Best Wireless Adapters

Updated June 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
Bottom Line
Pros
Cons
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

30 Models Considered
7 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
205 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best wireless adapters

Last Updated June 2019

In 2019, we often forget just how easy we have it, technology-wise. Before consumers were able to access the internet in 1991, we communicated, worked, consumed media, and interacted in a completely different way than we do now. WiFi came along six years later, and it took the convenience factor of the internet to an entirely new level. But even today, not all devices feature wireless connectivity. Thus the need for a good wireless adapter.

Wireless internet permits us to work, chat, and watch from anywhere in our homes without having to physically connect to modem. Today, WiFi is available in nearly every public space that has electricity. This includes restaurants, shopping centers, movie theaters, libraries, and even public transportation.

With a wireless adapter, you can add WiFi and cellular capabilities to laptops and desktops that wouldn’t otherwise have them. In our guide to the best wireless adapters, we’ll break down how they work, what features to look for, and which ones you should invest in.

Almost every modern computer comes with an integrated WiFi antenna, but five years ago, it was far less common. Even if your machine does have wireless internet capabilities, antennas can go bad or break, making wireless adapters all the more useful.

Key considerations

Size

Depending on the type of computer you have, you can either install a wireless adapter inside your computer or simply plug one into the USB port. In the latter case, it’s very important to consider the size, shape, and antenna design of your adapter. Some adapters are about the same size as a USB flash drive, and some are even smaller. Others have large dual antennas, which can be less convenient if your workspace is cramped, or if you move your machine regularly. That said, units with antennas generally provide faster connection speeds and wider range.

Speed

Connecting to the internet via WiFi is incredibly convenient, but not all wireless adapters are created equal. To get the speed you need, choose the adapter that’s best for your purposes. Basic options provide speed of about 100 Mbps, and while that’s on the lower end for adapters, it’s plenty capable for basic online use such as web surfing, music streaming, watching YouTube, editing documents on the cloud, and casual gaming.

When you get to 300 Mbps, you can enjoy all of the above, faster. Web pages load more quickly, videos buffer less, and services like 4K video streaming, video conferencing, and online gaming are much more stable. In addition, you can download large files like HD movies in no time.

If you’re after the best speeds available, look for adapters with speeds approaching 1000Mbps. This all but guarantees lag-free gaming and nearly instant file downloads, along with extremely responsive web browsing. Remember, if your internet plan or router only supports speeds of 100 Mbps, buying an adapter with a higher rating probably isn’t the best use of your money.

Range

You can have the fastest internet connection in the world, but if your wireless antenna has poor range, you aren’t getting your money’s worth. Depending on the size of your workspace, your computer’s proximity to your internet router, and how often you move your machine, more range is almost always better. Certain adapters list their range ratings with dBi, which measures the gain of the antenna itself. Adapters with dual antennas generally boast the best marks in this regard.

Operating system compatibility

Wireless adapters have to integrate with your computer’s hardware and software, so compatibility is obviously vital. Select models only offer Windows connectivity, so if you use a Mac or run a Linux operating system, confirm that your adapter will work with your computer before buying.

DID YOU KNOW?

“Plug and play” adapters require a bit more work than the name suggests. These wireless units still usually require the installation of drivers to work properly. The drivers are typically delivered on CDs or flash drives.

DID YOU KNOW?

High-end wireless adapters use MIMO antennas, which stands for Multiple-Input Multiple Output. This allows the device to send multiple independent streams of data through multiple transmitters simultaneously, allowing for higher speeds and stability.

Wireless adapter features

USB connection

USB adapters are the most common way to add wireless internet to your laptop or desktop, but they’re not the only option. PCIe network cards, which require installation inside the computer and feature external antennas, are a notable alternative. Speed and range are high points with this type of unit, but we prefer USB adapters for their convenience, portability, and price.

Dual band operation

Just like a WiFi router, wireless adapters often feature two bands with two different frequencies — 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Having two bands to choose from is extremely beneficial if you’re sharing your internet connection, and certain types of interference affect different frequencies more than others. Some devices that can cause interference are garage door openers, cordless phones, and even microwaves, so having more choice is beneficial.

Warranty

If a wireless adapter is your only link to the internet, failure can lead to missed work, missed connections, or at the very least a mild annoyance. That makes warranties and technical support all the more important. Certain adapters offer lifetime warranties, consistent driver updates, and full technical support. That’s the best case scenario. Other options include 1- or 2-year warranties, or refunds in case of failure.

Wireless adapter prices

Wireless adapters might sound like expensive pieces of technology, but considering the luxury they offer, they’re actually quite reasonable.

Inexpensive: Wireless adapters can be purchased for less than $10. These models typically include a single 2.4GHz band with speeds of around 100 Mbps, which is more than acceptable for basic internet usage.

Mid-range: If you’d like to stream video in higher quality, get into gaming, or download large media files, you’ll need to spend about $15. At this price point, you can get a 2.4GHz and 5GHz band, along with much better speeds of approximately 600 Mbps. Multiple antennas noticeably extend range as well, which can be handy if you have a large home or workspace.

Expensive: For $20 or more, you’ll find dual-band adapters with speeds approaching 1,000 Mbps. These are the speeds you’ll need for lag-free gaming and ultra quick media downloads. These units also provide a wider effective range.

EXPERT TIP

Select adapters grant Bluetooth connections to older machines, which you can use to tether your cell phone’s data service to your computer if there isn’t a WiFi signal. You may pay extra for this on your cell phone bill, but if you need a connection in a pinch, it’s an option.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

  • A WiFi adapter will add wireless internet to your computer, but it won’t guarantee a stable connection. Placing your computer near the router goes a long way with this, but if you can’t, the fewer walls and electronics the signal has to pass through, the better.

  • Administering a speed test is the simplest way to measure the internet speed your computer is actually using. This way, if your connection feels slow, you can pinpoint if it’s a problem with your router, adapter, or computer itself.

  • “Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?” This is a common joke in the IT world, but it’s there for a reason. If your computer and adapter aren’t the culprit of low internet speeds, resetting your router can solve connection problems.

Other products we considered

Wireless adapters are relatively cheap, simple to use, and easy to find. That’s why it was a tough task to narrow down our list to five entrants, but we’d like to shed light on two honorable mentions here. The TP-Link AC1300 PCIe adapter boasts dual-band operation, impressive speeds of 1,300 Mbps, and the dual-antenna range to go with it, but we decided to choose USB models for our guide, due to their plug and play convenience. Speaking of USB adapters, the N300 by Netgear also caught our eye, but for $25, we would have preferred more than a single 2.4 GHz band.

WiFi adapters and WiFi range extenders are similar, but they’re not exactly the same. While an adapter brings wireless internet to a computer that didn’t originally have it, an extender boosts the signal of a connected machine.

FAQ

Q: What does Mbps measure?
A:
Mbps means megabits per second, and is the unit by which data transfer speeds like internet connections get measured. This is not to be confused with MBps, which stands for megabytes per second. There are 8 megabits in one megabyte, so a 100 Mbps connection is capable of downloading 12.5 megabytes per second. To put that in perspective, an average mp3 music file is about 4 megabytes.

Q: What’s the difference between a 2.4GHz connection and a 5GHz connection?
A:
A 2.4GHz connection provides slower speeds than a 5GHz equivalent, but it has better range. This is because lower frequency signals can penetrate solid objects like walls and floors more efficiently than higher frequency signals. Thus, 5GHz has less range, but is a much faster way to transfer data overall.

Q: Can I use a WiFi adapter to add Bluetooth to my computer?
A:
A pure WiFi adapter does not add Bluetooth capabilities to your computer. Although Bluetooth and certain internet bands operate on a 2.4GHz frequency, they effectively speak different languages. There are, however, 2-in-1 adapters that can add WiFi and Bluetooth to your computer at the same time.

The team that worked on this review
  • Andrew
    Andrew
    Writer
  • Devangana
    Devangana
    Web Producer
  • Eliza
    Eliza
    Production Manager
  • Jennifer
    Jennifer
    Writer
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer

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