Best Wireless Adapter
Wireless adapters let your desktop computer receive a signal from a router or similar device to connect to a wireless network. They typically come in one of two primary designs, either internal or external adapters.
Internal cards install directly onto the motherboard of a computer, typically in some type of PCI slot. These usually have one or more antennas that stick out the back of a computer to find the wireless signal, send, and then receive data over a network. External devices, on the other hand, usually plug into a computer through an input slot such as a USB port.
These devices come in a fairly wide range of designs and can either run small enough to easily fit in your pocket or end up being a bit larger. Internal antennas are quite common in such devices so they can remain small although some of them also have external antennas which can fold or flip out of the adapter. Be sure to look at the wireless adapter buyer’s guide below to help you pick just the right model for your system.
Best Wireless Adapter Overall:
In looking at different wireless networking adapters, it's best to find models that offer the best performance and data rates possible while working in a wide range of situations. Signal reception is very important, with these types of antennas able to pick up a wireless signal from impressive distances. Data transfer rates can be a major issue with a wireless network, so look for adapters that offer the fastest top speeds possible.
We’ve chosen these as the best wireless adapters overall thanks to their support for Wireless AC1200 or faster networks, and three of them support AC1900 for incredibly fast data rates. All of these models connect through a PCI Express port on your motherboard (rather than a slower standard PCI port) which reduces bottlenecking through the physical connection. You get a minimum of two external antennas on all of these adapters and a couple of these picks include cables that let you accurately position the antennas for the best possible signal strength.
This was one of the first Wireless AC1900 adapters on the market and it’s still about as good as it gets. Signal quality is terrific thanks to three antennas that connect to the back of the card but can also go onto a separate pod that you can position wherever you need. It even has a custom heat sink design that ensures fast performance with optimal stability. Read Full Review
There is a lot to like about this card and it gives you speed and performance pretty much as good as any other model on the market. It has three antennas for optimal signal clarity but they only connect to the back of the card so your computer needs to be in a good location for reception. The heat sink is well designed to handle heat build-up, and dual-band support gives you the best data rates possible. Read Full Review
One of the best aspects of this adapter is its antenna, though some weaknesses are present. This model has an antenna module that lets you position them wherever you need for optimal quality, though it only has two antennas. While this is a Wireless-AC model, it only supports up to AC1200, which is still very fast but not as good as AC1900. Read Full Review
Here is another great option for a Wireless-AC1200 setup with a pair of antennas and great overall performance. The antennas only connect directly to the card with no module for repositioning which can be an issue in some setups. This one also lacks a custom heat sink which can introduce potential heat-related performance issues. Read Full Review
There is a lot to like about this wireless adapter as it has three antennas and support for Wireless-AC1900 for great speed and performance. The heat sink on it handles long-term use quite well, but it lacks an antenna module, so research if it will work with your computer setup prior to purchasing. Read Full Review
Best USB Wireless Adapter:
As you start looking at USB wireless adapters, you'll want to find devices that are fast and reliable. Data transfer rates are important and the faster they go, the better your system will perform. You also want to avoid signal drops and other interruptions in your networking so look for those devices with reliable connections offering the highest transfer rates around. You should also look at the type of USB connection these devices have, leaning towards USB 3.0 whenever possible.
We’ve picked out the best USB wireless adapters because they all support Wireless-AC1200 networks, one of the fastest WiFi technologies currently available for commercial use. All of these adapters offer USB 3.0 support which ensures the fastest data rates possible and helps avoid any bottlenecking from fast networks using slower USB standards. These models have dual-band support and some of them include physical antennas which let you choose which band is appropriate for the network you’re connecting your device or computer to.
This is a nice, fast adapter which is pretty much everything you could want. It uses USB 3.0 standards for fast data transfers to avoid any bottlenecking from older USB 2.0 adapters, while also incorporating the newest 802.11ac standards. This unit can plug right into your computer but also comes with a cable and dock for additional setup options. Read Full Review
This is an interesting USB wireless adapter that’s quite a bit larger than a lot of other models on the market. While most are designed to easily fit into your pocket, this one comes with two big antennas that improve performance but make it a bit less practical for travel. You can plug it directly into your computer, but it also includes a cord and docking station for different setup options. Read Full Review
If you don't need any kind of antenna for your device, then this is a great option that works well with a Wireless-AC1200 network. It has USB 3.0 connectivity for the best data speeds possible and is quick to install and use. The small size of this pick makes it a great option for travel or use where you don’t have much room, but signal quality may be an issue depending on your network. Read Full Review
This is another good option if you need a cable to connect your adapter to your computer as it’s not at all designed to plug directly into your system. It supports Wireless-AC1200 standards, using a USB 3.0 connection for optimal performance and data speeds. While not the most portable option out there, you do get two antennas and a one-meter cable that plugs it into your system. Read Full Review
In many ways this is a solid device which is comparable to a lot of other options out there, thanks to its USB 3.0 connectivity and Wireless-AC1200 support. You get excellent performance with this one but it lacks any kind of external antenna. Read Full Review
Wireless Adapter Buyer's Guide
When looking at different wireless adapters, you should consider the type of networking technology they support and keep in mind your needs in terms of internal or external devices. Whichever design you choose, consider the type of interface it has to make sure it can connect to your system and look at the data rate to get the fastest option available. Additional features like included software and the manufacturer are worth looking at to ensure you get a quality adapter that gives you the security and connectivity you need.
Internal vs External Design
The first choice you should probably make when considering a wireless adapter is between an internal or external device. This decision really comes down to your setup and what you need, but if you pick an external adapter, be sure it has a long enough cord for where you want to place it.
Internal adapters are usually cards that fit into a slot on your motherboard. These adapters work well and do not require additional space outside of your system, but you also cannot easily swap them between computes.
An external adapter physically connects to your computer and you can place it on your desk or similar location. These devices are great for use with laptops or if you want to be able to easily swap the adapter between different systems, but you need to make sure you have space for it in your work area.
Whether you choose an internal or external device, look at how it connects to your computer and make sure you have the right type of interface. For an internal adapter, this usually means a PCI slot on your motherboard. You probably have a PCI slot available, but double-check to be sure your motherboard has the right type and that it is not blocked by a video card or other hardware.
External devices usually connect through a USB port or network connection like an Ethernet cable. Make sure you have the right type of connection, and pick a model with at least USB 2.0, though 3.0 is preferable.
Internal vs External Antenna
Regardless of whether you choose an internal or external adapter, you also need to consider models with internal or external antennae.
An internal antenna is convenient because it does not stick out and reduces the chances of it breaking off accidentally. Reception with an internal antenna can be an issue, however, and internal antennae are usually not ideal if you need to receive a wireless signal over a long range.
External antennae provide excellent range and reception quality, but you need to be sure you have room for them as well as being careful not to damage or break them off the adapter. If you have the space, one or more external antennae are usually a better choice, but an internal antenna can still work great at close range.
Once you have determined whether you want an internal or external device, this is probably the next most important consideration as you look at different models. You need to be sure you choose an adapter that is compatible with the standards of your wireless router or other device sending a signal to your hardware.
The standards for wireless connectivity are indicated by a letter, usually after the number “802.11” or word “Wireless” in hardware’s description, for example: Wireless-N or 802.11g. What you really need to look for here is that your adapter is compatible with whatever standard your router or other hardware is using to create your wireless network.
Most of these are backwards compatible, so if you have an 802.11b router, then a Wireless-G adapter will work with it. For the fastest performance possible, pick an adapter and other hardware with Wireless-AC1900 support.
Wireless Data Rate
It is very important to consider the wireless data rate of an adapter to be sure you are not losing speed on your computer’s end of the network. Data transfers at a certain rate based on your service provider and type of Internet, and your modem, gateway, and router can all impact a network’s data rates.
If your wireless adapter is slower than your other hardware, however, then all of the speed can be lost and it creates a bottleneck in your network. Be sure you match or exceed the data rates of your other networking hardware and service; look for rates of at least 150Mbps, but if you have a really fast network, then go for a model with a rate of 300Mbps, 433Mbps, or faster.
The frequency band of an adapter refers to the radio frequency or frequencies the device can send and receive signals through. The most important thing here is to make sure that whatever you choose matches the rest of your networking hardware.
You will probably see 2.4GHz or 2.4GHz/5.0GHz as the most common options for wireless adapters. 2.4GHz is very common and will work with most basic wireless networks, while 2.4GHz/5.0GHz is for dual-band networks utilizing two frequency bands for greater signal fidelity and performance. As long as an adapter with a frequency band matches your other wireless networking hardware, you should be fine.
While the types of network and data rates are primary concerns, it is also worth looking at the software that comes bundled with any adapter you consider. Good software can make it easier to set up your network and keep it secure. If you already have utilities and software that you prefer for networking, then this is a negligible concern, but otherwise look at what is included.
You want to choose a model which includes software to make networking simple. Pick an adapter which includes programs for setting up and managing your network, along with security options to ensure unauthorized users aren’t able to access your network and data.
Manufacturer and Warranty
Since wireless adapters are an important part of setting up your network and overall performance, be sure to choose a reliable manufacturer known for making quality hardware. Companies like TP-Link, Netgear, D-Link, and ASUS are well known and regarded for making excellent internal and external adapters.
You should also look at the warranty provided on an adapter to be sure your investment in the hardware is protected. A one-year warranty is the bare minimum you should accept, while a two-year or five-year warranty is ideal. It is common for external adapters to have longer warranties, so keep that in mind as you compare different manufacturers and models.