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USB Wi-Fi Adapter 101

Wi-Fi Adapter Categories

There are several different ways that Wi-Fi can be enabled on a computer, and each implementation has its own pros and cons that you should be aware of, including:

  • USB: USB Wi-Fi adapters are easy to install. Simply plug one into an available port and download its drivers (if your operating system doesn't already include them). Of course, their external nature means that USB adapters consume at least one port; many are so large that they block others as well. And they stick out, which many enthusiasts disdain enough on their svelte PCs, much less their diminutive notebooks.
  • Desktop Motherboard:In some cases, the Wi-Fi adapter is either built into the motherboard itself or integrated as an add-on accessory. While this can be convenient, and does not take up any space you'd want for other peripherals, these adapters are in the middle of a metal case. Most include antennas that require routing outside of your chassis to avoid issues with signal strength and interference.
  • Integrated: In some cases, the Wi-Fi is built directly into the device, such as with smartphones and tablets. The advantage of this setup is obviously that you get functionality within a convenient form factor. Unfortunately, that makes upgrades difficult or impossible, limiting your ability to keep pace with wireless standards.
  • PCIe: PCIe stands for Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. Compatible cards fit into slots on your PC's motherboard, and require access to the system's internals. They frequently have antennas that protrude out the back of the card in order to maximize range. Notebooks typically have smaller slots on-board that accommodate mini-PCIe wireless cards. Typically, these slots come populated. But standardization makes it possible for an end-user to remove and upgrade to a faster Wi-Fi adapter down the road.
Jonas DeMuro
Freelance Reviewer

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.

  • unityole
    hey, in the picture of the disassembled cisco USB wifi module, which model is that?
  • Achoo22
    a computer needs to be connected to its network, and in turn the Internet, to be truly useful
    I got this far, then tuned out.
  • SuperVeloce
    a computer needs to be connected to its network, and in turn the Internet, to be truly useful
    I got this far, then tuned out.
    okay, I see you don't get what the intended audience in this article is. i'll re-word that for you: "a multimedia family / office work computer needs to be connected to its network..."
  • SamSerious
    USB extension cables are often causing problems. I'd never extend a cable by more than one meter and make sure it is a very high quality cable or the voltage will lower dramatically causing the device not to work properly anymore. Or you have to get yourself an active USB expander which is usually quite a bit more expensiv.

    On the other hand, antenna cables are even worse to extend...
  • jacobian
    You think you need USB3 to drive a 802.11ac network adapter at full speed? Please. You couldn't have been more confused. Let's say we're talking about a two stream AC device, so theoretically it's capable of 867mbps throughput in 5GHz band. However, much of that number pertains to the "physical layer" information transfer, the chatter that ensures that your data is transferred accurately, under optimal condition (e.g. 6 ft from the router). At TCP/IP level, the throughput will be much lower, even if the distance is short, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-300mbps, depending on your luck. In other words, a lot less than USB2 can handle.

    You see, the wireless data transfer rates are basically a big marketing scam because half of more of that data transfer rate will disappear due to weakening signal with distance or on the physical layer chatter. Wireless is not like wired Ethernet, where saying 100Mbps really means that you will actually see TCP/IP data transferred nearly at that rate. In the wi-fi world, the marketing can say they sell you a "gigabit ac1750 router (or adapter)", and in real life you may well end up with just 100Mbps or slower data throughput. If you get 200mbps or more, you should be jumping from joy.
  • ZeusGamer
    I'm using a dual band PCI Express wi-fi module. For some reason, it's much better than my ethernet connection. Could be because my killer port is only single band rather than dual. I've not lagged one bit with this accessory and I've been using it for at least 8 - 9 months now.
  • user_friendly
    Id like to point out that having an external usb wifi can get really hot and malfunction. Its not inside of an air circulated case, so mine tends to get blazingly hot. i have the n600 which i can game on and have no problems. Moslty