What are WiFi Adapters, and do I need one?

What are Wireless adapters and how do they work?

I often have customers ask me what are WiFi adapters? and do I need one?  Well, here is a detailed answer to both questions.  🙂

Wireless adapters, or WiFi adapters, are devices that connect to a computer, game system, or other electronics to allow them to connect to a wireless network.  There are still many devices that do not have wireless connectivity built in to them and others that don’t have the latest WiFi capabilities,  so adding a new wireless adapter is a great way to fix this.

There are a few different types of WiFi adapters and each have their uses.  Some are simply plug and play while others require you to actually open up your computer and install an adapter inside.  Both varieties will help you connect to a wireless network but there are reasons to use one type over another.  Below I will talk about each type and help you understand what will work best for your situation.

Types of WiFi adapters:

  • What are WiFi Adapters? – USB Wireless Adapters/USB WiFi Adapters

By far USB Wireless Adapters, also known as USB WiFi Adapters, are the most commonly used wireless adapters today.    This is due to their low cost and ease of use.  Using a USB wireless network adapter is definitely the easiest option because they are simply plug and play.  USB Wireless Adapters in most cases are auto-detected by your computer once you plug them in to an open USB port.  Also the necessary drivers are usually stored right on the USB wireless adapter.  I have installed hundreds of these for customers over the years and they are extremely easy to install.  Simply plug one into an open USB port on your pc and follow any install windows that open up.  Your computer should auto-recognize the new device and after a minute or two you should be able to connect to a wireless network.  If a wireless connection window doesn’t automatically open then you can open the network settings yourself.  Most computers will have either a WiFi or Network icon in the lower right hand corner on the task bar.  If you can’t find this then go to your computer’s settings and open up the Network connections.

What are WiFi Adapters?
WiFinfo.com – What are WiFi adapters, and do I need one?

This makes USB Wireless Adapters especially great for anyone who doesn’t want to open up their computer to install an internal wireless network adapter.  Most people either don’t have the desire or the skillset needed to install a wireless adapter inside their computer.  Luckily, USB wireless adapters help people simply connect to wireless networks.  Although they are the easiest way to get connected wirelessly, they do use a USB slot and if you have a shortage of those, it may be an inconvenience.

  • PCMCIA Wireless Adapters

Another type of wireless network adapter that might work for you are the PCMCIA cards. This type of WiFi adapter was used in older laptops.  These are credit card-sized WiFi adapters that slide into an open slot on some laptops.  Most newer laptops do not have a PCMCIA slot so these won’t be an option for everyone.  

  • PCI WiFi Adapters (Not the same as PCI-Express)

 PCI adapters are cards that are installed inside of desktop computers. To be able to use this type of WiFi adapter you will need to have an open PCI slot on the computer’s motherboard.  (These are found in older desktops, PCI-E are found in the newer ones)

The good points about these is that they work very well and they do not use any of your USB ports.  The Cons of this type is that they require you to open up your computer to install them. 

If you are confident in your abilities to open up your computer and safely install one of these then I do suggest them.  However, if the thought of taking apart your computer frightens you, then I suggest you either pay a certified computer technician to do this for you, or try one of the other WiFi adapters that I have listed.

  • PCI Express/PCI-E WiFi Adapters

PCI-E (PCI Express) WiFi adapter cards are the newer version of cards that can be installed inside of desktop computers. To be able to use this type of WiFi adapter you will need to have an open PCI-Express slot on the computer’s motherboard.

To be clear, PCI-E and PCI are different.  PCI-E is the newer technolgy and it offers much faster speeds than the older PCI cards are capable of using.

The good points about these is that they work very well and they do not use any of your USB ports.  The Cons of this type is that they also require you to open up your computer case to install them. 

If you are confident in your abilities to open up your desktop computer and safely install one of these then I do suggest them.  But as I said above, if the thought of taking apart your computer frightens you then I suggest you either pay a certified computer technician to install one for you, or use one of the other WiFi adapters that I have listed.

  • Mini PCI/Mini PCI-Express WiFi Adapters

Like the above mentioned PCI and PCI-E cards, these “Mini” PCI/PCI-Express cards work in a very similar way.

These Mini cards are tiny cards that are installed inside of laptop computers.  Just like before, they do require you to have an open Mini PCI or Mini PCI-E slot in your laptop.  Although installation is pretty straightforward, you will require a little know-how to install one.  Also, just like before, the PCI-Express is the newer technology and it will offer faster speeds than the older Mini PCI can support.

  • Ethernet Port Wireless Adapters

As the name suggests, an Ethernet port wireless adapter plugs into a computer’s Ethernet port. This type of WiFi adapters is not very common and is seldom seen.

It provides wireless connectivity via a device’s Ethernet port, and is most often used in game consoles like PlayStations and Xboxes

  • Home Wireless Adapter Kits/Bundles

Many users simply prefer to buy wireless adapters that are the same brand as their router because it can make things easier. Home network kits typically consists of a router and a WiFi network adapter bundled together.

How to select the right WiFi adapter for your needs

Seeing that there are so many types of wireless adapters available on the market, it can be tricky to find the right type that will work for you. Below are some tips that may help you pick the right one.

WiFi adapters come in all shapes and sizes. Even though two devices might look virtually identical that doesn’t mean that they are the same. It is also important to understand that a WiFi adapter with more visable antennae does not automatically mean that it’s stronger than one that only has a single antenna.  It is important to look at the technical specs of the WiFi adapters before you purchase one.

Here are a number of things you’ll need to look at when choosing a WiFi adapter.

  1. PCI/PCI-E or USB

Suppliers of WiFi adapters will typically offer you either a USB or a PCI/PCI-E device. Although these two types essentially perform the same function, they differ in how they are connected to a computer.  USB adapters are very convenient because they are so easy to install and operate. They are simply Plug-and-Play.

To achieve this, they do sometimes sacrifice some performance compared to the on-board card type of adapter.  However, this may not be a major issue for you depending on your WiFi requirements.  Although USB adapters typically come in small, portable packages without antennae, they are actually quite capable of performances all the way up to dual-band Wireless-AC networking.

On the other hand, PCI/PCI-E adapters typically have spatial multiplexing and multiple antennas for maximum wireless throughput.  Of course, installing one of these does require a bit more knowledge and effort than simple plug and play USB adapter.

In the end, it comes down to this.  Selecting a PCI or USB or wireless adapter will depend on what you value more, performance or convenience. 

  • For top performance – go with a internal PCI/PCI-E card for a desktop or a Mini PCI/PCI-E for a laptop.
  • For ease of use – go with a plug-and-play USB WiFi adapter.
  1. USB 2.0 vs 3.0

When using a USB wireless adapter, the connection speed will depend on the type of USB ports that are available. For a laptop that only has USB 2.0 ports, the maximum theoretical speed will only be 60MB/s. USB 3.0 ports can however reach speeds of up to 640MB/s.

For broadband subscription speeds below 60MB/s, this won’t matter, nor will it make a difference if you use a wireless protocol older than the 802.11ac. Even so, it is an important factor that you need to be aware of.

  1. Wireless protocols

Wireless adapters use radio waves that have to conform to a 802.11 wireless standard issued and controlled by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). The specific standard determines at which speed the adapter can operate, and use different radio frequency bands.

IEEE 802.11b, the first standard, could only broadcast at a maximum speed of 11Mbps. The newer IEEE 802.11g specification improved this to a maximum speed of 54Mbps.

In theory, devices using the IEEE 802.11n wireless standard can reach top speeds of up to 300 Mbps, but the actual speed achieved is usually slower due to interference and the radio frequencies being crowded.

The trick here is to select an adapter that uses the same protocols as your router does.  For example, if you have a newer wireless router that uses 802.11ac, you’ll want a wireless adapter that also supports the same protocol.

My suggestion is to go with a 802.11n or newer type wireless adapter.  As seen in the table below, 802.11ac and 802.11ax do offer much faster top end speeds, however most home networks just can’t suppy speeds that fast. 

It is hard to believe that today’s WiFi speeds offer faster speeds than most Internet Service Providers do in most areas.

What are WiFi Adapters? – Theoretical Speeds and Frequency Bands of WiFi Standards 802.11n/ac/ax

IEEE Standard

New IEEE name

Frequency Bands

Maximum Speed

802.11n

WiFi 4

2.4 GHz & 5 GHz (optional)

300 Mbps

802.11ac

WiFi 5

5 GHz

1.3 Gbps (Wave 1) or 2.3 Gbps (Wave 2)

802.11ax

WiFi 6

2.4 GHz & 5 GHz

10 Gbps expected

  1. For USB Adapters which Wireless frequency is better to use 2.4GHz or 5GHz?

Both the 2.4 GHz and the 5 GHz frequency bands have strengths and weaknesses, either interference issues or distance limitations.  I think it is always a good idea to do a little bit of research in your area before deciding which wireless frequency band you want to use, but here is some basic advice. 

More often than not, you will want to connect to the 5 GHz frequency band if you are able.  The reasons for this are because 5 GHz connects faster than 2.4 GHz and because it is less likely to suffer from interference.  However, you should use 2.4 GHz frequency band if you are getting out of range on the 5GHz signal because 2.4 GHz  will travel further than 5 GHz can.  The 2.4 Frequency bands can also be a great choice if your office or home has many walls or obstacles.   

The best solution is to use a Dual-Band wireless adapter.  These wireless adapters will allow you to connect to either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequency bands. Choosing one of these wireless adapters will allow you to select the band best WiFi frequency no matter what your situation.

  1. Adapter Size

Some WiFi adapters are bigger than others, and your computer setup will more often than not determine how big you are able to go. USB ports are often very close to each other, and the device you purchase needs to be small enough so that it does not block any adjacent ports.

A small WiFi adapter will also be less likely to be bumped into obstacles and break while the computer is being carried around or being repositioned, especially if it is being used in a laptop.  So think about the size of the wireless adapter before you purchase one to make sure it will work for your needs.

  1. Quality of WiFi Adapter

There are unfortunately many low-quality wireless adapter models available that promise amazing performance, but then don’t even last a month. Apart from looking at the specs, make sure you also check out the external build of an adapter before buying. It is worthwhile taking the time to do research and read reviews for WiFi adapters. This will help you identify those wireless adapters that offer the best balance between cost and quality.

My best advice on this is to find a quality name brand WiFi adapter.  The major brands are Netgear, Linksys, TP-Link, ASUS and D-Link.  There are other brands that also make very good WiFi adapters but do yourself a favor and do a little research and check the reviews before you purchase one.