802.11ac Networking: What it is and why you should be excited
Your wireless network is about to get a lot faster
by Adam Holisky on June 1, 2011
Back in the early 2000s, wireless networking was the new hotness. With the right equipment, you could take your laptop anywhere in your house and get on your 1MB broadband internet connection. It was slow and sluggish, but boy, oh boy was it neat!
Today, it's hard to imagine a world without wireless networking. It's practically assumed that whenever you walk into a coffee shop or a bookstore, you'll find a wireless internet connection waiting for you. Many people have given up on wired networking entirely in their homes, instead opting for the ease and affordability of wireless.
The next generation of wireless networking, sometimes referred to as 5G (for fifth generation), is right around the corner. It's called 802.11ac, and you're going to be hearing a lot about its use in new routers, computers, and mobile devices soon.
What is 802.11ac?
At the most basic level, 802.11ac is the next step up in wireless networking. It'll allow you to reach speeds of up to 1.3GB per second (almost three times faster than current 802.11n wifi networks), so you'll be able to stream and download information over your wireless network even faster than you can now.
A big benefit of 802.11ac is that it's entirely backward-compatible with existing wireless systems (just as today's 802.11n hardware is backward-compatible with 802.11b and 802.11g, which came before it). Your current wifi devices will be able to access an 802.11ac network without expensive new hardware. Of course, you won't be able to take advantage of the new speeds, but you'll still be able to get online and have all the fun you currently enjoy.
Why should you care?
Ever want to throw your tablet or remote control across the room when your streaming movie stutters or needs to pause and buffer just when you get to a good part? That's about to become a thing of the past. One of the big reasons to be excited about the new 802.11ac networking is that you'll be able to vastly expand your digital entertainment without any hassle. Right now, you're able to stream high definition shows over 802.11n networks, but only one at a time — and even then, if you don't have perfect conditions, you might not have the best experience.
With 802.11ac, you'll be able to stream multiple HD shows at once. If you've got two or three people watching Netflix streams in different rooms while downloading future episodes to watch later and playing online games all at once, you still won't experience any quality degradation!
What about availability?
As of late May 2012, only a couple of 802.11ac-capable routers are available. That's okay, because your current wireless network hardware will be compatible with the new 802.11ac systems. This means you can get a new 802.11ac router and still use your existing wifi devices to access your network. You don't need to buy anything new; you just won't be able to take advantage of the enhanced speed with your old components yet — until the next generation of computers and other devices support the new standard.
So why make the jump, then?
In the next month or two (or even sooner!), expect to see a bunch of 802.11ac USB and PCIe network adapters go on sale. These will allow desktop and laptop computers to make use of the new, higher speeds. Just be aware that when the technology is new, you'll often end up paying a premium price for it. Be ready to shell out a little extra money.
Eventually, 802.11ac will be available in things like the next iPad or Android phone. However, this won't happen overnight.
The Bottom Line: What should I do?
If you've got a current wireless networking setup in place and everything is peachy, hang tight. There's no need to upgrade something that isn't broken and works well.
If you've got a wireless system that's on the fritz or is languishing with an 802.11g router as a bottleneck, it's time for an upgrade. Give some serious thought to purchasing an 802.11ac router now, and then grab the new connection dongles and hardware when they become available.
It all comes down to getting the most bang for your buck in the long term. 802.11ac is here to stay, so you likely won't burn yourself now by becoming an early adopter if you need to.
This article was written by Adam Holisky and originally appeared on Tecca.com.