Wi-Fi 6E arrives at CES 2021
Wi-Fi 6E is very slowly coming to a product near you. The Wi-Fi Alliance started certifying devices on January 7, and CES 2021 saw plenty of product announcements related to the Wi-Fi 6E rollout.
Wi-Fi 6E, if you haven’t heard, is a new standard for Wi-Fi that was approved by the FCC last year. While Wi-Fi 6 (no “e,” aka 802.11ax) is a bunch of technical improvements mostly aimed at more efficient usage of existing spectrum, Wi-Fi 6E is all about expanding Wi-Fi to a newly freed-up chunk of spectrum. Previously, Wi-Fi only worked on the 2.4Ghz and 5GHz spectrum, but Wi-Fi 6E uses the 6GHz spectrum. In the United States, 6E has a huge chunk of continuous spectrum—1200MHz. Previously, 5GHz only offered 140MHz of useful, non-DFS spectrum, and 2.4 GHz only had 70MHz of very crowded spectrum, which is vulnerable to running microwaves and other interference.
Neither Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E is about more speed—both are more about dealing with Wi-Fi capacity issues, which frequently rear their heads in apartment buildings and large public gatherings. If your Wi-Fi is currently terrible due to crowded airwaves in a densely populated area, Wi-Fi 6E could greatly improve your wireless performance. Getting on Wi-Fi 6E will mean buying new clients and new access points, though, hence this roundup article.
The highest-profile device at CES was the Samsung Galaxy S21, and while the cheaper variants don’t have Wi-Fi 6E, the $1,200 “Ultra” model does, and by most accounts, it is “the world’s first Wi-Fi 6E phone.” Expect this trend to continue for most Android phones in 2021. Wi-Fi 6E is an option on the Snapdragon 888 SoC that will end up in most flagship devices, and you’ll probably see the more expensive models adopt it.
Wi-Fi 6E is coming to laptops, too. MSI’s GE76 Raider looks like it will be the first Wi-Fi 6E laptop, thanks to Intel’s AX210 Wi-Fi card. The Intel AX210 card is for sale to users, by the way, so you can upgrade most desktops and laptops to Wi-Fi 6E yourself, right now, with an add-in card. Clients are coming, so what we need are Wi-Fi 6E access points, or “routers” when you’re talking about the all-in-one consumer-grade network equipment. Most of the big consumer network brands showed up to CES with a Wi-Fi 6E router to show off.
The Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000
We’re starting with the router closest to hitting general availability: the Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000. This was announced all the way back in September as the “World’s first Wi-Fi 6E gaming router,” but it finally got a release window: January 2021. Newegg currently has it for preorder for a cool $549.99 with a release date of January 29, but some reports are saying the router is already shipping. Like with many “Gaming” routers, the GT-AXE1100 has a crazy design that looks like it could flip over and start walking around like a spider at any moment.
Besides the usual 4x gigabit LAN ports on the back and a gigabit WAN port, there’s also an extra 2.5Gbps port on the back, which you can configure for WAN or LAN. A 2.5gig WAN port sounds like something that would be increasingly useful in the future, but I don’t think there are any consumer-grade modems that could take advantage of that yet. Comcast and Google both have a 2Gbps fiber service, but both services come with their own networking gear, and, according to Google’s sign-up page, “customers will not be able to use their own router.” Plan for the future, I guess!
Most of the specs on these routers just reiterate the standard Wi-Fi 6/6E features, but Asus does list a 1.8GHz 64-bit Quad-core CPU with 1GB RAM, which sounds like it can handle a lot of traffic without slowing down. The router supports 4×4 MU-MIMO for 5GHz and 6GHz for a theoretical top speed of 4.8Gbps. There are also two USB 3.2 ports on the side for a cheap NAS setup.
Netgear Nighthawk AXE11000
Requesting permission to dock into starbase, it’s the Netgear Nighthawk AXE11000 Wi-Fi Router. The Nighthawk seems to hit all the same specs as the Asus router but is $50 more: a whopping $599.99.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: a 1.8GHz quad-core processor and a gig of memory, 4×4 MU-MIMO for 5GHz and 6GHz, two USB 3.0 ports, gigabit WAN, 4 gigabit LAN, and a 2.5gig port for WAN or LAN. Just like the Asus router, there are eight antennas, but instead of the spider design, four antennas live in each wingtip.
Netgear’s entry in the Wi-Fi 6E router contest is up for preorder now, with an estimated availability of March 15.
The Linksys AXE8400
If you’ve ever wondered what a white Xbox Series X would look like, meet the Linksys AXE8400. This is easily the least-crazy design of the new Wi-Fi 6E routers, and since putting a router in a centralized, visible location is one of the best things you can do for connectivity, that might be a big deal to you. (Fun fact: this Linksys design dates back at least to 2018 and therefore predates the new Xbox by a long time! There is even an older version that comes in black, if you’ve ever wanted a mini-me version of Microsoft’s game console.)
The Linksys has the distinction of being a mesh router and comes in at $449.99 for a 1-pack, $849.99 for a 2-pack, and $1,199.99 for a 3-pack. Linksys’ press release lists the US release date as “Spring/Summer 2021” with “global availability to follow in the second half of 2021.” Mesh routers have the potential to benefit the most quickly from the 6GHz spectrum opening up, since they could use 6GHz for the backhaul between access points, freeing up 5GHz purely for client connections.
With no public datasheet yet, very little important detail is provided about the AXE8400 right now. Just from the pictures, there are four LAN ports on the back of indeterminate speed, along with a single USB 3.x port. The WAN port is labeled “5Gbps Internet,” so it sounds like Linksys is really ready for modems with multi-gigabit ports, if they are ever produced.
The one interesting tech spec Linksys is publishing right now is that the AXE8400 has a “Qualcomm Networking Pro 1210” chipset at its heart, Qualcomm’s designated platform for companies looking to build a Wi-Fi 6E router. This is a quad-core 2.2Ghz Cortex A53 chip, built on a 14nm process technology.
Linksys’ website is also teasing what looks like a non-mesh Wi-Fi 6E router, but we don’t even have a name for it yet.
TP-Link brought an SFP+ port to the party?!
Coming in last with no release date or price at all, we have a pair of TP-Link routers. First up, the TP-Link Archer AX206, which has Wi-Fi 6E with 4×4 MU-MIMO. What’s interesting here are some serious wired networking options. It’s a shame TP-Link only provided a single overhead image, because the back of this thing sounds very busy: a USB-C port, a USB-A port, four gigabit Ethernet ports, a 2.5 Gbps WAN/LAN port, a 10Gbps WAN/LAN port, and, for when you want to get really serious, a 10Gbps SFP+ WAN/LAN port, for a fiber-optic connection. Whoa.
The SFP+ port is an attention grabber, but I can’t say I really understand the market segmentation here. SFP+ ports are normally used for backhaul in business-style networks (or the home-lab crowd) for connecting one device in your network rack to another. I can’t imagine a Rackmount-American wanting to touch one of these consumer-grade plastic combo-boxes with a 10-foot pole. I have a hard time imagining selling a ~$40 fiber-optic cable to a non-network enthusiast, and even if you could do that, TP-Link’s consumer division doesn’t sell any other SFP+ gear. What is a normal person supposed to do with an SPF+ port? I guess more options are always better, but we’ll have to see what the price tag is like for these fancy, questionably useful extras.
Finally from TP-Link is the Archer AX96, and while, again, there is no price or release date, this sounds like it will be a cheaper Wi-Fi 6E router. The main hint is the speed rating for the 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E, which only hits “2402 Mbps,” which indicates that this router only does 2×2 MIMO on the 6GHz spectrum, or half the speed of the Asus and Netgear routers. 5GHz still looks like 4×4 MIMO, so this router would allow for a baby step into 6GHz.
On the back (again, there are no pictures), there are 2.5Gbps and 1Gbps WAN/LAN ports, three 1Gbps LAN ports, one USB 3 port, and a USB 2 port.
Listing image by Asus