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Understanding Access Point options: MIMO vs. MU-MIMO

NetworkTigers discusses MIMO vs. MU-MIMO.

As WiFi technology has evolved over the years, so have our attempts to reach faster speeds and more efficient connections. Anyone who has ever complained about slow WiFi may want to consider MU-MIMO, the latest development in lightning-fast WiFi access. MIMO is the existing standard for most wireless routers and the cellular 3G/4G LTE network. Meanwhile, MU-MIMO is what many argue is the next generation of connectivity. 

Do you need MIMO or MU-MIMO? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each setup? NetworkTigers explains.

What is MIMO?

MIMO, or SU-MIMO, stands for Multiple Input, Multiple Output. MIMO uses an antenna system to send multiple frequencies simultaneously along the same radio channel. This antenna diversity improves signal quality and the strength of the radio frequency link to the device where the connection stems from. 

MIMO is a single-user setup designed to increase wireless access speed. If your router has multiple antennas, it likely already uses MIMO technology, which has been in place since 1993

The MIMO system incorporates redundancy by design. With plenty of reflection paths, data packets that might otherwise get lost or dropped in the connection process have multiple access points for entry. This results in less fading and more consistent downloads. 

MIMO is best suited to use in cities and crowded urban areas where a single antenna may not have a clear line of access or where radio frequencies may easily overlap. While MIMO is pretty standard with many routers, the technology is also valued by first responders such as police, EMTs, and firefighters who need to rely on information sharing during times of emergency, over-crowded existing networks, or making use of dedicated channels. 

What is MU-MIMO?

Understanding MIMO is the key to deciding whether or not you need MU-MIMO since MU-MIMO is the logical extension of this existing technology. As the first generation, MIMO works with one single device to provide redundant, consistent frequency connections through Multiple Input, Multiple Output radio channels. MU-MIMO, on the other hand, stands for Multiple User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output. 

MU-MIMO allows multiple devices to access multiple data streams sourced from a single router. In older SU-MIMO (singular MIMO) routers, the multiple-channel access point only communicates with one device simultaneously. Now you can see increased data connectivity and stability even while streaming a movie or show from one laptop, gaming on another, and surfing the web from a third device.

MU-MIMO routers are available in 4 different varieties: 2×2, 3×3, 4×4, and at the maximum capacity, 8×8. These numbers refer to the number of channels created by one router. 

How does a MU-MIMO router work?

Think of wireless signals as cars on a road without markings. MU-MIMO can be considered a crossing guard, adding order and direction into transit. MU-MIMO uses beamforming, which directs signals toward a connected wireless device. A MU-MIMO router is designed to break up the available bandwidth into individual lanes. All of these lanes, or streams, will receive priority access to the direction they are trying to go. The result is better signal strength for each device, faster speeds, and a wider WiFi range overall. 

Why would I need MU-MIMO?

You may want to consider investing in a MU-MIMO router if you use multiple devices connected to one router. However, you’ll see the biggest boost in a WiFi 6 router. The jump to 802.11ax allows routers to borrow signal from Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) channels, which provide cell phone service. WiFi 6 allows for uplink MU-MIMO, effectively doubling the number of streams possible. 

Congested, signal-dense areas will benefit from MU-MIMO routers equipped with WiFi 6 capabilities. Stadiums, airports, and public transit should consider MU-MIMO as the new standard. However, even crowded offices or larger homes with gamers or those who want to stream content to multiple rooms at once should notice faster speeds, less lag, and less disruption with a MU-MIMO-enabled router. 

Are there any downsides to MU-MIMO?

MU-MIMO should enable faster speeds for streaming and downloading even without the WiFi 6 uplink, but it’s most effective with the addition of WiFi 6. Additionally, MU-MIMO has some spatial limitations. Two devices directly next to each other will be channeled into the same stream or access point, even on a MU-MIMO router. To receive the full benefit of specialized beamforming, the devices should be located in separate areas, such as on opposite sides of the room. Because of this, crowded office spaces with multiple cubicles may want to consider restructuring their layout to take full advantage of this new technology. 

Curious about investing in a MU-MIMO router? If you’re looking to increase your network access points and create a smoother web surfing experience for yourself and everyone on your network, MU-MIMO may be the right choice for you.

Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West
Gabrielle West is an experienced tech and travel writer currently based in New York City. Her work has appeared on Ladders, Ultrahuman, and more.

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Understanding Access Point options: MIMO vs. MU-MIMO