Sat. May 18th, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The Wi-Fi 7 specficaition offers speeds up to 46 Gbps, almost five times faster than Wi-Fi 6, with EHT technology.
  • Wi-Fi 7 utilizes the 6 GHz band for less interference, lower latency for cloud computing, and load balancing for overall improved performance.
  • Purchasing a Wi-Fi 7-enabled router will get you faster speeds, but an upgrade will likely only be worth it if your router is older than Wi-Fi 6.

While some developments in some tech might seem to have slowed down in recent years, wireless connectivity is still seeing improvements by leaps and bounds. Wi-Fi 7 is here, sporting transfer speeds that might make Ethernet cables obsolete. Let’s take a look at the proposed spec and what it promises.

What Is Wi-Fi 7? How Fast Is It?

Wi-Fi 7 is a specification for Wi-Fi devices that officially debuted in January 2024, and it builds on the previous official specification Wi-Fi 6E. It’s based on the draft 802.11be standard, published in May 2021.

The most show-stopping feature of Wi-Fi 7 is that it might make wired Ethernet connections obsolete for a certain class of both home users and professionals—the first live demonstration of the standard in early 2022 showcased some mind-blowing speeds.

Wi-Fi 7 can theoretically support bandwidth up to 46 gigabits per second (Gbps) per access point, which is just shy of five times as fast as the maximum 9.6 Gbps speed of Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax). The draft authors call this “Extremely High Throughput,” or EHT.

Ethernet ports on a Wi-Fi Router.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

Currently, commonly-available wired Ethernet technology maxes out at 10 Gbps (10GBASE-T), although it’s basically non-existent in consumer devices at the moment. And although higher speeds (such as Terabit Ethernet) exist in specialist settings like data centers, its arrival in the home or small business setting—if it ever happens—is likely far off.

So for current users of both Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi 7 might be able to replace the need for wired connections under optimal conditions—though purists and power users will likely continue to use hard-wired connections for the foreseeable future.

What Else Is Cool About Wi-Fi 7?

Aside from the theoretical potential of blazingly fast speeds of Wi-Fi 7, the Wi-Fi Alliance plans to include other notable improvements in the Wi-Fi standard.

Full Utilization of the 6 GHz Band

Full utilization of the new “6 GHz Band” (actually 5.925–7.125 GHz), was first supported in Wi-Fi 6E. The 6GHz band is currently only occupied by Wi-Fi applications (although that might change), and using it results in dramatically less interference than the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz bands.

Even Lower Latency

The Wi-Fi 7 spec aims at “lower lateness and higher reliabilities” for time-sensitive networking (TSN), which is essential for cloud computing (and cloud gaming). It’s also a critical requirement for replacing wired Ethernet connections.

Person gaming on the Razer Blade 18
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

While Wi-Fi 6 already offers significant improvements over Wi-Fi 5 in the latency department, the goal of Wi-Fi 7 is to provide consistent single-digit millisecond latency for all devices across the entire network—and not just for the devices in the optimal coverage area.

Wi-Fi 7 offers Multi-Link Operation (MLO) with load balancing and aggregation that combines multiple channels on different frequencies to deliver better performance.

This means a Wi-Fi 7 router can utilize all bands and channels available dynamically to speed up connections or avoid bands with high interference. This improvement, along with the others listed here, is how Wi-Fi 7 can hit a theoretical maximum throughput three times higher than Wi-Fi 6.

Upgrades to 802.11ax

According to its specifications, Wi-Fi 7 offers direct enhancements of Wi-Fi 6 technologies, such as 320 MHz channel width (up from 160 MHz in Wi-Fi 6), which allows faster connections, and 4096 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) technology that allows more data crammed into each hertz.

Your Wi-Fi 7 Questions Answered

Netgear Orbi 970 Wi-Fi 7 mesh system box and contents on a table.
Jerome Thomas / How-To Geek

Talking about specs is fun, but for day-to-day use people have much more concrete questions. Let’s take a look at the most frequent questions we get about Wi-Fi 7.

Is It Backwards Compatible?

The Wi-Fi 7 spec spells out backward compatibility with legacy devices in the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz bands, which means you don’t need all-new devices or hardware to connect to a Wi-Fi 7-enabled router.

Just like your Wi-Fi 5 devices work on a Wi-Fi 6 network (and, conversely, your Wi-Fi 6 devices work on a Wi-Fi 5 network), the Wi-Fi 7 standard continues the tradition of cross-generation compatibility. Naturally, however, you won’t get all the benefits of Wi-Fi 7 unless you’re using a Wi-Fi 7 device with your Wi-Fi 7 router.

Is It Significantly Better Than Wi-Fi 6 and 6E?

On paper and in laboratory tests with compatible gear, yes, Wi-Fi 7 is significantly better than previous Wi-Fi standards.

However, like with all previous Wi-Fi generations, you won’t see the full benefit of Wi-Fi 7 until you pair it with Wi-Fi 7 hardware. That said, the Wi-Fi 6 optimizations we mentioned in the previous section will help Wi-Fi 7 routers provide an even better experience to Wi-Fi 6 devices on your network.

Is Wi-Fi 7 More Secure?

Given the number of facts and figures you have to take in to compare Wi-Fi generations to each other (as well as the seemingly limitless number of routers out there) it’s easy to get confused about security standards.

The Wi-Fi standard is separate from the security standard, Wireless Protected Acess (WPA) used by modern Wi-Fi hardware. Wi-Fi 5 supports WPA2, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E support WPA3, and Wi-Fi 7 ships with WPA3 support. (In theory, a WPA4 is on the distant horizon but as of now you’ll find little more than a passing reference in the form of “WPA4 (TBD)” sprinkled here or there in technical documents.)

In short, when you purchase a new Wi-Fi 7 router it will have the most current Wi-Fi security available and will be as secure (or more secure) than your current router depending on the age of the replaced router model.

Do I Need a Wi-Fi 7 Router?

If you’re rocking an ancient Wi-Fi router, especially one struggling to meet your household’s growing demands, you’d likely be well served to snap up a Wi-Fi 7 router.

If you recently bought a nice Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E router, however, there’s no rush. While there are clear benefits to the Wi-Fi 7 standard even if you’re a cutting-edge sort of user that adopts new technology as soon as it comes out, it’ll be a while until you see tangible benefits from switching your home over to Wi-Fi 7 if you’re already on Wi-Fi 6 or better.

Chasing performance benchmarks is fun, but in real-world applications, you only need so much bandwidth to watch YouTube videos on your phone or sit on a Zoom call at work.

So if you have a dusty old mid-tier router you bought off the shelf at Best Buy five or more years ago, consider upgrading. But if you’re already rocking a current and premium setup, feel free to sit it out for a spell and wait for the Wi-Fi 7 prices to drop (and more end devices to support it).

How Does Wi-Fi 7 Compare to Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, and Ethernet?

Wi-Fi 7 Certified sign by a TP Link router at CES 2024.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

We’ve touched upon this in previous sections, but when it comes right down to it what most people care about is: how much better is the next generation of Wi-Fi compared to what I have right now? Not only is that a perfectly fair question but it’s really the only question you should care about in the end, because upgrading with no benefit is a waste of money.

Wi-Fi 7 Compared to Wi-Fi 5 (What You’re Probably Using)

If your router is reasonably new, it probably supports Wi-Fi 5, technically known as 802.11ac. Assuming your device is also Wi-Fi 5-enabled, you can expect to get a maximum transfer speed of 3.5 Gbps.

However, that’s the theoretical maximum speed for optimal conditions only. You probably won’t actually achieve that speed. It’s influenced and brought down by factors like your internet plan, your Wi-Fi router’s location and surroundings, your device’s location (as well as what Wi-Fi generation your device supports), and interference coming from nearby networks.

Wi-Fi 7 under optimal conditions rockets past 5 with a maximum speed of 46 Gbps—a more than 750% increase. Not only that, but it’s also capable of utilizing bands that Wi-Fi 5 can’t access. That wider spectrum gives your router more elbow room, so to speak. Nearby networks won’t have to compete so rabidly for the same channels, allowing for reduced interference.

Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll jump directly from Wi-Fi 5 to 7 unless you seriously procrastinate about upgrading your equipment. You’ll probably switch to using Wi-Fi 6 or 6E before a Wi-Fi 7-enabled device ever gets in your hands.

Wi-Fi 7 vs. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E

If you’re on the bleeding edge of wireless technology, you’re probably using Wi-Fi 6, or less commonly, Wi-Fi 6E. If you were to upgrade to Wi-Fi 7’s draft specs right now, the improvement in speed capabilities wouldn’t be quite as dramatic as switching from Wi-Fi 5, but still impressive. Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, under optimal conditions, can achieve speeds of up to 9.6 Gbps, only a third of Wi-Fi 7’s capability.

Wi-Fi 6E has access to the same 6 GHz band that Wi-Fi 7 does, avoiding the congestion problems of the 2.5 GHz and 5 GHz bands. What 6E doesn’t have, though, is the Multi-Link Operation (MLO) we discussed above, which further enhances Wi-Fi 7’s ability to avoid interference.

That means Wi-Fi 7 handles the same channels that 6E does, but more effectively. Other advantages over Wi-Fi 6 and 6E include higher quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) and broader channel bandwidth.

Wi-Fi 7 vs. Ethernet

Right now, a wired internet connection is almost always faster and more reliable than your home Wi-Fi connection. Some have speculated, though, that a Wi-Fi 7 connection will be better than wired. This is potentially true only if you’re talking about Ethernet cables graded below Cat-8, which is a category of Ethernet cable that can be rated for speeds of up to 40Gbps. That said, Cat-8 is intended for data centers, not your home network. The cable that came with your router is most likely a Cat-5 or Cat-6 cable, rated no higher than 10Gbps.

As always, these comparisons are only valid if your network is set up in optimal conditions, which is difficult to achieve. Wi-Fi 7 does bring meaningful improvements to the battle against interference and latency, though, and, of course, Ethernet cables themselves are subject to slow-downs and issues. In fact, when we first tested a Wi-Fi 7 system, the Netgear Orbi 970 system, we found the speeds were quite comparable to our wired speeds.

All that said, there will always be people who prefer to use Ethernet and, as we’ve pointed out before, the surest way to remove congestion from your home network is to stop using Wi-Fi (and lean on Ethernet to do the heavy lifting).

How Do I Start Using Wi-Fi 7?

Acer Predator T7 Router Monitor at CES 2024.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

With all this information in hand, there’s the final million-dollar question. How can I jump on board with the speedy future of wireless networking?

First, you’ll need a Wi-Fi 7-enabled router. Believe it or not, they’ve been around for a while now. TP-Link announced a line of Wi-Fi 7 routers in late 2022, and a few months later ASUS announced two premium Wi-Fi 7 routers at CES 2023. More are arriving on the scene regularly, including the Netgear Orbi 970 which we reviewed. To help you choose, we’ve also put together a list of the best Wi-Fi 7 routers available right now.

To actually get the most out of your Wi-Fi 7 router, though, you’ll also need Wi-Fi 7-enabled computers and smartphones. Right now, there are a few laptops like the Acer Aspire Vero 16 that can take advantage of those speeds. As of mid-2024, only select premium smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra support Wi-Fi 7 connectivity, so you’ll be paying a pretty penny for those sweet, sweet next-gen specs.

You might notice the sizable price tag that comes with Wi-Fi 7 routers as well, so if you need to upgrade your network but aren’t ready to commit to the bleeding edge, check out our overall top picks for routers on the market. You can also save a few bucks extra by considering our favorite budget routers. Whichever way you choose to go, it’s clear these are exciting times for wireless networking.

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By John P.

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