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How We Test USB Wi-Fi Adapters

Testing Methodology

Linksys Dual-Band AC1200View Deal

With that background in mind, we set out to both objectively and subjectively test wireless AC USB adapters. In the scientific method (remember that from your high school science class?) this is known as quantitative and qualitative testing.

The quantitative method focuses on data gleaned from benchmarks. It needs to be generated in a reproducible fashion, under controlled conditions. To that end, Tom's Hardware has invested in setting up a new hardware testing laboratory to generate networking results. In the area of wireless networking, the important metrics include data throughput and signal strength on the two frequencies that are used: the original 2.4GHz that goes all the way back to the 802.11b standard, as well as the 5GHz band first introduced in 802.11a. The 5GHz frequency was mostly used commercially, while more commonly used in households as part of the 802.11n specification, and was pushed to the forefront by 802.11ac.

While not data-based, qualitative observations are also important in choosing the best gear. This subjective evaluation includes the overall design of the adapter, the internal contents of the device, the installation process and the included software. While not quantifiable like a speed metric or signal strength on a chart or graph, these more subjective points are also critical if the adapter comes with unstable software or protrudes too far from the USB port, for example. The affordability factor of these devices is also a consideration, as many users want good value for their money.

With a comprehensive methodology to evaluate wireless AC USB adapters, we selected several major manufacturers and asked them to submit some of their current models. Some of the products we received will be tested in upcoming articles.

  • blackmagnum
    I am waiting for Apple to update their cheaper Airport Express base station to AC bandwidth. The current one gave me no proplem at all for various types and brands of wifi adaptors.
    Reply
  • marraco
    I have a linksys router and a huawei. I also have some laptops with internal WiFi plaques, some USB WiFi dongles, and many phones and tablets..

    The huawei dongle works well with the huawei router, and so does SOME internal WIFi plaques.

    On the lynksys router, MOST internal WiFi plaques work better, but not all, and not all the USB devices.

    Worse, everything changes when many devices are added to the network, like a large number of laptops, phones, tablets which the family, friends and neighbors overlap, accessing my network or other networks I don't use.

    At this moment IssiDer shows 2 dozen devices at reach of my PC, and I don't have any control over them.

    So, I never trust Tomshardware reviews. They don't test WiFi equipment against a variety of different devices, and they don't check for interference from other networks, and under different channels.

    The focus tends to be over performance in isolated and controlled state, but that says little or nothing about real world behavior.

    When the air gets filled with other networks, and many different devices are connected to the router, robustness is far more valuable than pure speed.

    Also, it does not matter if a specific router performs best with the non disclosed device inside the laptop used by tomshardware for benchmarking, because I may have a different WiFi plaque, and different WiFi USB dongles.
    Reply
  • Foxlife
    Please keep in mind and add to test methodology the fact that those usb dongles eat up cpu usage, in some case quite significantly vs integrated (within the laptops themselves) solutions.
    Reply
  • tsnor
    Foxlife said "Please keep in mind and add to test methodology the fact that those usb dongles eat up cpu usage, in some case quite significantly vs integrated (within the laptops themselves) solutions."

    I'm surprised by this, given the internal wifi solutions are typically simply mini pci cards. Do you have any references ?

    ---

    I'm looking forward to the actual test results! The test procedures look good.
    Reply
  • dthx
    Nice article. I do appreciate the transparency on your testing methods.
    It is just one way of testing and my experience with some brands that I'll avoid to buy at all cost often differs from your test results. For example, I always had bad luck with anything d-link makes.
    But nothing's perfect in this world, especially when playing with radio waves, So although your methodology will never be 100% accurate due to possible interference from the neighbourhood and maybe the microwave oven of your kitchen, I'd rather choose your methodology (close to the real life usage) over any tests done in specialized labs with all tests executed inside a Faraday cage.
    Reply
  • getochkn
    Why does your picture not show the 2 end antenna's at 45 degree angles like you said you did?
    Reply
  • willy481
    I think most people would rather not have to buy an external WiFi dongle for their laptop or NUC - double whamy as as pay twice to lose 1 port, so are you able to test the most popular mPCIe WiFi-AC cards that laptop makers typically include, in particular the Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 and its recent replacement the 7265 ?. I realise this not as simple as testing external dongle due the fact laptops dont all use identical antenna designs - so just test in a laptop that uses a typical antenna design -better than nothing; perhaps also test the popular D54250 NUC which uses the above 7260 - think all Intel NUCs use similar box & dual internal antenna
    Reply
  • EdJulio
    Why does your picture not show the 2 end antenna's at 45 degree angles like you said you did?

    The cart is designed to be mobile so it got shifted around during testing. Plus we're constantly switching routers around. The pic caught the cart on an off-day. I swapped out the old pic with a new one. Thanks for the note!!!
    Reply