Wireless networking has become one of the fastest growing trends in the home computer market. The latest complete standard, 802.11n (or “wireless-N”), is capable of speeds faster than many wired networks and has better range and reliability than its predecessors. However, a replacement standard called 802.11ac (or “wireless-AC”) is already on the drawing board and some manufacturers have even released products using the incomplete standard.
802.11ac, expected to have final approval in 2013, improves upon many of the new technologies that debuted in the 802.11n standard. Wireless-N typically connects at speeds up to 150Mbps, with some higher end devices capable of an impressive 300Mbps or even 450Mbps. However, wireless-AC promises to triple those speeds so the lower end devices using wireless-AC will be as fast as the highest-end devices using the current 802.11n standard and the higher end devices will be able to outperform today’s fastest wired connections. While wireless-N is already fast enough for most current network needs, including streaming HD video, the 802.11ac standard promises to allow even higher quality media to be streamed to multiple devices at the same time.
In addition to huge speed increases, the new standard also promises better range and reliability. Although the overall technology behind it is complex, there are two features of 802.11ac that make the biggest difference. Firstly, wireless-AC will use the 5GHz wireless spectrum, which helps to avoid interference with wireless phones and many other devices (including older wireless-G and wireless-B networks) that use the 2.4GHz frequency.
Secondly, 802.11ac features a new technology called Beamforming. Most wireless antennas are omnidirectional; they transmit more or less equally in all directions to provide blanket coverage over an area. Beamforming allows wireless-ac devices to increase power in the general direction of a detected device. This allows for better range and a stronger signal for the receiving device while still providing blanket coverage. Although Beamforming was featured in 802.11n, there were significant issues preventing it from working properly when using devices from different vendors; 802.11ac has solved most of these problems.
There are many other improvements in the wireless-AC standard that will allow all of your current and future devices to connect at speeds that were only dreamed of a few years ago. Perhaps the best feature is that the new standard maintains backwards compatibility with older devices. Any laptops, smartphones, tablets or other wireless devices that are only capable of wireless-N, wireless-G, or wireless-B will still be able to use wireless access points certified for 802.11ac. However, they will be limited to the speed of that older standard but it allows you to incrementally upgrade your devices one at a time.
The big question is when to upgrade to 802.11ac. Although a few manufacturers have already released compatible access points, very few devices currently for sale will able to take advantage of it until the standard is finalized and approved. Similar trends were seen when 802.11n was undergoing final reviews and approval. If the same trends occur with 802.11ac, then many of the devices released before the final approval of the standard will need software or firmware updates to be fully compatible.
It’s generally advisable to wait until you really need the benefits of 80211.ac before you upgrade. Not only will you be able to avoid many of the inevitable headaches of an incomplete standard but the devices will be priced relatively high until the new standard achieves greater market-share than the older standards. You may even find you never use an 802.11ac device at all, as the standards committees are already working on its successor, 802.11ad, which promises even greater improvements.