802.11ac Wi-Fi Explained – What Is It & Why It’s Cool

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At Apple’s latest WWDC, we heard them announced the new OS X Mavericks and iOS 7, but what some might have missed is their new MacBook Air with 802.11ac Wi-Fi. If you don’t already know, Wi-Fi has a few standards, 802.11a/b/g/n. The latest and greatest is 802.11ac which is supposed to be much faster than 802.11n, currently the best on the market. What inspired this great naming sequence, we have no idea.

802.11ac Wi-Fi

(Image Source: Ixia)

But we are here to explain what 802.11ac means. Other than speed, there are a few new technological breakthroughs that 802.11ac can accomplished.

802.11ac Explained For Easy Understanding

802.11ac can also be referred to as wireless-AC and is called Gigabit Wi-Fi, a step up from previous generations that were in the Megabit range (1 Giga = 1024 Mega). This makes the new standard roughly three times faster than wireless-N.

Gigabit Wi-Fi
(Image Source: Tom’s Hardware)

However, the speeds are only theoretical maximums as there are many variables and factors that can cause it to slow down.

Speedbump Factors

These factors can come from

  • interference in the air waves by other types of radio signals
  • having too many devices connected to the same wireless network
  • physical obstacles like walls
  • distance between your device and the router
  • congestion of sharing the same Wi-Fi channel as your neighbour.

These factors are hard to overcome completely, so wireless-AC tries to ‘overpower’ it by having supercharging the hardware and by bringing in more tech advancements.

Wider ‘Highways’

Wireless-AC has wider bandwidth capabilities of 80 MHz (and an optional 160 MHz). By comparison, Wireless-N’s bandwidth was only at 20 or 40 MHz. To explain this concept, imagine the MHz as lanes on a highway: 20 MHz represents 2 lanes and 80 MHz represents 8 lanes. The more lanes you have, the higher amount of data can pass through at the same time, thereby allowing you to maximize your connection speed.

Bandwidth
(Image Source: PlugThingsIn)

Crowded Frequencies

On top of wider bandwidth, wireless-AC runs on the 5 GHz frequency band which is not as crowded as the 2.4 GHz band. The latter is crowded by signals from cordless phones, Bluetooth headsets, baby monitors, remote door openers and almost every wireless thing in your home. Most consumer products go for the 2.4 GHz because the higher frequency of 5 GHz meant it has shorter range and does not penetrate solid objects well.

Beam Me Up Scotty

To overcome the limitations of using the 5 GHz frequency band, wireless-AC has a feature called Beamforming. Imagine wireless technology as a wave that spreads outwards, towards the router. Beamforming focuses on a specific direction instead, and via more than one transmitting antenna, thereby effectively strengthening the signal without any extra power consumption.

Beamforming
(Image Source: Technicafe)

MU-MIMO Top Up

The use of Beamforming then gets more efficient with Multi User – Multi Input Multi Output (MU-MIMO). MIMO isn’t new, but MU-MIMO allows communication with 4 different devices at the same time compared to only one device previously. More devices can connect to a single router, with less interference or conncetion disruptions.

Where 802.11ac Can Excel

Our homes are turning wireless, with devices like Smart TV, gaming consoles with wireless controllers, wearable technology and even smart locks for the front door. These devices require wireless connectivity to run its functions. Wireless-AC can help overcome the number of devices we want connected and reduce interference for smooth connections between all the wireless devices.

Note that unless you have a Gigabit internet connection, 802.11ac won’t let you surf the Internet on your wireless device much faster. Instead, it excels in wireless HD video streaming, gaming, syncing of devices, backups and sharing speed of large files between users on the same network.

802.11ac Devices In The Market Now

Apart from Apple’s latest MacBook Air and the upcoming refresh of the ASUS G75VW, other 802.11ac devices include the feature-filled Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Mega.

There are also a few companies like D-Link, Netgear, Linksys, Belkin, Buffalo and ASUS that have routers in the market with support for wireless-AC alongside the older wireless-N. Apple’s new AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule have also been updated with wireless-AC support.

Wireless-AC is backward compatible, which means most of your older devices would still work with a new 802.11ac router. However, in order to use wireless-AC at its full potential, you’ll need a device (PC, laptop, smartphone, tablet) that can receive the AC specification.

For desktop PC users, ASUS has a PCIE network adapter for your motherboard. Alternatively, you can get USB solutions from ASUS and Netgear to get wireless-AC on your laptop.

Note: Before purchasing any of these devices, you should read reviews of the devices to ensure you won’t run into any complications.

Wrap Up

Price-wise, wireless-AC routers are not much more expensive compared to current routers but there are few wireless AC devices in the market. You should know that 802.11ac is not officially finalized yet and the devices currently available in the market are still based on working drafts. The same thing happened when 802.11n first released. So whatever wireless-AC devices you get now may not work at its full potential until it’s finalized.

Author:

Brian is a Mass Communication graduate with a passion for everything related to technology, minimalistic designs, and every kind of gadgetry.

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