We live in the age of cord cutting and wireless devices. Many people have given up cable TV in favor of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. While many of us PC gamers (myself included) still have desktops with wired connections, it seems like once a month I see another gaming grade laptop being announced – one that is thinner, faster, attached to a backpack and VR Ready, or packing a full desktop GPU. If you have a home wireless network and do not have Wireless AC, or at least 5GHz Wireless N capabilities, you may as well be living in the stone age. Ok, thats a bit of an overstatement. A bit.
Remember all the fun we used to have growing up with those little handheld communication devices,”Walkie Talkies”? If you do, you’ll likely also remember the surprise you experienced when, randomly, you would hear other people’s conversations on your channel. This is because walkie talkies had a specific set of frequencies (or channels) that they could use to broadcast on. If someone else in your area happened to be using the same channel, they would be able to hear your conversation, and vice versa. Much the same phenomenon happens with wireless devices in the 2.4ghz range, on a larger scale. In the past, pretty much any wireless device you could think of operated in the same 2.4ghz range: cordless phones, baby monitors, bluetooth, car keyfobs… the list goes on. Until fairly recently, all home wireless networks operated in this same range. Remember how difficult it was to carry on a conversation with someone else talking on the same channel as you? Imagine trying to talk over 5 or 10 or 20 different people. The results would not be pretty.
In 2009, the IEEE introduced us to 802.11n (or wireless n), which among other things, opened the door to 5ghz wireless networks. With all of the other devices that we know operate on the 2.4ghz band, you can imagine how much interference was eliminated with this change. Or can you? The benefit of using the 5ghz range is actually much greater than you might originally think. Because of FCC regulations, we are only allowed to use 11 channels in the 2.4ghz range, and only 3 of those channels do not overlap each other. In comparison, the 5ghz range has 24 non overlapping channels. Let that sink in. The 5ghz range has twice as many non-overlapping channels as the entire usable 2.4ghz range. What that means, is that the advent of 5ghz home wireless has given us the freedom to all but eliminate RFI (radio frequency interference).
Wireless AC is one of the newest iterations of 802.11x standards for home wireless networks, and it came with its own benefits that make it a significantly better choice than wireless N in most home network situations. Like previous 802.11x standards, wireless AC is backwards compatible with all previous standards, meaning all of your current devices will be able to connect to an AC network, even if they cant utilize the full benefits of wireless AC – which brings me to the real benefit of using wireless AC. In comparison with previous standards, it is fast, but that isn’t the best part. Wireless AC supports up to 8 antennas, as opposed to the 4 supported by wireless N. It is also more stable at range than wireless N is. This stability is thanks to a technology called beamforming which detects the location of your devices, and increases the broadcasting strength of the network in that direction.
If you have Netgear AC hardware, you’ll also get the benefit of beamforming+, Netgear’s driver-level improvement on beamforming technology that increases performance and stability on the 5ghz band. I recently switched from the wireless N router provided by my ISP to the Netgear Nighthawk X4s, and I can tell you the difference is night and day in a little condo surrounded by all kinds of sources of interference. Granted, the X4S might be overkill in an apartment/condo setting, since it is designed to be used in larger homes – but it certainly gets the job done.
We just received a wireless AD router from Netgear, which is newer and reportedly faster than wireless AC – we’ll update this article once we’ve had a chance to put it through its paces.
How does this all relate to gaming? It’s simple. In a setting where input latency from your peripherals and FPS drops on your display can be enough to turn the tide of battle against you, it should come as no surprise that stable internet connection is just as important, especially in a competitive online game. A connection drop at the wrong time can lose an entire match of your favorite MOBA or FPS, or mean your death in any other number of other genres. If you have to game on a wireless connection, this is how you should do it.
If you are looking for a good wireless AC router, there are lots of options out there, but I recommend looking at Netgear and Linksys products, as they tend to have the most consistent quality across their product lines.
Ben is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PCGR. He writes much of the content, manages the site, and does other editorial things that would bore you to tears.