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Wi-Fi 6E is here – but who actually needs it?

The arrival of Wi-Fi 6E is a kick in the teeth for Wi-Fi 6 adopters, and those who recommended it to friends and family

Wi-Fi router with a person holding a cellphone

It’s not often a podcast makes me furious, let alone one I’m appearing on at the time. But if you listened to episode 580 of our sister publication’s PC Pro Podcast in early February, you’d have detected more than a trace of irritation when it came to the ‘Hot Hardware of the Week’.

On that show, you’ll hear Darien Graham-Smith eloquently explaining why the Netgear Orbi WiFi 6E mesh router is the best thing since sliced Hovis. 

Isn’t it brilliant, Darien enthused. There’s this new Wi-Fi standard – Wi-Fi 6E – and it allows you to smash data around the home at a terrifying rate, much faster than stodgy old Wi-Fi 6 that was released… about seven-and-a-half minutes ago. It’s so great, Netgear will charge you £1,500, although that’s not the end of your spend if you want to benefit from this bandwidth bonanza, because you’ll need Wi-Fi 6E radios in the client, too.

I sat there looking at my new MacBook Pro, barely a month old, with its already outdated Wi-Fi 6 radio inside and wanted to hurt someone. Possibly Darien. This is most definitely not brilliant.

The Wi-Fi peddlers have form here. Anyone remember the fiasco that was 802.11n, when the ever-eager manufacturers jumped the gun ahead of the standard’s ratification and released products based on the so-called “draft N” standard? When it came to the full release, many of the “draft N” products weren’t fully compatible with the 802.11n standard and lots of people ended up with routers that didn’t get the full benefit of the new speeds. 

Now, to me, it feels like they’re at it again. It’s been less than 18 months since Wi-Fi 6 was finalised and it’s only been in the past year that we’ve really begun to see Wi-Fi 6 radios appear as standard in both routers and clients. My MacBook Pro, released in autumn 2021, was the first MacBook Pro to ship with Wi-Fi 6 , for example. I’ve not even had a chance to connect it to a Wi-Fi 6 router yet and it’s already out of date. It seems I was sold Draft-6.

Why is this any different to any other product? After all, the MacBook Pro itself was updated in 2020, and I’m not venting at Apple for releasing another, much faster one in 2021. Likewise, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is the latest in a long line of iterative, annual smartphone releases. It doesn’t move the smartphone forward one jot; it’s little more than a reminder that the one in your pocket is getting on a bit. Why aren’t I kicking Samsung in the particulars? 

Those product refreshes, of course, can be easily ignored. Standards are different. They (normally) set a bar for a generation to come. And when it comes to something as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi, those standards end up in all manner of products: routers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart home devices. They matter in a way that a jump from, say, Intel’s 10th generation to 11th generation chips does not.

Was it really beyond the foresight of the Wi-Fi industry to put the brakes on the release of Wi-Fi 6, knowing that the much faster 6E was just around the corner? No, it was not. They knew it was coming. Wi-Fi standards aren’t discovered by chance; they’re not oil fields or diamond mines. 

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A whole host of early adopters have gone out and bought Wi-Fi 6 equipment, only to find Wi-Fi 6E flicking the V at them as it shoots past in the fast lane. And, yes, I’m partly angry with myself, because for the past year or so I’ve been recommending Wi-Fi 6 routers as the solution to anyone who’s moaned about patchy home Wi-Fi. Just last month, for example, I recommended a punchily priced Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi 6 kit to a fellow podcaster who was struggling to get a signal in the upper reaches of his house. I’ll be avoiding him for a bit.

Of course, the early adopters will still reap the benefits of Wi-Fi 6. Nothing’s getting switched off, it’s all backwards compatible. But the industry needs to be better at this stuff. These are monumentally tough times. Everything is more expensive than it was a couple of years ago. This is the worst possible time to spend hundreds or thousands of pounds on new hardware, only to find it’s been smashed out of the park a few months later. 

I feel like I’ve been mugged off. Judging by the comments made by listeners on the Hot Hardware section of the podcast, plenty of you do too. I’ll book a community centre so we can all vent our anger as one. Don’t ask for the Wi-Fi password when you get there. Just don’t.

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