Skip to main content

USB Wi-Fi Adapter 101

Introduction

Just as no man is an island, a computer needs to be connected to its network, and in turn the Internet, to be truly useful. While a wired Ethernet cable is preferable for many applications, the reality for many is that Wi-Fi is more convenient.

The wireless network starts with a broadband modem able to communicate with an Internet Service Provider (ISP), which facilitates your access to the Internet. Unless that modem has wireless functionality built-in, it'll probably be attached to a wireless router through an Ethernet cable. Most Wi-Fi-enabled routers also give you a handful (in the neighborhood of four) Ethernet ports for wired devices close by. It's what broadcasts your wireless signal.

In turn, the client devices connecting to the network (say, your workstation, tablet and smartphone) need to have wireless radios integrated and enabled in order to transmit and receive data over the network. If your PC doesn't already have a wireless adapter, you have several options for adding one. Given the ubiquity of USB, many folks find that interface to be the easiest. The attached Wi-Fi adapter allows the computer to communicate wirelessly with the router, and in turn the modem.

  • unityole
    hey, in the picture of the disassembled cisco USB wifi module, which model is that?
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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..."
    Reply
  • 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...
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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
    Reply