Time to gird your browsers, y’all — Wi-Fi is getting another upgrade very soon. That’s right: about four years after Wi-Fi 6 debuted and two years after Wi-Fi 6E followed it up, Wi-Fi 7 is picking up the baton. And as someone who got his start reviewing routers, I am so tired.
Okay, but seriously — Wi-Fi 7 could be an even bigger speed boost than Wi-Fi 6E was, thanks in part to the wide open spaces of the 6GHz band that 6E unlocked. It’s also supposed to deploy other tricks for speeding things up and bring new ways to cut through interference and drop the latency of your network.
Does all of that sound familiar? Probably because the big headlining features of both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E have been their interference-busting abilities and — particularly in the case of 6E — increased speed (assuming you have a compatible device).
The good news is that Wi-Fi 7 will still work fine with your older stuff
If you’re not happy about the idea of replacing all of your devices for the promise of a stable network, the good news is that Wi-Fi 7 will still work fine with your older stuff. And as you replace your phones, computers, and other wireless doodads down the line with ones that support the new standard, certain things should get much better. Whether you should buy a Wi-Fi 7 router now or wait is another question.
What is Wi-Fi 7?
You can think of Wi-Fi 7 as being to Wi-Fi 6E what Wi-Fi 6 was to Wi-Fi 5. It still operates on the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz bands, like Wi-Fi 6E, but it improves things by offering more potential bandwidth (faster downloads), bundling connections across bands (faster downloads and more stability), and using more signal modulation tricks for dealing with congestion.
Some of the marketing around Wi-Fi 7 centers on bringing you 8K video, but… I’m somewhat skeptical here. Even if 8K streaming were common, a compressed 8K feed would be lean enough for most modern routers to easily handle.
The most immediate benefit of Wi-Fi 7 is actually raw speed.
So Wi-Fi 7 will actually be faster?
Yes, it will. According to Intel, a “typical” Wi-Fi 7 laptop could hit a “potential maximum” of nearly 5.8Gbps — that’s theoretical, but even hitting half that number would be extravagant for most people.
What makes it faster for the most part is channel bandwidth, or the size of the pipe that data is shoved through. Wi-Fi 7 doubles the maximum channel bandwidth to 320MHz, compared to the 160MHz you might get on nicer Wi-Fi 5, 6, and 6E routers. It’s a bigger pipe, and it fits more data. That’s pretty straightforward, although only the 6GHz band supports those big ol’ channels — there’s not enough room on the 5GHz band.
The new spec also supports combining bands into a single connection with a feature called Multi-Link Operation (MLO). As a rough exercise, that means if you can download a file at, say, 1Gbps on the 6GHz band and on the 5GHz band at 700Mbps, combining the two could get you up to 1.7Gbps. It also means that if one of those connections stops working for some reason, your device can just fall back to the other one. How well this works in practice remains to be seen when we get to test Wi-Fi 7 routers and devices together.
Wi-Fi 7 also doubles the number of MU-MIMO spatial streams: simultaneous streams to and from other devices. Wi-Fi 6 supports 8 x 8 MU-MIMO, which means a router with eight antennas can talk to eight devices (or one device with eight antennas) and can transmit as many as eight simultaneous streams to each device. For Wi-Fi 7, it’s 16 x 16, but don’t get too excited. Consumer-grade Wi-Fi 6E routers, even pricey ones like Netgear’s Nighthawk RAXE500, generally offer 4 x 4 MU-MIMO, despite the 6E standard being capable of more. It’s also hard to find phones, laptops, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices that do better than 2 x 2 MU-MIMO.
Will Wi-Fi 7 make my smart home reliable?
The smart home has gotten better over the years, but devices can still be sluggish or even nonresponsive in a busy wireless environment. There are features tucked into the Wi-Fi 7 spec that may help with that down the line.
When your smart home devices are sluggish, one reason can be that they’re just waiting their turn
One of the big bottlenecks with wireless transmission is airtime — if the router is too busy talking to one or more devices (depending on the standard being used), then others vying for attention have to wait for it to finish. It happens over scant fractions of a second, but with enough network chatter, that time can build up. When your smart home devices are sluggish, one reason can be that they’re just waiting their turn.
Wi-Fi 7 attempts to compensate for this by cramming extra data into what’s called a carrier wave, using a technique called OFDMA. Wi-Fi 6E does this, too, but interference can keep it from using all of that wave, even if the interference isn’t occupying more than a bit of it. Wi-Fi 7 basically ignores the interference and puts the rest of the data on the clear bits, like a river going around a rock and meeting back on the other side.
Unfortunately, OFDMA isn’t backward-compatible with older devices, so when a Wi-Fi 7 router encounters a smart home device that only uses Wi-Fi 4, for instance, it meets that device on its own terms, using that standard’s capabilities — so everyone else is back to waiting in line. So yes, Wi-Fi 7 can help your smart home be better, but it won’t until you’ve moved everything to the new standard — assuming it’s not all using Matter-over-Thread by then, if that ever happens.
What else will Wi-Fi 7 be good for?
Mesh systems can be a great way to get Wi-Fi coverage throughout your home. But right now, they rely on single wireless connections for backhaul — the wireless or wired connection between mesh nodes — which can be tricky when that band gets congested, forcing the router to switch to another band, which, in turn, can impact throughput while the system rebuilds its backhaul connection. According to Asus’ website, a Wi-Fi 7 mesh system would, through MLO, be able to “switch freely between bands,” leading to no apparent connection loss.
You might also see less lag on your network thanks to MLO and OFDMA in Wi-Fi 7. The ability to connect to multiple bands at once combined with fancy signal modulation means there may be fewer occasions when your devices are waiting in line for other requests on your network to process.
When will I get Wi-Fi 7 in my devices?
As I said above, you can buy Wi-Fi 7 routers now. But you shouldn’t rush out to get one — only a handful of devices can support the standard, which, again, isn’t even officially finalized yet.
The chips are already out there, though. Qualcomm’s FastConnect 7800 mobile wireless chipset was released in 2022 and is even already in some phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, though Samsung would need to enable Wi-Fi 7 for those phones to support it.
You’ll also find Wi-Fi 7 compatibility in the 16-inch Acer Swift Edge laptop, and Intel’s BE200 Wi-Fi 7 network card is due out before the end of 2023. Other computers supporting the standard should start coming out throughout next year from the other major manufacturers.
These are early days, and most of the benefits of Wi-Fi 7 won’t be felt until manufacturers start defaulting to it, which could take time. After all, you can still find plenty of products that top out at Wi-Fi 5. Unless you’re absolutely into being on the bleeding edge, there really aren’t any practical reasons to dive into the updated spec with a new router.
That’s especially true because, as I write this, the Wi-Fi 7 standard hasn’t yet been adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), so routers available before then could be missing key features or optimizations. Some of the features, like the doubled channel width, offer concrete, knowable benefits. Others, like MLO, are promising but new and haven’t really been independently tested.
Lastly, the early routers will, by all accounts, be some of the most expensive ever released. The Eero Max 7 mesh system, for example, is expected to be priced just shy of $1,700 for a three-pack when it’s available.
So should I buy a Wi-Fi 7 router now or wait?
If you’re hoping for Wi-Fi 7 to fix your whole network, you should wait. With the spec incomplete and so few devices supporting it, you wouldn’t see the benefit from it for months or even years.
It’s also a good idea to hold off until the spec is finalized and the Wi-Fi Alliance starts certifying Wi-Fi 7 routers — that way you know it’s fully compliant with the finished standard. Until then, those routers are likely to be too expensive, with wireless devices supporting their fancy features too few to make it worth the cost.