WiFi technologies. The main drawback of this standard was that it was far too slow and provided just 2Mbps speed. Therefore, a major improvement was required after this standard. 802.11 has become completely extinct and wireless routers manufactured today don’t support it.

802.11b: More speed

Also referred to as 802.11 High Rate or WiFi, this was the first commercial wireless standard that kick-started the popularity of WiFi. It can achieve a maximum speed of 11Mbps and operate only on the 2.4GHz frequency band. The standard was created in 1999 and is now totally outdated. However, 802.11b clients are still supported by latest WiFi standards access points.

After the initial launch of the WiFi standard 802.11, 802.11b became the most commonly deployed in consumer devices. Its signal range was good and had a lower cost. However, it had certain cons as well such as slowest maximum speed. Moreover, being unregulated, it incurred interference from home appliances such as microwave ovens and cordless phones that operate on the same 2.4 GHz range. Wireless B has become obsolete and new routers using only this standard are no longer manufactured.

Pros of 802.11b:

  • Lowest cost
  • Good signal range
  • Not easily obstructed

Cons of 802.11b:

  • Slow maximum speed (11Mbps)
  • Incur signal interference from other devices on the unregulated frequency band

Consider using 802.11b if:

  • Range requirements are important. For larger facilities like warehouses, 802.11b will provide a cost-effective solution because of fewer access points.
  • You already have a large investment in 802.11b devices since migrating from a large-scale 802.11b system to the latest standard can cost you a lot.
  • End users are less populated. If there are relatively few end users, then 802.11b will likely meet performance requirements.

802.11a: Speed improvements with less range

Created in 1999, this version was the second extension to 802.11. It provided a speed of 54-Mbps and worked on the 5 GHz band. It offered fast maximum speed and regulated frequencies which prevented signal interference with other consumer devices.

Despite some positive aspects, it didn’t receive much popularity as that of 802.11b. It had a much shorter range and was costly. Due to its higher cost, it is usually deployed on business networks whereas 802.11b better fits the home network.

Pros of 802.11a:

  • Provides fast maximum speed
  • Regulated frequencies inhibit signal interference from other devices

Cons of 802.11a:

  • Higher cost
  • Shorter signal range that is easily obstructed

Consider using 802.11a if:

  • Much higher performance is required.
  • There is significant RF interference within the 2.4 GHz band.
  • End users are densely populated. Public places such as airports, railway stations, and computer labs need to support lots of end users. The use of 802.11a will handle a higher population of end users by offering greater total throughput.

802.11g: Speed improvements with good range

Three years later in 2003, the 802.11b was replaced by the much faster 802.11g. This standard achieved a maximum speed of 54Mbps and used the same 2.4GHz frequency for greater range. Since it was fast and signal range was good too, it was adequately deployed to many mobile devices such as the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3Gs.

Just like 802.11b, it also interfered with home appliances, which means you need to keep your router and computer away from these appliances. So you can say the main advantage of a Wireless G router over a Wireless B router is speed. Although 802.11g is also becoming obsolete, it remains even today as it is fast and routers lacking the support of the new 802.11n standard are very cheap.

Pros of 802.11g:

  • Fast maximum speed
  • Good signal range
  • Not easily obstructed

Cons of 802.11g:

  • Costly than 802.11b
  • Incur signal interference from other devices on the unregulated frequency band

Consider using 802.11g if:

  • You only have a few computers in your house.
  • You don’t have much internet usage other than checking email and surfing the net.
  • You have entertainment systems such as PlayStation and you often play against other people online.

802.11n: Enter HD quality streaming

The most popular and common WiFi standard of today, 802.11n, was created in 2009. The standard brought a lot of improvements over the previous ones, such as making the first optional use of the 5GHz band, which is much less cluttered frequency. The 802.11n can operate on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands and support multiple wireless signals and antennas called MIMO (Multiple In – Multiple Out) technology.

In order to create a WiFi connection, the two devices need to operate on the same band, i.e. either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. For example, an iPhone 4 which operates on 2.4GHz client won't be able to connect to a 5GHz access point. However, iPhone 6 which is a dual-band capable client can connect with a dual-band router on just one band, most likely the 5Ghz.

Pros of 802.11n:

  • Fast maximum speed
  • Best signal range
  • Much resistant to signal interference from other devices

Cons of 802.11n:

  • More costly than 802.11g
  • The use of more than one signals may greatly interfere with nearby 802.11b/g based networks

Consider using 802.11n if:

  • You have several computers using high-bandwidth sites such as Netflix and YouTube at the same time.
  • You often download a lot of large files.
  • You have entertainment systems such as PlayStation and you often play against other people online.

802.11ac: The Newest generation of WiFi

Also referred to as 5G WiFi, this is the latest WiFi standard that operates only on the 5GHz frequency band. It delivers data rates of 433Mbps per spatial stream, and can reach up to 1.3Gbps in a three stream (three-antenna) design. It can even offer WiFi speeds of up to 2167Mbps or even faster when used in the quad-stream (4x4) setup. The standard also arrives with 1x1, 2x2 and 3x3 that cap at 450Mbps, 900Mbps and 1,300Mbps respectively.

Generally speaking, Wireless-AC standard is about three times as fast as Wireless-N. Since it has to work less to deliver the same amount of data, it is much better for battery life, meaning it is ideal for mobile devices. 802.11ac standard operates entirely in the 5GHz spectrum. As a result, the 5GHz spectrum tends to be 'quiet', which means there is much less interference from neighborhood WiFi. The second advantage is that 802.11ac makes ‘beamforming’ an important part of its spec, which means rather than scattering wireless signals equally in all directions, it detects where devices are and strengthens the signal in that direction.

Pros of 802.11ac:

  • Fastest maximum speed (3 times faster than N)
  • Best signal range

Cons of 802.11ac:

  • Some devices don't support AC.

Consider using 802.11ac if:

  • You have a large house and your WiFi signal doesn’t reach all the rooms.
  • You live in a highly populated area. A wireless AC router will be advantageous because not many people will be operating their home networks on the 5 GHz band. This will give you a very great speed advantage and you will experience a good speed and performance.
  • You have entertainment systems such as PlayStation and you often play against other people online.
  • You want your computers to be able to stream multiple videos simultaneously without lowering down the performance.

Conclusion

If you want to upgrade to Wireless AC, make sure that the wireless interfaces on your devices support this technology. Not every device supports this standard and, therefore, you need to check with your device’s manufacturer to see what technology is supported.

Other than that it is just a matter of choosing Wireless AC or N, as those are the fastest and the obvious choice if you are thinking of streaming anything. The only thing holding you back might be device support.


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