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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.