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WiFi Adapter: What It Does and How to Select One

We have gotten used to fast, wireless internet access. Modern computers, phones, and even watches all come with built-in Wi-Fi chips and antennas that allow them to connect to nearby networks.
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But what if you happen to own a computer that isn’t Wi-Fi-enabled? Is there any way how to connect it to Wi-Fi? Yes. Thanks to USB wireless adapters, there is.

What Is a USB Wi-Fi Adapter?


A USB WiFi adapter converts radio frequency signals into binary electronic data and passes them to a computer

A USB WiFi adapter converts radio frequency signals into binary electronic data and passes them to a computer. Usually, this job is accomplished by embedded Wi-Fi chips with built-in antennas. You can find chips like this in modern smartphones, smartwatches, and connected smart home devices.

Most USB WiFi adapters for PC look either like USB flash drives or USB receivers for wireless keyboards and computer mice. There are also a lot bulkier WiFi adapters that provide superior range and signal strength but sacrifice portability.

Why Do I Need a Wireless Adapter?

With a wireless USB adapter, you can connect to a wireless network without running an Ethernet cable from a router to your PC or laptop. The most affordable wireless adapters cost just a few dollars, whereas a new motherboard or laptop is much more expensive.


Unlike PCI-e wireless cards, a single USB wireless adapter can easily be used with multiple computers. Most modern USB wireless adapters are plug-and-play, which means that they work without any configuration as soon as you plug them into a USB port.

USB Wi-Fi adapters are also useful for people who frequently connect to weaker wireless networks. A capable USB WiFi adapter can offer several times better signal reception than a built-in Wi-Fi chip. Generally, the better your signal reception is, the faster your download and upload speeds are.

You can easily determine the strength of wireless networks in your area using NetSpot

You can easily determine the strength of wireless networks in your area using NetSpot, a professional wireless site survey and Wi-Fi analysis application for macOS and Windows. NetSpot can be downloaded for free and used to analyze any 802.11 network.

In just a few minutes, you can create professional signal coverage maps to better decide which wireless adapter would be most suitable for your situation. All it takes to start a Wi-Fi survey using NetSpot is a map of your local area. You can either load an existing map directly from your computer or draw a new map directly in NetSpot.

Draw a new map

With the map ready, you can start walking from one corner of your space to the other side, periodically clicking on corresponding points on the map to take measurements. Once finished, NetSpot automatically crunches the gathered data and creates several heatmap visualizations.

Netspot Heatmap

You may find out that your router only covers half of the area you need it to cover. You could either purchase a new router with a better range or get a capable USB wireless adapter for a lot less and achieve the same result.

How Do I Select a Wireless Network Adapter?

When choosing a wireless adapter, it’s important to choose one that meets certain essential criteria, such as wireless network compatibility and performance, but also efficiently accomplishes its job.

Form-Factor

If you visit an online store and look at the available wireless network adapters, you immediately notice the wide range of shapes, sizes, and prices. All wireless adapters can be categorized into two broad categories: portable and stationary.

Portable wireless adapters are small, meant for use with laptop computers. Stationary wireless adapters are designed to be permanently installed in one place, making them work best with desktop computers.

Given that stationary wireless adapters are usually several times larger than portable adapters, it should come as no surprise that their reception also tends to be several times better. That said, some USB WiFi adapters come with removable antennas, giving you the option to swap the included antenna for one with a higher power gain, which is expressed in decibels (dB).

Wireless Standards

When a Wi-Fi router transmits information over the air, it does so by vibrating electromagnetic waves, similarly to traditional radios or cellular phones. Because we can’t see information being transmitted through the air, we often don’t realize that the air space is divided into several bands, all assigned to specific applications. There are also different wireless transmission frequencies, primarily 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and different standards for wireless networking.

These standards are defined by the IEEE 802.11 specification for implementing wireless local area network computer communication in the 900 MHz and 2.4, 3.6, 5, and 60 GHz frequency bands. The slowest commonly used standard is called 802.11b, and it has a maximum raw data rate of 11 Mbit/s. Currently, the fastest standard is 802.11ac, and it has a maximum raw data rate of up to 1300 Mbit/s under ideal conditions.

If you have a fast home connection and a router that supports it but purchase a USB Wi-Fi adapter that supports, for example, only the 802.11g standard, which operates at a maximum raw data rate of 54 Mbit/s, you won’t be able to achieve maximum download and upload speeds. Similarly, if your home wireless network is broadcasted on the 5 GHz frequency and your USB Wi-Fi adapter only supports the 2.4 GHz you won’t be able to connect to your home network at all.

In the current day and age, with thousands of new strains of malware being released every single day, it’s also vital to pay attention to wireless security standards. Your USB WiFi adapter should support the WEP, WPA, and WPA2 protocols, and it should be manufactured by a company that supports its products long after the initial release, constantly working on security updates even for products that are no longer available for sale.

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FAQ

What Is a USB Wi-Fi Adapter?

A USB WiFi adapter receives signal from a WiFi router, converts it into binary electronic data, and passes it on to a computer, so that users can easily access the Internet. Most USB WiFi adapters look either like USB sticks or USB receivers for wireless devices. There are also larger WiFi adapters that are not as portable, but offer a better range and signal strength.

Why Do I Need a Wireless Adapter?

A USB wireless adapter allows your computer to connect to a network without the need of cables. If you are not ready to invest in a new laptop or a new network controller for your desktop, USB wireless adapter can be an easy and cheaper solution, especially since a single adapter can easily be used with multiple computers.

How Do I Select a Wireless Network Adapter?

There are two main categories of wireless adapters: portable and stationary. First category is small adapters, meant to be used with laptops.

Stationary adapters are made to be installed in one place, making them a desktop solution. When choosing a network adapter, look for one that satisfies your expectations and makes the most out of your network connection. E.g., if your home wireless network is broadcasted on the 5 GHz band, you'll need an adapter that supports this frequency in order to be able to connect to your network.


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Read next in All about Wi-Fi

If you want to dive deeper into this Wi-Fi thing, check out the following articles about Wi-Fi security, the best apps for wireless networking, inflight WiFi, etc.
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Wi-Fi Site Surveys, Analysis, Troubleshooting runs on a MacBook (macOS 10.10+) or any laptop (Windows 7/8/10) with a standard 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wireless network adapter.