Is 802.11ac Wi-Fi Actually Worth The Extra Cost?

Good Wi-Fi just makes life better -- it's a known fact. You can have the fastest NBN or cable internet in the world, but if you can't actually access it in every corner of your house, there's not really much point paying for it. To this end, you need a good Wi-Fi router. But it is it worth paying for an expensive 802.11ac model?

The big difference between 802.11ac and the older 802.11n Wi-Fi standard is in outright speed; where N routers seem to top out at a maximum of around 900Mbps theoretical throughput, we're seeing new AC routers like the ASUS RT-AC3200 hit 2600Mbps -- almost three times as fast.

Over the weekend, I got rid of my old 802.11n home network (based on an ASUS RT-N66U) and upgraded to 802.11ac, courtesy of a Linksys WRT-1900AC (which I'll be reviewing for Gizmodo soon). The swap-over took a few hours -- to run through the setup process, and sort out new IP addresses for some of my devices -- but the increase in speed and versatility was well worth the effort.

802.11ac is a relatively new Wi-Fi standard, only having been ratified and approved in January of this year. It's already available in a huge range of devices, though; any new mid- to high-end smartphone, newer laptops like the most recent MacBook Air and any half-decent tablet all should include 802.11ac. Every day, I use an LG UltraPC, a Samsung Galaxy S5, and a Samsung Galaxy NotePRO -- all of which can use 802.11ac. But what are the big differences you'll see every day?

802.11ac's Extra Speed Boost Comes In Handy For Transfers

If you have compatible devices on your home network, changing from 802.11n to 802.11ac comes with a huge boost in speed for data transfers and for general around-the-house use. Here's a real-world example: transferring a few gigabytes of data from my high-speed, Ethernet-connected home NAS to a laptop, I managed a solid 180Mbps transfer rate using 802.11n, but switching to 802.11ac boosted that same transfer to a blistering 430Mbps -- more than twice as fast under identical test conditions.

Your mileage may vary, but stepping up to AC opens up a bunch of scenarios that wouldn't otherwise be possible; you can stream HD video from a PC to a TV on the other side of your house without worrying about dropouts, and browse the Web and use your Wi-Fi for other tasks at the same time. Anecdotally, this was something I wasn't able to do on 802.11n -- it was one or the other. With 802.11ac, there's enough extra bandwidth to make everything run smoothly.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Crucially, the 5GHz band that 802.11ac operates purely on is free from interference from cordless phones, microwaves and other household ephemera, so there's more potential for data to be transmitted over clean airwaves. AC also uses beamforming, which 'shapes' the Wi-Fi signal to find the best and quickest path from router to client, instead of blasting radio waves haphazardly in every direction.

Importantly, this extra speed isn't really going to affect your Internet browsing or general YouTube or video-on-demand streaming experience -- these are largely reliant on the speed of your Internet connection, entirely separate to the quality of your Wi-Fi. If you're just checking your Facebook and downloading the occasional photo album or Game of Thrones episode, you won't be too impressed with the advantages of a new 802.11ac router.

Range Isn't Improved, But Effective Range Is

Operating entirely on the 5GHz band, 802.11ac doesn't actually have a significant advantage in range versus the 2.4GHz default for 802.11n; it's actually theoretically slightly worse. In reality, I noticed the edges of my new Wi-Fi network ending at much the same point as the old one, so the difference is inconsequential.

One big difference is that I noticed better data throughput over 802.11ac up to the point that it dropped out entirely, where 802.11n reported a Wi-Fi connection but didn't always successfully transfer data; this means a longer effective range, so you might find 802.11ac more usable on the fringes of your Wi-Fi network -- when you're looking up directions on Google Maps in your car in the driveway, or listening to streaming music while working in your yard.

The 802.11ac in any modern router will be just as tweakable and adjustable as its older 802.11n counterpart; you'll be able to set up your router for maximum range or outright short-distance speed, to set specific Wi-Fi channels and create guest networks for your friends. The extra power of the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard means good things for Wi-Fi quality across your entire network -- it's more powerful when you need it, and just as capable for the vast majority of users.

802.11ac Comes At A Price, Though

You'll pay around a 20 per cent premium at the moment to buy an 802.11ac router versus its 802.11n competition. Compare the ASUS RT-N66U and the ASUS RT-AC66U -- largely similar devices in their feature-set, design and market segment -- and you'll see that the newer and more technologically advanced AC variant will set you back around $200 in stores, versus $160 for the lesser N model.

In the end, I chose the Linksys WRT-1900AC because despite being a relatively expensive and premium product, the features it offered were spot-on with what I was looking for -- a simple interface, powerful specifications, a sturdy design and a reliable and trusted brand name. As long as you do your research before purchasing, you shouldn't be disappointed.

Being new, 802.11ac routers are going to become less expensive as technology in general becomes cheaper, but also as more models become available and competition drives the average price down. I think that 20 per cent premium is well worth paying for the peace of mind of knowing you're not buying a device that will be superseded and outdated quickly after you buy it, but if you're making a decision based on dollars and cents you'll need to weigh up what is most important to you.

Do Your Devices Support 802.11ac?

There's not too much point in paying the extra for 802.11ac if you don't have any devices that can take advantage of it. Of course, a Wi-Fi router is a long-term investment, so you should be planning for the future; an 802.11ac-capable router will also almost certainly provide better 802.11n Wi-Fi than the non-ac competition, purely through it being newer and more powerful.

By the way -- 802.11ac isn't just about the router. I'd argue that 802.11ac should be near the top of your list of must-have features on any new Internet-connected technology device; if you're planning on keeping it for more than a couple of years then you should aim for something that will work with the latest technology standards. It's not the most glamorous selling point, but when you consider how much time you spend on Wi-Fi actually accessing the 'net or transferring bits and pieces around your home network, it's a crucial thing to consider.