Everything You Need To Know About Wi-Fi Adapters

So, you want to look into decking your computer out with (better) Wi-Fi? You’ve come to the right place. Adapters for wireless connectivity can be a complex topic, but we will get you up to speed on everything you need to know on this matter. Through our buying guide, we will inform you on the latest technology, answer frequently asked questions, and even propose a quick speed-check for your network at large. Let’s talk Wi-Fi and adapters…

Let’s be real: internet is one of the simplest, yet most crucial aspects of a modern desktop computer. Without solid internet, you lack the ability to stream content, play multiplayer titles, or even install new games. Besides the fun aspects of the internet, reliable Wi-Fi allows you to work uninhibited and keep your desktop running smooth. If you have good internet, you rarely think about it. That’s the goal.

If you have poor internet though, you always thinks about it. And unfortunately it’s not always easy to connect a desktop to the internet. Sometimes the way an older house is wired, requires gamers to string long ethernet cords across walkways and ceilings. Obstacles like that keep your desktop tied close to the router, meaning that dream office is unobtainable or the your computer ends up in an awkward location such as the kitchen.

It can be so obnoxious. gamers just elect to use a laptop and get an inferior experience. That is why a Wi-Fi adapter can be a solid alternative for reliable internet connection. Keep your trusted desktop, just deck it out with Wi-Fi.

Rendered image of the universal sign for Wi-Fi.

Why do I need wireless internet for my desktop computer?

Adapters can do far more than providing good service too. It allows desktop computers to connect to an array of smart devices. Modern televisions and projectors are using on-board Wi-Fi more and more to allow simple streaming and gaming from the couch.

Wi-Fi adapters can be set to also work as router extensions providing wireless signal to the rest of the house. They can also help network devices without a traditional RJ-45 jack, such as some modern laptops. For instance, sharing files is extremely easy between multiple devices, since they can just connect to each other directly. It makes file transfers fast and is also useful for backing up a wireless NAS system.

So when considering a Wi-Fi adapter, it’s important to realize it can be so much more than just “what connects you to the internet”.


Features to consider with a wireless adapter

Not all Wi-Fi adapters are equal. They have differences in feature, form factor, range, speed, and more. By and large the most important feature for the average user is the speed. How much data can the adapter send and receive. There are many other factors as well to consider when selecting a device,

Advertised speeds vs. actual results

You’ll often see AC1900 or AC3100. The first two letters mean that the model is using the 802.11ac networking standard — we will elaborate on that later. The number simply represents the theoretical bandwidth, which is often either the maximum of one specific band, or the maximum of a combination of bands. Speed fluctuates greatly between Wi-FI adapters and is most commonly measured in Mbps.

Keep in mind though, the advertised amount of Mbps is purely theoretical, and rarely close to accurate. In fact, most ISP providers don’t offer internet at these theoretical rates anyways, at least for the consumer market. Still, a higher maximum bandwith nets you the highest ceiling for your actual results.

There is an array of benefits to getting a speedy Wi-Fi adapter. For instance, higher speed adapters usually can connect to more devices without being slowed down as much as lower Mbps devices. This is because the speed is often split between devices. Secondly, you may simply want to connect between devices directly rather than focusing on internet itself. A high amount of Mbps means that you can transfer files at higher speeds from the network to your device.

Network range

Wi-Fi adapters are no good if they lack the range to acquire a signal. Most adapters offer a decent range but the best quality adapters will usually go significantly further. Others are designed to actually boost signals so that Wi-Fi blocking materials such as concrete walls are easier to pass through.

Consider how far you’ll be from the closest router, when purchasing a Wi-Fi adapter. You may want one that doubles as a signal extender as well. Most Wi-Fi adapters neglect to state the specific range, so it’s important to do research and even read a variety of reviews before making a purchase. Some might feature big antennae, but won’t have the range to back that visual promises up. Other adapters have no (visible) antennae, but can burst signals through thick walls like they’re made out of edible paper.

The age of the technology

Old laptops relied on external wireless cards long before the modern internal card was created. These old external cards are incredibly slow and often run on an older internet standard. Today’s modern technology has heavily improved all around when it comes to wireless signals.

Although our suggestions are recent, there is a chance you’re still looking at older devices, serving way lower bandwith. They often are more of a frustration than something worth buying. Realistically, any device created before 2013 should be avoided, as it will use an outdated networking standard. Over these protocols, you won’t get the best results out of your internet connection.

There is also a small chance that devices beyond three or four years of age, will have some compatibility issues. Usually, this doesn’t affect the Wi-Fi in general, but it can affect other features, such as beamforming or on-board software compatibility.

Internal vs. external form factors

The best adapters will be internal, as they are capable of going head-to-head with speeds over cabled connections. These adapters can either be compact boards, or fill an entire PCIe slot. Overall, expect better speed and more reliability with an internal card. The downside is that internal cards aren’t mobile by any means. You’ll have to open up your desktop to (un)install them, rendering these adapters more or less permanent upgrades.

External Wi-Fi adapters can often be plugged into a device and then removed and inserted into another device on the fly. That’s what you get for opting for USB, rather than the internal PCIe slot. USB powered adapters prove very convenient for adding wireless abilities to various devices, in various different places. If you intend to travel with your adapter, opt for the external form factor.

MU-MIMO

Multi-User Multi-Input Multi-Output, or MU-MIMO, the far simpler acronym, is a modern wireless technology that greatly increases stability in signals when using multiple devices. Before MU-MIMO technology, routers would switch rapidly between devices to offer signal. This simulates real-time results but often isn’t truly real-time. In fact, connecting more than three or four devices, can heavily slow down a connection that lacks MU-MIMO.

MU-MIMO streams data in real-time to multiple devices without slowing down the connection. It’s a huge improvement and would most likely be useful for a desktop user who enjoys streaming, connecting domotica, and/or other smart devices. By doing so, user can utilize the full array of wireless features a card can offer.

Beamforming and implicit beamforming

Normally, wireless signals are transmitted in an unfocused form, bouncing out from the source of the signal in circular waves. This wastes a lot of resources, as well as making disconnection from a source more likely. Beamforming is an elegant solution that heavily improves on the distribution of signal between router and device.

When a device connects to a wireless signal, it creates a direct, focused beam with higher energy use, rather than spending all that time pumping waves out. Beamforming is newer technology and most devices need to be compatible with each other in order to take advantage of beamforming. Newer technology does offer what is known as implicit beamforming though, a form that adapts to older devices and allows them to still take some advantage of beamforming.

Companies normally reference implicit beamforming with in-house terms such “advanced beamforming” or “beamforming+” when advertising. Do note that these terms don’t necessarily ensure certain compatibilities. For starters, beamforming devices require MIMO support.

Networking Standards: 802.11(x) Wireless Technology

802.11n, 802.11ac, and 802.11n/g/a all refer to the technology behind a wireless device. The different 802.11 ranges each have different theoretical speeds with the oldest (802.11a) being introduced two decades ago. The newest 802.11 format (802.11ac) was introduced in 2013 and is far faster and superior to the original format. All 802.11 formats are compatible so that means an older router will work fine with a newer device.

The downside is that the benefits from newer wireless standards are reduced to the lowest quality device in the chain. So buying a fancy, up to date wireless adapter may actually be held back by the junky router you own. The speed benefit is great though, for instance the 802.11ac format is theoretically three times as fast as the 802.11n format meaning older standards such as 802.11a can feel abysmally slow these days. There are MANY formats but only a few are used commonly enough to be relevant.

Antennae

Different adapters range from no external antenna to four large ones, that can help with a variety of features. Consider what you’ll be using your signal for. Uses such as connecting from a desktop to another wireless device benefit tremendously from multiple antennas. As a rule of thumb, more anetennae usually result in a further and more reliable range.

Multiple antennas also allow for devices to do advanced features such as MU-MIMO. By having more “pillars” to send and receive signals on, a Wi-Fi adapter can benefit from a more targetted spread of those signals.

Cooling

If you’re buying a PCIe card, chances are, it’s coming with some heatsinks. These make a huge difference in keeping your case from turning into an inferno. External devices are less prone to overheating to begin with, but high-end internal cards might flare up a bit.

It’s not the end of the world if your wireless card generates some heat. But as a rule of thumb, cheaper devices can sometimes experience strains that expensive adapters usually don’t.

Compatibility

Wi-Fi adapters usually have small drivers (on-board software that directs the hardware on how to run) and install automatically when plugged in. Rarely a compatibility issue might occur between specific operating systems. Check to make sure it will work with your OS, especially if you are mostly running Apple.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the details

Wi-Fi adapters are not a super complex technology. Or at the least, what you need, isn’t all that complex. Networking involves so much, that IT professionals train for decades to understand all the ins and outs of the trade. Yet the average user will hardly need to consider much more than the features we listed above.

You don’t need fancy high-concept features to make you game and stream smoothly. Generally, with good speed, modern components, and proper stability, it’ll all work out solidly. Perhaps only ‘power users’ may want desire some more obscure features we didn’t really cover on this list. However, unless you are attempting to become a CCNA or entering into the IT industry, most of these nice features will all but useless to your everyday internet user, and even competitive gamer.

The ASUS PCE-AC88 Wi-Fi Adapter, which comes as an internal PCIe card with additional antennae dongle.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on Wi-Fi networks

What are bottlenecks?

Bottlenecks are the point where data is held up or slowed down in a computer setup. These can occur all across various system setups and unfortunately are hard to diagnose without a bit of tech savvy. For instance, a common overlooked bottleneck is pairing a low-quality router with a high-quality modem.

Another common bottleneck is using an older 802.11 networking protocol with a newer device. In this case the older quality 802.11 standard will be used for both devices causing a large drop in speed. As we explain later on, this and other similar problems can greatly affect your internet connection. So make sure to check for common hardware bottlenecks first such, like the router, modem, connection format (USB 2.0 vs 3.0, or the PCIe lanes you might be using), or adapter quality.

How do I find my bottlenecks?

Ideally when looking for problems with your wireless setup, find the weakest link in the chain. This starts with your ISP. Your ISP is the base bottleneck as it represents the maximum obtainable internet speed. Even if you have the best components, slow ISP signals can still be problematic.

After checking out the ISP, investigate your hardware from modem to wireless adapter, marking down any bottlenecks. Have an old router that is 802.11g but want a top-notch 802.11ac wireless adapter? Unfortunately you need to replace the router first. Unless you plan on moving the desktop around to areas with better wireless standards, the new adapter will always be held back.

Standards like USB 3.0 and PCIe are so fast that they usually causing any bottlenecks. Older formats however, such as the ancient USB 1.0 format, are technically too slow to handle all the data modern components can throw at it. A product out of the dial-up era won’t help you stream Netflix binges in 4K resolution.

How do I set up a wireless adapter?

Wireless adapters are mostly simple plug-and-play devices. As we covered, most options have you taking up either a USB, PCIe, or M.2 slot. Some motherboards even claim to have onboard Wi-Fi, which often happens to be a modular card, that has been attached or even soldered into place. It all comes down to plugging it into the right port, and letting the system do the rest.

Usually, wireless adapters come with their own, simple to use drivers integrated. In most cases, Wi-Fi cards require little to no set-up, as most operating systems natively integrate their features, just like a laptop or smartphone would do. Some feature unique on-board software, but this rarely adds anything that Windows 10, for example, won’t already be adding.

Is corded always a better solution?

Until some years ago, wireless signals have been pretty pathetic in comparison to a corded setup. But, as proven above, that gap has slowly been shrinking. Due to consistency and quality, ethernet cables will always offer the best results, but a great Wi-Fi card will run fast enough to make the difference negligible to most.

In most cases, the speed of internet itself is a larger chokepoint than most modern wireless adapters. Other bottlenecks still exist however, as a solid adapter can still fall prey to poor placement. Consider too, that the wireless signal can be muddied by interference from other, older adapters on the network. If your situation doesn’t give a proper Wi-Fi card the room to shine, a wired connection is always preferred.

On the other side, the RJ-45 format (your traditional ethernet port) has some downsides as well. If your current system is running a dated adapter for wired connections, even your trusty cords might prove slow. Because of this, a USB or internal wireless card may still be an upgrade over corded solutions too.

Can my motherboard support Wi-Fi by itself?

Some motherboards, particularly from the last three to four chipset generations, already have Wi-Fi capability incorporated into the motherboard. The inclusion of the feature may differ, depending on manufacturer and price point, so due diligence is recommended when researching motherboards. Also, not all motherboards that claim to feature Wi-Fi have equal results.

Some motherboards might skimp on the Wi-Fi feature in general, integrating bottom-line wireless adapters. In general, separate PCIe and USB wireless adapters significantly outperform the majority of pre-installed cards found on some motherboards.

What are the benefits of an internal wireless card?

Internal wireless cards require an open M.2 or PCIe slot, but they tend to be faster, more functional, and offer more antennae. In most cases, they prove the sturdiest of adapters, as the USB connection can easily wear out over time. This is especially annoying with a wireless adapter, as slight inconsistencies might require them to re-establish connections or even require reboots of your system before picking up a signal again.

An internal card will run flawlessly every time, as long as the entirety of your system runs stable. Solutions like M.2 are insanely fast in connecting between the card and your motherboard, yet appear to be limited in range. As they aren’t by default connected to big external antennae, they might need a push into the right direction — that of the signal, that is. This is why most PCIe cards will have a large extension on the back, or even connect to an external piece of equipment through the back of PCIe card.

Having an internal card with external antennae, grants you the best of both worlds. You will have the stability of the one, with the range of the other.

What are the benefits of an external wireless adapters?

The biggest benefit of external Wi-Fi adapters, is their plug-and-play nature. They come in a variety of forms, but most are compact and can easily travel between systems. Some niche adapters might be a bit bulkier, but most still have minimal set-up times.

If you need to move around a lot or simply need wireless only from time to time, external adapters offer an effective solution. You can easily carry one around to grant a ton of different systems some (additional) stable connections.

How important is my router for gaming?

Your router and its quality are increasingly important when gaming. Routers usually dictate how many devices can comfortably connect to your network, to eat up some bandwith. If a router gets overwhelmed by too many different up- and downstreams, it becomes the bottleneck for all connected devices. Packages of data get slowed down or even fall away entirely. In turn, if you do experience latency when gaming, it’s more often than not that your router (or modem, for that matter) is being overloaded.

We’ve written extensively about routers in our guide to the best gaming routers, where you can learn all you need to know about how routers impact your internet quality. Consider this as your first priority when seeking an internet upgrade. This reigns especially true if a livestream in another room can already hinder your ability to play games online.

Do I need any Wi-Fi adapter software?

Some Wi-Fi adapters tout advanced software, but realistically, the most important features for power users are rarely found on the adapter itself. Instead, features like QoS are standardized with high-quality routing gear. Having some features on an adapter might prove helpful, but it’s mostly handed off to your router and desktop itself.

The most beneficial software for your Wi-Fi in general, would be a VPN for security, or a comparable firewall on your system. Although Windows’s own firewall is often ridiculed, it’s actually quite decent, these days. As long as you browse the internet not too carelessly, it can protect you just fine. Paying for extra firewalls or VPN services grants you additional security and privacy, should you feel the need to further protect yourself online.

Other than that, some wireless adapters might offer proprietary software for file sharing or network analysis. These applications might be nice to have if you intend on diving deeper into your adapter, but again, most these features can be found on the desktop or router side, as well.


How to optimize your Wi-Fi network

Consider do a quick check-up of your network at large. Clear your bottlenecks and check the range of your router. It’s wise to investigate these things before making a purchase, as a new adapter won’t solve issues presented from an outdated modem or slow connection. Especially the latter, being your internet service provider, can be easily checked.

1. Speed check your internet

Simply measure your internet speed using an online speed test, preferably directly from your modem. These tests can be found from a variety of online sites, all running slightly different procedures. Keep in mind that there is never a need to pay for an online speed test, there is always a reliable free one out there. Websites that say otherwise, are trying to scam you out of money.

It’s important to check if the speed you are getting is close to what has been advertised by your ISP. If that’s not the case, make sure to give them a call, and discuss it. Often, an outside issue such as a faulty wire or poor neighborhood node, may have gone unnoticed, and many companies will send someone out to fix problems like these. Other times your proprietary modem might be in for an upgrade. Either way, you should at least be getting the internet speed you paid for.

2. Updating your wireless protocols

If your network connection is up to speed, check your router (or hybrid modem) for it’s wireless capabilities. It’s common for routers to be using an older 802.11(x) protocol, so consider upgrading to at least 802.11ax — otherwise known as Wi-Fi 6.

Working with newer standards nets you better speed, range, and stability for your adapter, as well as your wireless network in general. Through newer protocols, the network can also handle more devices, without cutting into each other’s speeds too much.

3. Mapping out your Wi-Fi range

After those bottlenecks are cleared, you want to perform a range test. Simply check your Wi-Fi using a non-corded device, such as a modern smartphone, both near the router and far enough out to notice a dip in service. Devices with stronger networking capabilities can retain connections for farther, but you can always relatively map out your Wi-Fi range. If there happen to be areas where you feel the signal should be stronger, consider getting Wi-Fi repeaters to expand the range of your network natively.


With this knowledge, you can easily decipher whether you need a Wi-Fi extender, a higher end adapter, or even if you need to replace your router. Just be wary to not make your network too stable, or you won’t have anything to blame those missed shots on.

Now you’re all up to speed on Wi-Fi…

Whether it’s looking at an endless flow of memes or getting rekt in a competitive shooter, the internet is a blast to use. And what’s worse than having that ruined by poor quality Wi-Fi? We need that glorious connection now more than ever, so don’t throw it away on horrible conditions and even worse products. At least now, you know what to look for in your next wireless adapter, as well as your network at large. You’re welcome, Wi-Fi.

Are you looking for some great recommendations when it comes to wireless adapters? We’ve got you covered on that as well. Just head over to our list of Best Wi-Fi Adapters to see some of our top picks, covering external and internal upgrades.

Is there anything you would like to add, or something else you would like to know? Feel free to ask questions or give suggestions in the comments down below. We’d love to discuss all thing wireless in and around your gaming set-up.

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