What USB 3.2 and Wi-Fi 6 mean for your next PC

Major rebranding means it's more confusing to know what your PC has.

You expect every laptop to have Wi-Fi and some kind of USB. What you probably don't expect is battling specs that will make it difficult to know what sort of wireless and USB you have. We'll sort it out for you here: What Wi-Fi 5 and USB 3.2 mean, and why they're the same thing as good ol' 802.11ac and USB 3.1. 

Confused? That's okay. You're just the latest victim of a major rebranding of both Wi-Fi and USB. With the release of major performance updates to both specs, both have also received extreme makeovers. The good news is it's actually easy to understand.

Wi-Fi 6: This is the newest standard and has the shiny good stuff, like up to 3.5Gbps of speed, plus power savings and less network congestion (read our sibling site Macworld's primer for more details). We'll point out that you will also need a new router that supports Wi-Fi 6 to realize its full potential. If you care about Wi-Fi and intend to run the latest gear, you'll want to make sure it is Wi-Fi 6-complaint.

USB 3.2 Gen 2x2: This is the newest standard for USB and doubles the speed of USB 3.1's 10Gbps to 20Gbps. (We've written a primer on USB 3.2 and USB4 here.) You'll need both a new computer and new peripherals that support the standard to enjoy its benefits.

The problem with USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 is that's not even what it's called. The correct name is actually SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps, but the name we expect most people to use is 'USB 3.2 Gen 2x2.' Look for either name on PCs and devices if you want to be up-to-date on the standard.  

How to translate the new USB and W-Fi naming schemes 

While high-end laptops might get the new features, there undoubtedly will be many computers still using older hardware. Many of these computers are likely to use the newer nomenclature to maintain consistency.

So yes, we can almost guarantee you will see laptops sporting USB 3.2 and Wi-Fi 5 specs sitting next to laptops with USB 3.1 and 802.11ac bullet points, and both will be the same. 

To help you figure this out, we've outlined what the Wi-Fi specs are called now, and what your salesperson is likely to call it.

wifi cheat sheet IDG

Wi-Fi 5 is just 802.11ac folks

Finally, here's what the average person needs to know when shopping for a laptop and you're faced with confusing USB talk. Technically USB 3.2 actually renames all older specs. so technically, the salesperson is correct when trying to upsell you on a laptop with USB 3.2 (10Gbps) instead of that older laptop with USB 3.1 (10Gbps). But what really matters is the speed, so quiz them on that to understand what you're getting. 

usb cheat sheet IDG

If they say USB 3.2, it probably just means today's USB 3.1.

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Gordon Mah Ung

PC World (US online)
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