When you want to add wireless networking capability to your computer, you have two options: a PCI-e network adapter or a USB wireless solution. USB wireless adapters are small, portable, and cheap, but does that mean they’re better?
Let’s take a look at PCI-e Wi-Fi cards vs. USB adapters, and the pros and cons of each.
PCI-e Wireless Adapters: More Power, Less Flexibility
A PCI-e Wi-Fi network adapter, as you might expect, plugs into the PCI-e (PCI Express) port in your computer. If you’re building your own PC, taking apart the case and locating this port on your motherboard should be pretty easy.
That said, some might not be comfortable doing this sort of work on their computer. It’s not hard, but opening up your PC and working with electrostatically-sensitive parts can be a bit nerve-wracking.
Once you’ve installed it, though, the PCI-e wireless adapter will give you more networking power. They typically pack at least two antennas, each of which will boost your Wi-Fi signal reception. Some of them, like the Rosewill RNX-AC1900PCE, even have three antennas, further increasing the card’s potential for high-speed communication.
Multiple antennas let a wireless card take advantage of multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) spatial multiplexing… which is quite a mouthful and rather complicated.
What you need to know is that it can result in better signal strength and faster Wi-Fi transmission. (Though it isn’t guaranteed to do either.) And many wireless cards include Bluetooth capability, which is less common in USB Wi-Fi solutions.
So a PCI-e wireless adapter is likely going to get better reception. Why wouldn’t that always be the best choice?
First of all, once you install it on your motherboard, it’s not easy to move it to another PC. You have to take apart both cases, being careful about static electricity, and transfer it over.
Some people also find that placing the antennas between your computer case and the wall (where the back of your case is often positioned) can severely limit the receptivity of the adapter. Even though the antennas are more powerful, putting metal in between them and the source of your Wi-Fi signal can degrade performance.
And it’s not a huge deal, but some people really don’t like the look of antennas sticking out of the back of their computer.
USB Wireless Adapters: Less Power for Convenience
A USB Wi-Fi network adapter is about as simple as it gets: you plug it into a USB port on your computer and connect your device to a Wi-Fi network. (Well, you might need to download some drivers and things first, but you get the idea.)
And that’s the single biggest advantage of using a USB Wi-Fi adapter. It’s super easy to use, it only takes a few seconds to transfer it to a new computer, and you really can’t screw up the installation. The adapter itself doesn’t take up much space, and it’s easy to use on a desktop or a laptop, whereas a PCI-e card will almost certainly be limited to a desktop.
Unfortunately, the convenience of small size comes with some drawbacks. Because most USB wireless adapters don’t pack any external antennae, they’re less powerful. They likely won’t get as strong reception as PCI-e cards, and many people report that they see lower speeds with USB adapters as well.
Some USB Wi-FI adapters do come with a single external antenna, like the TP-Link AC600 USB WiFi Adapter. And while this isn’t much compared to the triple-antennaed PCI-e cards, it can definitely increase the receptivity of your USB adapter. Others have remotely wired antennas that allow you to move the antenna to an ideal spot for Wi-Fi reception.
A USB adapter is best used when there’s a straight, clear line from the adapter itself to the wireless router. (That’s the best case for any wireless adapter, but it’s especially the case with USB.)
That said, some people do find that they get very good speeds with USB wireless adapters. It likely depends on the quality of the adapter and the locations of the router and computer. If you buy a high-quality adapter that’s capable of 802.11n, 802.11ac, or 802.11ax transmission and have a clear line between the adapter and the router, it’s quite possible that you’ll get very respectable Wi-Fi speeds.
One thing to note is that the bandwidth of USB ports used to be a limiting factor. With USB 3.0, however—which has become nearly universal—that’s no longer an issue. If you need specific recommendations, check out the best USB Wi-Fi adapters.
PCI-e Wi-Fi Adapter vs. USB Wi-Fi Adapters: Which Is Best?
Now that you’ve seen a few of the pros and cons, you can make a better decision about which wireless solution will be better for you.
If you’re using a desktop, you don’t plan on moving the wireless card between different computers, and you can position the antennas well (preferably where the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t have to travel through the computer case), a PCI-e card will likely give you better performance.
However, a USB wireless adapter does have benefits. It’s small, easy to install, a cinch to transfer between computers, and can get very respectable speeds in the right setups. And because your router probably isn’t in the best place for maximal speed, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to move things around to get better results.
Choosing a Wireless Network Adapter
If you’ve decided on one format or the other, you might be wondering about which one you should buy. There’s a huge range of makes, models, and prices, but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
For both types of adapters, dual-band capability is recommended. Having the option to use the 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz transmission standards is helpful for getting the best reception. 2.4 GHz, while slower, is stronger and will penetrate walls and other obstacles more readily.
While almost all PCI-e adapters are dual-band, not all USB adapters are. The TP-Link N300, for example, is 802.11n-capable and very affordable but single-band. You’ll usually find dual-band capability prominently featured in the title.
If you do decide to go with a network card, three antennas are going to give you more power than two. TP-Link’s AC1900, for example, has three antennas and is capable of 1,300 Mbps over 5.0 GHz Wi-Fi (your internet connection probably isn’t that fast).
Beyond dual-band capability and more antennas, your best bet is simply to look for a wireless solution from a reputable company that can handle the wireless standard of your router. If you have an AC router, for example, an AC-capable wireless network adapter will give you better speeds.
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