Previously, we’ve discussed routers and gave recommendations for some of the best routers in our article on The Best Routers, and How to Choose a Router for You. Today, we go over what we use to connect to those routers wirelessly: The wireless adapter.
We cover the most important things to know in detail, then we offer recommendations for internal and external options at different budget levels. So if you’re already knowledgeable about wireless cards (or you’re in a hurry), go ahead and scroll down to the list of recommended options!
Wired VS. Wireless
Wireless or wired connection to your network is a matter of convenience, cost, and performance.
Wired connections can be done in two ways: Directly plugging in to your router, or by using a powerline adapter.
For plugging in to the router directly, very long Ethernet cables upwards of 328 feet (100 meters) can be bought and used with minimal performance loss. Even a 100 foot (30.48 meter) cable can be bought for relatively cheap.
Powerline adapters allow you to skirt around the need for a long cable. You connect the router and one adapter plugged in to an outlet nearby, and plug in the other adapter where you need a convenient wired connection. The powerline adapters then work by running the network’s signals back and forth across your home’s electrical wiring, offering the ability to connect one or (potentially, depending on the specific kit) more devices in a wired connection with much smaller Ethernet cables.
Every modern motherboard will support a high-speed Ethernet connection, allowing you to connect to a network by plugging in. This makes a wired connection effectively cost-free in regards to support—you won’t have to buy anything extra for your PC other than the cable itself. You have what you need right on the motherboard.
Meanwhile, a wireless connection is accomplished through Wi-Fi. The router spits out radio waves, and a wireless adapter receives them and does the same.
Wi-Fi is known to be less reliable than a wired connection. Wi-Fi is limited by range (itself influenced by the building you’re in and any objects in the way), has a higher latency (you will see a higher ping with Wi-Fi compared to a wired connection), and, being wireless, is open to interference from other routers and wireless devices. These factors—as well as the fact that Wi-Fi by its nature can only move data one direction at a time—make Wi-Fi much slower and less predictable than directly hooking up to a router or a powerline adapter in ideal conditions. This is why it is commonly suggested to use Wi-Fi as a fallback, or strictly for mobile devices, rather than a default.
Despite this, there are still reasons to go wireless. Perhaps your living situation prevents you from running an Ethernet cable to the router, or you have too many devices to have them all directly plugged into the router.
OK, so why shouldn’t such a person go with a powerline adapter kit? Well, while powerline adapters certainly work great for many people, they are very dependent on your home’s electrical system. Electrical protections found in newer homes like GFCI outlets and AFCI circuit breakers can prevent or greatly slow down their function, and old homes or homes with poorly-designed wiring can also lead to poor performance with powerline adapters (though if you can return with a full refund, they’re still worth a shot!).
In addition, going wireless also offers convenience for travel. If you bring your PC somewhere other than home, such as to someone else’s home or on business trips, it is very likely you will have Wi-Fi to which you can connect, whereas a convenient Ethernet connection is less likely.
So, you want to buy a wireless adapter? There’s some things you should know first:
USB, Internal, or Integrated?
Wireless adapters can be bought in the form of (1) a USB device, often the size of a USB flash drive or smaller, (2) an add-on card you plug into your motherboard much like a graphics card, or (3) a pre-installed/integrated unit on the motherboard.
USB wireless adapters can be plugged into a USB port. USB wireless adapters come in a range of sizes and designs. Some, like the TP-Link TL-WN725N, are as small as half of your thumb! USB wireless adapters like these tend to be the cheapest and most featureless. Others, like the Netgear A6210-100PAS, are as big as—and are shaped like—USB flash drives. Meanwhile, some have a (relatively large compared to the main body) external, rather than internal, antennae like the Asus USB-AC56.
Internal, add-on card wireless adapters are a bit less variable. They come in the form of PCI Express and PCI (non-express) cards. PCI Express wireless adapters are small, and only use 1 PCI Express lane. As shown in our article, Data Transfer Rates Compared (RAM vs PCIe vs SATA vs USB vs More!), even just x1 PCI Express 3.0 can handle 984.6 MB/s. That’s 7876.8 megabits (Mb/s), far more than would be provided by any internet connection you could have. An older system with PCI Express 2.0 would only offer half that, which is still far, far higher than any available internet connection. Being PCI Express, you can plug them in to any PCI Express slot on your motherboard and have it work, no matter the size of the slot. Convenient, huh?
Though some PCI (non-Express) wireless adapters like the TP-Link Wireless N300 are still available, PCI continues to be phased out by PCI Express and is now hard to find on recent-gen motherboards. It is still a viable option for older systems, however. Typical PCI wireless adapters cost around $25-$32 USD, and are overall a bit dated. They are best avoided in favor of PCI Express wireless adapters because of that, if reasonably possible.
Some motherboards have a wireless adapter built-in with the motherboard. Functionally, these are generally identical to PCI Express wireless adapters, but are instead physically located alongside the motherboard’s USB ports and monitor outputs. Oftentimes, they are based off some of the same hardware as separate PCI Express wireless adapters you can buy. However, it’s worth mentioning that having a wireless adapter pre-installed should not be a primary driving factor for buying one motherboard over another. If you ever have a problem with the built-in adapter, you can’t RMA it for a refund or replacement without doing so for the whole motherboard. You also won’t be able to move the built-in adapter to another system*, and have no control over its quality.
*To clarify, the chips that built-in adapters use can actually be removed after unscrewing the shroud from the motherboard, and a new one using the same interface can be installed. Less often, wireless adapters may simply be included with the motherboard, often with an adapter for using PCIe. However, concern over it not being an independent choice as well as not being able to RMA the adapter independently are still problems.
In general, internal wireless adapters are considered to be more reliable than external. Some USB wireless adapters have been known to overheat when running at high speeds and/or for extended periods (take note of how many internal adapters have heatsinks), and for the same price may have fewer antennae (typically one for USB adapters) and/or weaker antennae. A lot of USB wireless adapters have been known to die early due to heat, as well.
Understanding Standards and Speeds
In modern routers and wireless devices, there are two main Wi-Fi standards: 802.11n and 802.11ac. Previous standards exist, but unless you’re using very old hardware, they aren’t relevant. 802.11n is perhaps the most common at the moment, with 802.11ac being more typical for higher-end routers. Every wireless adapter you can buy new can support 802.11n routers, but 802.11ac support is still somewhat hit or miss on the lower-cost side.
There are two main radio frequency bands for Wi-Fi: 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz. In general, 5 GHz provides better data rates and less interference, giving it the edge in more densely-populated places like apartments—but worse range, penetrating objects and walls worse than 2.4 GHz signals. Cheap 802.11n routers are only single-band, supporting only 2.4 GHz, while mid-range routers are dual-band, supporting both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz connections (many routers support them both at the same time, though some, especially older ones, may only support one or the other; check your specific router).
The 802.11ac standard does not support 2.4 GHz, but 802.11ac provides backwards compatibility, so you can use an 802.11ac router without your wireless adapter supporting 802.11ac and still have them work together as long as your wireless adapter supports the 5 GHz band. You just won’t be able to take advantage of 802.11ac speeds. Some 802.11ac routers offer a 2.4 GHz band, acting as 802.11n, in which case functionality won’t be a concern. Do remember, however, running an 802.11n device/wireless adapter on an 802.11ac router will slow the router down to 802.11n speeds. For your PC to support the higher-performance 802.11ac specifically, you will need a wireless adapter that explicitly supports it.
Nxxx (as you see in the upper chart to the right) indicates 802.11n support, and ACxxxx (as you see in the lower chart to the right) indicates 802.11ac support. Looking at the table above, 802.11n tops out at 900 megabits per second dual-band, or only 450 megabits per second per band. 5 GHz has a much higher speed ceiling than 2.4 GHz, when using 802.11ac. These speed “rates” will be mentioned in product pages and specifications of both wireless adapters and routers, so keep this table handy. However, take note that you can only use either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz with your wireless adapter, not both at the same time.
Remember, these speeds won’t actually be reached. They are ceilings. For the same reasons Wi-Fi is limited compared to wired connections, your speed won’t be able to get these speeds listed above. In general, your speeds per device when using Wi-Fi rather than Ethernet will look something like this:
Real maximum speed = (max Mbps / 2) / number of devices
Let’s say your router is AC1300, and you have 3 PCs connected through 802.11n. Your real-world speed would be limited to around ((450 Mbps / 2) / 3) = 75 megabits per second per PC. Connected through 802.11ac, the speed per PC would be limited to 144.5 megabits per second.
When choosing your wireless adapter, consider your weakest link. That is what will limit your speed. A fast wireless adapter doesn’t necessarily mean fast speeds. If your internet service only gives you 15 Mb/s download, then both your router and wireless adapter’s speed are functionally irrelevant. If your internet service speed exceeds what your router handles, then you are limited by what your router is capable of. But if both your internet service and router provide higher data rates than your wireless adapter can handle, then you are limited by your wireless adapter. For most people, especially those without access to quality fiber-optic internet providers, it is internet service that is easily the weakest link. If you are one of those people, then speed isn’t a significant concern, and you should focus on features and cost first and foremost.
Other Considerations and Features
One notable feature that makes some wireless adapters stand out from others is Bluetooth support. This would allow you to wirelessly connect to Bluetooth devices like smartphones, speakers, printers, and home security devices without needing to buy a Bluetooth adapter, which can run you about $7-12 USD. Bluetooth support will only be a feature of internal wireless adapters, and it uses up a USB header on your motherboard.
Similarly as described in our article on routers, wireless adapters can also support beamforming. If both your router and your wireless adapter support it, then that improves your range and thus performance at an increasing distance compared to no beamforming. Your wireless adapter and router can work together just fine if only one of them supports beamforming—them both supporting it is just a necessity for the beamforming feature to be used.
Just like routers, wireless adapters can also support MU-MIMO for the sake of performance. If your router, say, can support 4 streams with MU-MIMO, and your wireless adapter is 2×2 MU-MIMO, your wireless adapter will use 2 of the router’s streams at once. Note that MU-MIMO is only good for download speeds, not upload.
The antenna(e) are also worth considering. Antennae strength is represented in dBi, where the higher the dBi, the better. The further away your wireless adapter is from your router, the more relevant a higher dBi becomes for maintaining good performance. External antennae can be either directly attached to the adapter, or may be connected to a wire that connects to the adapter, making the antennae adjustable. Adjustability is important for internal adapters and USB adapters placed in the back of the case, especially when using 5 GHz. Being able to place antennae on top of the case (or somewhere else not secluded) is good for signal strength. All that said, the way (external!) antennae connect to wireless adapters is standardized. You can purchase antennae separately, as well as extension cables for antennae, with plenty of options online in sites like Amazon. It’s just more hassle and money, is all.
In regards to USB wireless adapters, be wary of ones that use USB 2.0. In theory, USB 2.0 maxes out at 480 megabits per second, but that’s just the specification. In reality, USB 2.0 tops out at roughly 200-240 megabits per second. This means that the vast majority of wireless adapters will be limited by USB 2.0, if you have an internet connection that fast. Also, something with an internal antenna might be safer if you ever want to use it on a laptop, but internal antennae tend to be fairly weak and so such adapters lose out in signal strength.
And on a final note, you may need to install drivers. Sometimes a wireless adapter may work problematically (or perhaps not at all) until proper drivers are installed. This is typically mentioned on the wireless adapter’s product page, but oftentimes you need to go on the website of the company who made the actual chip the adapter uses (usually Realtek, Intel, or Broadcom) either because the adapter manufacturer doesn’t provide drivers or their drivers are simply bad/outdated. On Windows, go to Device Manager and click the dropdown for Network Adapters. That will tell you what chip your adapter uses if you need to know for finding the drivers.
If you don’t have a backup PC, this may mean temporarily using a wired connection if the wireless adapter isn’t working. Otherwise, wireless adapters often come with a mini CD with the drivers, but that can be a problem if you don’t have an optical drive. For a USB wireless adapter, it would be wise to keep a copy of the driver installation on something like a flash drive if you want to use it across multiple devices.
Phew. Quite a bit to go over, isn’t it? Now that we’ve got all the background information out-of-the-way, let’s get into our top picks for wireless adapters:
Recommended Internal Wireless Adapter Cards
At $25, this wireless adapter is perhaps the cheapest 802.11ac, dual-band wireless adapter. This makes it an effective internal option on a low budget, though its performance will be limited. Moreover, its antennae are not adjustable.
$32: Fenvi AC1200 FV-8802 (Best Value)
For only $7 more, this wireless adapter offers Bluetooth support (though a now-dated version), an adjustable antenna (though in an unwieldy form), higher speed rates than the Rosewill option above, beamforming, and MU-MIMO. If not available, the ASUS PCE-AC55BT and the Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I (rev. 4.2) are somewhat similar alternatives, but at the cost of beamforming and MU-MIMO support. Note that Bluetooth might require (separate) driver installation to work. If the off-brand concerns you, don’t worry—internal wireless adapters are really just pre-setup desktop adapters for wireless chips often used in laptops, plus antennae.
This adapter is similar to the above, except for two differences. First, it supports Bluetooth 5.0, the most recent version of Bluetooth. Second, if your router uses 160 MHz channels, the speed of which the wireless adapter is capable soars to 1730 megabits per second (5 GHz). However, it should be noted that 160 MHz channel support (HT160 mode) is uncommon in routers as of now, is more prone to interference, and runs the risk of triggering Dynamic Frequency Selection to keep you from interfering with radars. Though it is possible to use multiple channels (like two 80 MHz channels) that don’t fall under DFS, the chip this wireless adapter uses does not support doing that for reaching 1730 megabits per second. This wireless adapter is thus pretty niche, but still stands out.
Albeit at a much higher cost, this wireless adapter provides a higher speed rate than the two Fenvi adapters above, but at the cost of losing MU-MIMO and adjustable antennae. Interestingly, the chip this adapter uses supports Bluetooth, but the adapter does not support it. The heatsink on this adapter is also fairly beefy, so there is less concern for reliability.
$103: ASUS AC3100 PCE-AC88
This monster of a wireless adapter is truly a sight to behold. Offering the highest speed rate available on the wireless adapter market, this adapter provides the beamforming and 4×4 MU-MIMO you’d expect, though does not support Bluetooth.
Recommended USB Wireless Adapters
$13: OURLINK AC600 U631 or OURLINK U636
At $13, the tiny U631 does the job if you need a no-frills 802.11ac adapter. Given its small form factor, do not expect anything amazing out of this adapter when it comes to signal strength or long-term reliability. Being the only USB 2.0 wireless adapter on this list, you should also not expect more than 200-240 megabits per second out of this component.
The U636 is functionally similar, but has a (relatively capable, but not exceptionally capable) external antenna at 5 dBi, while many adapters around this price have a 2 or 3 dBi antenna. It also supports beamforming. As a whole, this alternative option will be much better for signal strength, though it will be physically much larger—a trade-off of performance versus size.
$20: ANEWKODI AC1200 or EDUP AC1200 USB 3.0
This wireless adapter provides a step up in speed from the OURLINK above (both in posted speed rate and in no longer being USB 2.0), while still maintaining the 5 dBi external antenna. It, however, does not support beamforming like the U636.
Since the ANEWKODI is the wireless adapter I use, I see it fitting to remark on my own experience. Originally, I had blue screen crashes related to this adapter (or, more accurately, the chip it uses). Those went away after installing the drivers from Realtek. But I have since, for unrelated reasons, reinstalled Windows twice and those crashes haven’t recurred. So they may have somehow been related to my original Windows installation, rather than an issue with the adapter or Windows as a whole. That said, day-to-day I don’t experience any issues of note: It runs fine, with a decent signal strength. The antenna’s a bit long (haven’t measured, but it looks to be around 8 inches / 20.3 cm), so that may or may not pose an issue. There’s not much else to say, really.
If you want a wireless adapter with an internal antenna, the EDUP AC1200 USB 3.0 wireless adapter runs for a similar price and uses the same network chip as the ANEWKODI.
This wireless adapter features an interesting design, where the pseudo-external antennae are built into a part only as large as the adapter itself that folds outwards. This means that the antennae don’t stick out significantly, since they’re fairly small and built into the structure. Anyway, this adapter is AC1300, so it supports 150 megabits per second higher on 2.4 GHz than the $20 recommendations, but also supports 2×2 MU-MIMO and beamforming.
Unfortunately, past this point, there are few good choices.
$70-75: Netgear AC1900 Nighthawk 1700
On sale for $57 as of the time of writing, this seems to be the only high-end USB wireless adapter not wrought with many complaints of intermittent disconnections. Built with a similar design to the above TP-Link, this adapter also supports 3×4 MU-MIMO, compared to the TP-Link’s 2×2 MU-MIMO. It also comes with a handy magnetic cradle you can plug it into, so you don’t have it plugged directly into the USB port.
If you can, you should stick with a wired connection. It’s faster and more reliable. A direct connection from your PC to the router is preferred, and can be achieved with a very long cable if necessary without noticeably degrading performance. Powerline Ethernet adapters are also available, though their usefulness depends a lot on your home’s wiring.
But, if you can’t run a long enough cable for whatever reason; if powerline adapters don’t work well for you; or if you move around a lot, making wired options inconvenient—a wireless adapter may be the most viable choice for you.
If you’ve decided to get a wireless adapter, we recommend sticking with dual-band, 802.11ac-supporting wireless adapters. That way, you’ll be able to connect to practically any modern wireless network, yours or otherwise, without slowing things down or running the risk of not being able to connect. It may also be wise to stick with an internal PCI Express wireless adapter as opposed to a USB one, although a USB one may still work if you want to use it on multiple devices or if you have very limited PCI Express slots (such as when you have a small form factor PC).
That said, our recommendations above should prove to be the best-value, most effective options at their price points. They should all support a basic set of security features standard for common Wi-Fi networks, and should all support Windows 10. If you happen to run Windows 7, macOS, or Linux, though, you may want to double-check the stated compatibility before purchasing, as support for those was not a required criterion for this list (and will often vary between wireless adapters).
This can certainly be a surprisingly complicated topic, so if you have any further questions or concerns, feel free to express them in the comments!