WiFi technology is everywhere. In our house, in public buildings, in corporate environments, in cafeterias, in University campuses etc. Since its invention in 1991, it has been the de facto standard (based on IEEE 802.11) for implementing wireless LAN networks (WLAN) and for connecting devices to the Internet (mostly) without using physical wires.
There are two main infrastructure components that make up a WiFi network:
- The WiFi clients or stations (laptops, smartphones, tablets, home devices etc).
- The WiFi Access Point (or WiFi Router) which all the clients connect to. This is the core component responsible to route the wireless traffic from clients towards the wired network (Internet etc).
The WiFi technology has gone through multiple enhancements and updates both on the protocol standard level and on the actual devices manufactured by vendors.
At the very beginning, a WiFi network could be implemented by a simple central WiFi router device.
Nowadays, WiFi Mesh Networks have emerged as the new trend. These mesh systems consist of 2 or more wifi routing nodes creating a wireless “umbrella” (or mesh) that clients connect to it.
The advantage of these new mesh systems is bigger and better coverage of the space, faster wireless speeds and seamless connectivity of clients without dead-spots by allowing mobility and roaming from one node to another.
When looking to buy a new WiFi router (or a complete mesh system) customers are faced with some technical jargon and specs that it’s hard to understand (unless they are tech-savvy people).
One of the specs associated with such wireless devices is the “AC” type, such as AC1200, AC1750, AC1900, AC2200, AC3000 etc.
In this article I’ll try to explain and compare the differences between the above types and also give you some background info for the meaning of this technical specification.
What’s the meaning of AC
The original 802.11 standard has gone through multiple iterations and improvements such as 802.11b/g, 802.11n etc with the purpose of increasing wireless speeds and transmission efficiency among other improvements.
The newest version of the standard is the IEEE 802.11ac which utilizes the 5Ghz radio band (in addition to the original 2.4 GHz band used by the previous 802.11 standards).
Here is how the “ACxxxx” specification was born. It means basically that the wifi device supports the 802.11ac standard and its sub-variations in wireless speeds represented by the 4 numbers after the “AC” part.
There are several enhancements of the new AC standard (published in 2013) compared to previous ones. For example, Beamforming is a new concept which allows the WiFi router to transmit radio signals directly to client devices (instead of broadcasting the signal to the whole space), thus achieving better overall throughput and also reduced power consumption.
How Fast is 802.11ac ?
This will answer the question about the meaning of the numbers after the ACxxxx spec. (e.g AC1200, AC1750, AC1900 etc).
The number after AC shows the maximum combined theoretical wireless speed (measured in Mbps) of the router device (i.e from client to router). Do not confuse this number with the actual ISP bandwidth speed (also measured in Mbps) of your Internet connection. The latter is much lower than the wireless speed.
So, lets see some numbers:
- AC1200 router: Maximum wireless combined theoretical bandwidth speed is 1200Mbps
- AC1750 router: Maximum wireless combined theoretical bandwidth speed is 1750Mbps
- AC1900 router: Maximum wireless combined theoretical bandwidth speed is 1900Mbps
- AC2200 router: Maximum wireless combined theoretical bandwidth speed is 2200Mbps
- AC3000 router: Maximum wireless combined theoretical bandwidth speed is 3000Mbps
Nowadays, in modern homes with 4K streaming, online gaming etc, I wouldn’t recommend anything lower than AC1900.
Here are a few great WiFi router models which I have researched and found to be very good options:
AC1900: TP-Link Archer A9
AC2200: Linksys MR8300 (Tri-Band)
AC3000: Netgear X6 (Tri-Band)
The above bandwidth speeds represent the combination of link speeds on both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz radio frequency bands which the AC devices are emitting signals.
For example, on an AC1750 router, there is a maximum link rate of 450Mbps on the 2.4 Ghz band and 1300Mbps on the 5Ghz band thus adding up to 450+1300 = 1750Mbps (thus the spec is shown as AC1750).
Usually the modern WiFi routers supporting the AC standard work with 2 (dual-band) or 3 (Tri-band) radio bands (for example 1 band in the 2.4Ghz frequency and 2 bands in the 5Ghz frequency). Older models work with 1 band only.
Different Types of AC model bands (single-band, dual-band, tri-band)
As mentioned above, WiFi AC models can be also categorized according to the number of frequency bands they support. Here are some examples below:
- Models up to AC1000 : They use 1 band at 2.4Ghz frequency.
- Models up to AC2900: They use 2 bands usually (one at 2.4Ghz and one at 5Ghz).
- Models of AC3000 and above: They use 3 bands (one at 2.4Ghz and two at 5Ghz).
Differences Between 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands
We have mentioned a lot the two frequency bands that AC WiFi routers operate, namely the 2.4Ghz and the 5Ghz bands.
Here are some characteristics and differences between the two:
- The 2.4Ghz band is more crowded because there are a lot of different devices that operate in this band such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, Bluetooth devices etc.
- There are less available channels in the 2.4Ghz band compared to 5Ghz band.
- The 5Ghz band can accommodate and transmit more data in higher speeds compared to 2.4Ghz.
- Being a lower frequency, the 2.4 Ghz band can travel longer distances and can pass through walls and obstacles easier than the 5Ghz band.
As shown from the points above, there are some pros and cons of both frequencies. By combining the two bands in routers (dual-band and tri-band models) you get the best of both worlds.
AC2200 vs AC3000
Let’s now compare some of the different AC specs starting with two very popular ones, the AC2200 and AC3000.
WiFi models having these specs are usually part of the new mesh WiFi network systems such as the Netgear Orbi product but there are several high-end standalone WiFi routers (like the Netgear Nighthawk product line) which support such high wireless speeds.
For example, the Orbi AC2200 models (RBK30, RBK40 etc) use 1 band at 2.4Ghz (with max link speed of 400Mbps) and 2 bands at 5Ghz (with max link speeds of 866 + 866Mbps)
The Orbi AC3000 models (RBK50, RBK53) use 1 band at 2.4Ghz (with max link speed of 400Mbps) and 2 bands at 5Ghz (with max link speeds of 866 + 1733Mbps).
These wireless speeds are ideal if your ISP internet speed is at least 300Mbps and above and you have some heavy traffic such as HD video streaming, online gaming etc.
AC1750 vs AC1900
Two other popular specs of WiFi routers are the AC1750 and AC1900.
Here is a quick comparison of the two:
- AC1750: Routers having this specification can run at combined WiFi speeds of 1750Mbps. Usually, we have max link speed of 450Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band and 1300Mbps on the 5Ghz band (450+1300=1750Mbps).
- AC1900: Routers having this specification can run at combined WiFi speeds of 1900Mbps. Usually, we have max link speed of 600Mbps on the 2.4Ghz band and 1300Mbps on the 5Ghz band (600+1300=1900Mbps).
These wifi routers are ideal if your Internet speed is around 100 Mbps and you have modest traffic requirements such as normal video streaming, file sharing etc.
AC1200 vs AC1750
These two specs are usually found on stand-alone routers with dual-bands.
The max link speeds of the AC1750 are as shown on the previous section above.
The AC1200 model routers also have one band at 2.4Ghz and one band at 5Ghz with combined wireless speed of around 1200Mbps.
Both of the above can be used for light streaming and gaming, however if you have some heavy traffic inside your home (between home devices such as your TV and your streaming media box) we suggest you to go with AC2200 and above.
What are some popular Router Brands that use AC WiFi
The AC wifi standard has been embraced by almost all WiFi router manufacturers nowadays. The most popular router manufacturers/brands that implement the AC specification standard are:
- TP Link
- Google WiFi
WiFi 802.11AC Vs 802.11AD
The majority of WiFi routers in the market right now implement and support the 802.11AC standard as we have described above.
However, you will see a few wireless routers supporting the ultra-high-speed 802.11AD standard. Some examples of these models with AD support include the Netgear X10 AD7200 and the TP-Link Talon AD7200.
What is 802.11AD
The AD wireless standard has been published in 2012 and although it has been in the market for a few years it hasn’t yet received much support from manufacturers.
It operates at the 60Ghz frequency band (compared to 802.11AC which operates at 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands) and has been developed for high-bandwidth speeds which in theory can reach up to 7Gbps.
As you may know already, the higher the frequency of a wireless signal the lower distance it can travel. Therefore, the characteristic of the 802.11AD wireless standard is that it supports very-high-speed transmissions but at much lower distances compared to 802.11AC. Its basically a super fast WiFi at much shorter ranges (its effective range is approximately 30 feet).
Some use cases proposed for this standard include wireless hard disks or raw video transmissions in studios.
WiFi 802.11AC Vs 802.11AX
The “new kid on the block” is called WiFi 6 and uses the newest WiFi standard namely 802.11ax.
This new standard will be using both 2.4GHz and 5GHz concurrently therefore creating and supporting more channels and better speed and utilization.
Moreover, MU-MIMO will be working bi-directional in AX standard, while this is only one-directional in the AC standard. This will improve performance and wireless capacity.
That’s why the new AX standard will support more wifi clients and will be better suited in dense environments such as airports, smart homes with many IoT devices etc.
Vendors have already manufactured 802.11ax routers but we need to see more client devices (smartphones, laptops etc) in the market supporting this new tech. in order to witness widespread adoption of the new standard.