Wi-Fi 7 explained: How it beats 6E and why you should care
Qualcomm, MediaTek, TP-Link, and other manufacturers are pushing Wi-Fi 7, but should you start buying compatible devices?
The final version of Wi-Fi 7, aka 802.11be, is on track for approval from the IEEE Working Group in 2024. But tech brands aren't waiting for an official standard; router and chip manufacturers are already pushing to make Wi-Fi 7-compatible devices as soon as 2023.
Given Wi-Fi 6E routers only recently went on sale, it's fair to question whether the new standard will live up to the hullabaloo surrounding Wi-Fi 7 coming out of CES 2023. We've spoken with brands like Qualcomm and MediaTek about how their devices will take advantage of the new technology, and will break down exactly how Wi-Fi 7 will work and whether or not a Wi-Fi 7 router will actually benefit you.
What is Wi-Fi 7?
Right now, the Wi-Fi 7 standard doesn't officially exist, since the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is still voting on which features will appear in the final standard. But most brands are already launching "Wi-Fi 7 products" that fulfill the candidate features proposed by the association instead of waiting on official 802.11be compliance.
This IEEE document outlines all of the proposed Wi-Fi 7 features, and we'll summarize the highlights below:
320MHz bandwidth: Twice as wide as the 160MHz channel enabled by Wi-FI 6E, the 320MHz standard doubles the throughput that the network can support. Compared to Wi-Fi 6, the IEEE estimates, Wi-Fi 7 could provide "4.8x higher nominal data rates." This is the primary benefit of Wi-Fi 7 and will provide a huge boost for anyone still using Wi-Fi 5 routers.
4K-QAM: Compared to Wi-Fi 6 with 1024-QAM, Wi-Fi 7 hits 4096-QAM, which stands for Quadrature Amplitude Modulation. The higher the QAM, the faster the data transfer, but also the shorter the range of the signal. So this standard will apparently be optional and will rely on beamforming to work.
MU-MIMO improvements: Multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) technology became common with Wi-Fi 6, but Wi-Fi 7 will support more simultaneous streams. Wi-Fi 6 routers could hit up to 8 streams, but Wi-Fi 7 doubles that capacity to 16.
Multi-Link support: No matter how speedy your router connection is, interference will always hurt the connection because the router and device only connect on one channel. But Multi-Link Operation allows for a duplicate connection, which the IEEE claims is "favorable for both tremendous data rates and extremely low latency."
How much faster is Wi-Fi 7?
By doubling both the bandwidth and MU-MIMO streams of Wi-Fi 6 — which hits a maximum of 9.6Gbps — as well as offering a further 20% boost from 4K-QAM, Wi-Fi 7 can, in theory, offer speeds 4.8 times higher for a max of 46Gbps. If you erase the QAM factor due to its limitations, you'd still have a 40Gbps ceiling for Wi-Fi 7 routers if the network supports it.
In practice, it'll depend entirely on the routers coming to the market and what speeds the chips inside of them are capable of reaching.
For example, TP-Link announced a wide array of Wi-Fi 7 routers coming out in 2023, including the 33Gbps Deco BE95, 24Gbps Archer BE900, and 11Gbps Deco BE65-5G mesh router. We break down the differences between them in this TP-Link round-up, but this shows how Wi-Fi 7 routers will benefit from the backend improvements but will vary in how much speed they can hit for specific bands like 5GHz and 6GHz. You'll still have to buy the most expensive routers to get the best performance.
In December, Qualcomm announced its new Wi-Fi 7 platform. Its Networking Pro series hits 33Gbps, while the Immersive Home 3210 platform for routers sticks to 20Gbps, using just 10 streams instead of the maximum. Plus, its new chipsets like the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 support Wi-Fi 7 with multi-link connections.
When we spoke to Qualcomm about Wi-Fi 7, it explained how even older devices that aren't Wi-Fi 7-compatible would benefit from the platform. The wider channels mean that your network is less likely to get congested if a lot of devices connect to the router; in practice, Qualcomm says that its latency is 75% lower than Wi-Fi 6E, a major game-changer for applications like cloud gaming.
The aforementioned MLO support will also play a huge part if you get a Wi-Fi 7 mesh system. Qualcomm described how a Multi-Link Mesh system turns the Backhaul channel that connects mesh routers into a second high-speed channel. So if your device encounters interference between it and one router, the network can redirect the data to use the second, unimpeded channel.
Qualcomm says that the multi-link mesh network more than triples the network's capacity and reduces latency even for older devices. So you don't need to start buying next-gen phones and TVs to take advantage of a Wi-Fi 7 router.
When will Wi-Fi 7 become available?
Many of the top flagship phones and TV lineups will start incorporating Wi-Fi 7 support in 2023, though some will stick to older standards like Wi-Fi 6E. The question is when you'll be able to buy a Wi-Fi 7 router.
TP-Link is leading the charge on this front. Most of its new Wi-Fi 7 routers will come out on March 15, 2023, and we're excited to test them out. Among the best wi-fi routers today, TP-Link claims several of the top spots. Another contender, ASUS, revealed its behemoth ROG Rapture GT-BE98 router at CES 2023 that can hit 25Gbps across four wireless bands, but we don't know when it'll release.
Qualcomm shared many of its Wi-Fi 7 partners that are using its Immersive Home 3210 platform, including TP-Link, Linksys, and Netgear — so the latter two will likely release their own Wi-Fi 7 routers very soon.
TP-Link also partners with MediaTek, which announced its own Wi-Fi 7 platform called Filogic 880 at CES 2023. AMD, Lenovo, Hisense, and ASUS will also use this chip for their future products, according to the announcement.
In other words, you should see an influx of Wi-Fi 7 devices released this year, but many will be expensive first-generation devices; others will be more affordable but won't take full advantage of what Wi-Fi 7 can do. So you'll want to look carefully to see what bandwidth the router can hit, how much of the data goes through specific bandwidths, and how many streams it offers.
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Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.