Best USB Wi-Fi adapters for PC

Internet & Streaming

Interestingly, the term “Wi-Fi” is not an abbreviation or acronym and doesn’t have any real meaning; the engineers naming it were simply inspired by the audio term “hi-fi.”

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Which USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC is best?

Thanks to modern, high-speed wireless connectivity, most consumers don’t need to run Ethernet cables to every room of their house. The bandwidth provided by relatively recent standards like Wi-Fi 5 is enough to take advantage of the fastest home internet connections, even if you’re lucky enough to have a gigabit-class connection. However, not every PC motherboard has a Wi-Fi controller onboard, and from time to time, a laptop’s wireless chipset can act up or completely break. A USB Wi-Fi adapter is a good workaround for either of those situations.

The best USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC is the TP-Link Archer T9UH because of its clever two-piece design that consists of the dongle and its stand. In real-world testing, it matches or exceeds the actual throughput of just about every other option on the market.

What to know before you buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC

How Wi-Fi versions work

The various Wi-Fi protocols are all backward-compatible and the router sets the ceiling for the version each device will effectively use. What that means is, if you have a Wi-Fi 4 router and a Wi-Fi 5 adapter, you’ll only be able to take advantage of Wi-Fi 4 speeds and features. Similarly, if you have a Wi-Fi 6 router and Wi-Fi 5 adapter, your device will only be able to utilize the Wi-Fi 5 protocol—but if there are other devices on the network with Wi-Fi 6 support, they’ll still see the full benefit of the most recent standard.

For more information, take a look at the BestReviews buying guide for wireless routers.

Size

The constant shrinking of microchips means you can get good performance out of small packages. In years past, some of the best-performing Wi-Fi dongles weren’t small and could get in the way of portable setups. By and large, most models today perform better and are smaller than their predecessors.

On the other side of the coin, beware of “nano” adapters that only stick out a few millimeters from your laptop or PC’s body. They can work, but will have a significantly shorter range across the board. It’s especially important to remember this if you’re using it with a desktop PC, as the interference from certain components inside the PC can cause consistent connection issues.

Make sure you have an open USB slot

Desktop users rarely run out of available USB ports. Laptop owners may not be so lucky. If you want to add a Wi-Fi adapter without using up your only available USB-C port, consider a USB-C hub like the 

What to look for in a quality USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC

Wi-Fi 5 connectivity

Wi-Fi 5 models are affordable and well-engineered, so there’s no reason to buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter that’s limited to the Wi-Fi 4 standard. The differences in speed, range and latency between versions 4 and 5 are very significant and you can run into a good deal of slowdowns on the older protocol, especially if your network is crowded or you’re in an area with a congested wireless spectrum.

External antennas

The physical antennas on routers and Wi-Fi adapters aren’t just there for show. Selecting a USB Wi-Fi adapter with external antennas goes a long way toward ensuring you have a consistently long range, which is extremely important if your router’s not near your computer.

Does it plug in directly or have a cable?

If you’re using a laptop, a USB Wi-Fi adapter that plugs into the computer itself can reduce cable clutter and minimize the amount of gear you have to carry. If you’re working with a desktop PC, consider an adapter that has a cable so you can plug it into the PC and leave the module itself on your desk, away from interference-causing electronics and away from signal-blocking furniture.

How much you can expect to spend on USB Wi-Fi adapters for PC

The least-expensive Wi-Fi USB adapters cost around $15 and you can spend up to roughly $75 on something that’s top of the line.

USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC FAQ

Do you need Wi-Fi 6?

A. Probably not. It doesn’t hurt to future-proof your setup by getting a Wi-Fi 6 router, but if your current Wi-Fi 5 router works fine, you might not even notice the difference with the upgraded protocol. There are two reasons for this. One is that for devices to make the most of Wi-Fi 6 features, all or at least most of the devices on the network also need Wi-Fi 6 support. Additionally, the kinds of improvements offered by Wi-Fi 6 aren’t very noticeable to the average user. If you live on the bleeding edge of tech with all recently released devices, use massive amounts of bandwidth on a regular basis or have a bunch of automated Internet of Things devices in your home, then you should consider upgrading to Wi-Fi 6.

Can you install a Wi-Fi expansion card inside your computer instead?

A. Yes, you can. If you’re using a desktop, PCIe cards like the Ubit AX200 are highly effective, with ultra-fast Wi-Fi 6 connectivity and capable Bluetooth 5.1 connectivity. It plugs into one of the small PCIe slots on the motherboard, and most desktops will have one such open slot.

If you’re trying to repair or upgrade a laptop, it’s not quite so straightforward. A miniscule Wi-Fi controller like this one from EDUP will theoretically do the trick, but you’ll have to make sure beforehand that there’s an open M.2 slot to install it in. If you’re working with an older laptop, there’s probably not going to be an M.2 slot inside. For definitive information on laptop Wi-Fi upgrades, contact your laptop’s manufacturer for information.

What are the best USB Wi-Fi adapters for PC to buy?

Top USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC

TP-Link Archer T9UH

TP-Link Archer T9UH

What you need to know: It’s a full-featured Wi-Fi 5 adapter that offers the best possible speed.

What you’ll love: Features like dual-band connectivity, MU-MIMO and beamforming make this one of the highest-performing choices out there. It comes with a stand that lets you position wherever on your desk gets the best signal, but you can still plug it directly into your PC if you want. It even has a WPS button for quick, secure connections and is backed by a robust two-year warranty.

What you should consider: It’s not cheap and might be a little bulky for some laptop setups.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top USB Wi-Fi adapter for PC for the money

TP-Link Archer T4U Plus

TP-Link Archer T4U Plus

What you need to know: This low-cost option from a reliable manufacturer promises great performance even at long distances.

What you’ll love: A pair of high-gain antennas ensures you don’t have to worry how far you are from your router. It won’t take up much room on your desk and sports advanced technologies like MU-MIMO, which helps manage traffic and allows for low latency and high bandwidth even when there are multiple devices connected to the network. Its theoretical peak bandwidth is easily high enough to accommodate any home internet connection.

What you should consider: Because you’re forced to tether it to a PC using the included cable (it can’t be plugged in directly), it’s not the most portable choice.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

TP-Link Archer T3U

TP-Link Archer T3U

What you need to know: This compact option leverages Wi-Fi for a powerful wireless connection.

What you’ll love: It’s about as compact as they get before connection quality starts to suffer and easily small enough to fit in a laptop case, briefcase or purse. It can connect to both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks and is relatively affordable. Unlike many others its size, it connects quickly and should almost never give you any errors.

What you should consider: It doesn’t have an external antenna, so the range isn’t the best—especially if there are multiple walls between your PC and the router.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

 

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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