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How We Test USB Wi-Fi Adapters

Introduction

Choosing networking gear can be a daunting process. Buying the cheapest product in this market segment is often a lousy idea due to quality issues and poor support, but purchasing the most expensive adapter for no specific reason can be equally foolhardy. Too often, we simply choose a particular brand of networking gear at the onset based on a recommendation or a sale, and simply keep purchasing it.

Product testing of Wi-Fi gear has traditionally focused on only one piece of hardware--the wireless router. While that's the central hub of a home network, it is not the only piece of equipment that should be optimized for the best networking experience. Indeed, in our testing, choosing the best wireless AC USB adapter can be equally important to choosing the right router for your application.

The ideal would be for home users to have access to several brands of equipment and to pick the components that work best after testing them. But the practical reality is that most of us buy parts one at a time as we build our networks out, without access to multiple products simultaneously. This leads to the inevitable read-through of user "product reviews" on various retailer websites. While occasionally informative, and often entertaining, it is too often unclear how a particular product really performs when there are evaluations mostly based on a lack of real data, a majority subjective, leaving the average home user at a loss to choose the best gear in an objective fashion. For a review of the technology behind wireless AC USB adapters, check out our recent USB Wi-Fi 101 article.


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  • 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