TP Link Archer T3U Plus plugged into laptop
TP-Link

What to Look for in a Wi-Fi Adapter in 2022

Wi-Fi adapters look like relatively simple devices, but as you start to look at available adapters, you quickly learn that there are many configurations available. Some are tiny external adapters that are easy to pack with a laptop, others require opening up your PC tower to install, while others still have multiple antennas to get the best signal possible. What should you look for to get the right Wi-Fi adapter for you?

The first thing to consider is which wireless standards a Wi-Fi adapter is designed to work with. If you have a Wi-Fi 6 router, it makes sense to get a Wi-Fi adapter that also supports Wi-Fi 6. A Wi-Fi adapter that only supports up to Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) will work, but it won’t take full advantage of the newer and faster wireless standard.

Additionally, Beamforming and MIMO (Multi-input, Multi-output) are designed to improve wireless networking performance. They usually go hand-in-hand, and compatibility with both is desirable in any modern Wi-Fi adapter.

Beamforming is a way of focusing a wireless signal towards a single receiving device, making connections faster and more reliable, while MIMO allows multiple antennas to be used as both transmitter and receiver. MU-MIMO (Multi-user, Multi-input, Multi-output) is the same but allows multiple devices to use MIMO simultaneously.

Just remember that both MIMO and beamforming are router-based technologies. If your router does not provide them, your Wi-Fi adapter can’t use them.

If you use a Windows desktop PC, you have the widest choice of Wi-Fi adapters. You can choose either an external USB adapter you can quickly plug in or a PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) card adapter, which must be installed inside your PC’s case.

Internal PCIe Wi-Fi adapters can achieve much higher potential speeds than USB Wi-Fi adapters. This is due to the limits to the data transfer rate that USB has. The introduction of USB 3.0 helped, as did the updates to 3.1 and 3.2, but data transfer rates still fall short of the upper limits of PCIe. Of course, if you decide on a PCIe adapter, you have to be comfortable with opening up your computer to install it.

Mac users have fewer choices when buying a Wi-Fi adapter, but there are still some good options out there. Most of our picks listed here that connect via USB will work with macOS, but make sure to check for compatibility before purchasing.

Finding a Wi-Fi adapter that will work reliably with Linux is another matter. Several of the adapters we looked at promised Linux compatibility—but often not for modern versions of the Linux kernel—and feedback from users is mixed on whether those promises are met in real life. As such, we don’t recommend any Linux adapters below.

Best Wi-Fi Adapter Overall: ASUS PCE-AC88

ASUS PCE AC88 on orange background
ASUS

Pros

  • Good speeds on both 2.4 and 5GHz
  • Great reception range
  • Adjustable magnetic antenna base
  • High-quality construction

Cons

  • Fairly high price
  • Doesn't support Wi-Fi 6

Choosing a Wi-Fi adapter has never been more complicated than it is today. In an ideal world, every adapter would be low priced, high speed, easy to use, have an incredible signal range, and be future-proof. While the ASUS PCE-AC88 might be a bit on the expensive side and doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, it’s ideal in every other aspect.

The PCE-AC88 is rated as AC3100, which means it has a combined speed of 3100Mbps across the two available Wi-Fi channels. On the 2.4GHz frequency, it is able to achieve an impressive maximum transfer speed of 1000Mbps. On the 5GHz frequency, it can hit more than double that at 2100Mbps. This is enough to handle gaming, streaming, or large file downloads.

The adapter works best when paired with a router that uses 1024-QAM, a technology designed to help increase bandwidth and allow for higher data transfer rates. The ASUS version of that technology, NitroQAM, boosts the potential top speed of the adapter by up to 25%. It also helps lower latency and improves network stability.

These features, as well as the range, are further helped by the four adjustable high-gain antennae. These can either be screwed directly into the adapter or connected to a magnetic antenna base using the extension cables. This allows you to adjust the antenna position for the best possible signal reception.

Both the magnetic base and the antenna look to be high-quality and built to last, an impression that also continues in the PCIe card. The gold-plated connectors and the custom heatsink clearly mark this as a high-performance product that is able to stand up to intense use.

The PCE-AC88 is a fast and reliable Wi-Fi adapter that is only really let down by the high price. There are also better adapters for gaming, especially if you have moved up to a Wi-Fi 6E router. The TP-Link TX3000E adapter is also a great choice if you have a Wi-Fi 6 router and are on a tighter budget.

But if you want great range, high speeds and are using the 802.11ac wireless standard in your house, this adapter will be ideal.

Best Wi-Fi Adapter Overall

ASUS PCE-AC88

A great all-round Wi-Fi adapter that can provide good connection speeds and impressive range on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies.

Best Budget Wi-Fi Adapter: TP-Link Archer T3U Plus

TP-Link Archer T3U Plus on grey background
TP-Link

Pros

  • Very good value for money
  • Adjustable external antenna
  • Small and very portable
  • Supports Multi-User MIMO

Cons

  • Only average data transfer speeds

The Archer T3U Plus from TP-Link, at around twenty dollars, is something of a marvel. It is not only small and easily portable, but it is also impressively competent for the low price point. As a cheap way to add Wi-Fi to your computer, this little adapter is hard to beat.

Of course, a Wi-Fi adapter this inexpensive won’t be great at maintaining high data transfer speeds for gaming or dealing with large files. The T3U is rated as AC1300, meaning potential maximum speeds of 867Mbps on 5GHz and 400Mbps on 2.4GHz. While these speeds aren’t bad at all, if you’re looking to do hardcore gaming, you’ll need something more robust.

It has a single external antenna that can be adjusted to get the best possible coverage, and the Archer T3U Plus fully supports MU-MIMO. This helps that single antenna work as effectively as possible, even on a crowded Wi-Fi network.

The range is not as good as other USB adapters on this list, and you don’t get an extension cable or a dock to help find that perfect position. That is a shame, but not unreasonable considering the price. As long as you are not too far away from the Wi-Fi source, performance will be good.

The TP-Link Archer series of network adapters are known for providing good performance at a reasonable price. If you need a cheap Wi-Fi adapter that will allow you to do most things online with ease, the Archer T3U Plus is a fine choice.

Best Budget Wi-Fi Adapter

TP-Link Archer T3U Plus

A small and portable Wi-Fi adapter that can add general use wireless networking capability to your computer for a price that definitely shouldn't break the bank.

Best USB Wi-Fi Adapter: ASUS USB-AC68

ASUS USB-AC68 on yellow background
ASUS

Pros

  • Compact enough to be portable
  • Good speeds on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz
  • Dual, adjustable antenna
  • Supplied with extension cable and dock

Cons

  • Quite expensive
  • May block adjacent USB ports

Just a few years ago, trying to find a decent USB Wi-Fi adapter was a difficult task. Thankfully, there are now several great options to choose from. Our favorite, which combines good wireless speed with the ease of use of USB, is the small and practical ASUS USB-AC68.

The AC68 can be plugged directly into any free USB port on your computer, although a USB 3.0 port is preferable as it supports higher data transfer speeds. It also comes with an extension cable and dock, allowing you to position the adapter for the best reception.

The extension cable is also useful if your available USB ports are close together because although the device is small, it will block adjacent ports if the ports are next to each other.

There are two adjustable antennae on the USB-AC68 that fold out from the body to help you achieve the best coverage. These are more practical when the adapter is docked, but even when it is plugged directly into a laptop, the antenna can easily be folded out and positioned. The AC68 also supports 3×4 MIMO and beamforming to enhance wireless signal reception.

The potential data transfer speed of a USB Wi-Fi adapter is always going to be limited by the speed of the USB port. Although that is the case here, the AC68 pushes speeds up to the practical limit of USB 3.0.

On the 2.4GHz channel, the maximum speed is 600Mbps. For the 5GHz channel, you’ll get up to more than double that at 1300Mbps. Realistically, you won’t find faster speeds from a USB adapter.

Asus’s USB-AC68 might not be the cheapest, but it provides a very appealing combination of practicality, ease of use, and high speeds. The device is small enough to be easily portable and the clever antenna design and dock make it flexible enough to be used anywhere.

Best USB Wi-Fi Adapter

ASUS USB-AC68

A very capable USB Wi-Fi adapter that provides good connections speeds and has a good range, all wrapped up in a compact and portable body.

Best Wi-Fi Adapter for Gaming: TP-Link Archer TXE75E

TP-Link WiFi 6E AX5400 on blue and purple background
TP-Link

Pros

  • Supports Wi-Fi 6E routers
  • Great speeds on all three Wi-Fi channels
  • Magnetic antenna base for easy positioning
  • Also adds Bluetooth 5.2
  • High-quality connectors and heatsink

Cons

  • Only two external antenna
  • 2.4GHz speeds could be better

If you want high speeds and a reliable connection from your Wi-Fi adapter, choosing a PCIe adapter card will almost always be better than a USB dongle. If you have upgraded your router to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E, the TP-Link Archer TXE75E should be at the top of your wish list. It certainly isn’t a budget option, but it can provide data transfer speeds that will put a smile on any gamer’s face.

Not only does this adapter give up to 574Mbps at 2.4GHz and 2402Mbps at 5GHz, but you also have access to the 6GHz channel. The third channel can also provide data transfer speeds of up to 2402Mbps, but with a much more stable connection and less network interference. You do need a Wi-Fi 6E router to see these top speeds, but it’s worth the investment if you’re a hardcore gamer.

This dual-antenna adapter can be configured in a couple of ways. You can attach the antenna directly to the card at the back of your PC, or you can plug in the supplied extension cables and antenna base. This allows you to position the antenna for the best possible network reception, with the magnetic base helping to keep them fixed exactly where you want them.

The PCIe card itself is fitted with an advanced heatsink. This might seem like overkill for a Wi-Fi adapter, but with the amount of data potentially being transferred, the card can quickly get hot. The heatsink, along with the gold-plated connectors, helps to ensure smooth and stable performance for even those extended gaming sessions.

Alongside adding high-speed Wi-Fi to your computer, the Archer TXE75E also adds Bluetooth 5.2. Bluetooth 5 is more than twice as fast, has four times the range, and can transfer much more data than Bluetooth 4.

Version 5.2 adds audio improvements such as higher quality audio at a lower power cost, and multiple synchronized data streams. You might not be too concerned about adding faster Bluetooth to your PC, but even so, it is a nice feature.

As Wi-Fi 6E becomes more common and supported by more devices, the number of Wi-Fi adapters that can make use of it will increase. If you have one of the latest routers in your home—or are planning to upgrade soon—it would be a shame to let an old or slow Wi-Fi adapter create a speed bottleneck.

Best Wi-Fi Adapter for Gaming

TP-LINK Archer TXE75E

A high-quality PCIe network adapter that allows you to enjoy the gamer-friendly high speeds, low latency and stable connection of Wi-Fi 6E.

Best Small Wi-Fi Adapter: D-Link DWA-181

D-Link AC1300 on pink background
D-Link

Pros

  • Extremely small and compact
  • Fast enough for general Internet use
  • Supports MU-MIMO and Beamforming
  • Compatible with Windows, macOS and Linux
  • Doesn't cost very much

Cons

  • Won't win any speed awards
  • Lack of external antenna impacts range

When using a laptop, it isn’t always practical to have a large Wi-Fi adapter with a couple of antennas sticking out of the side. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your network connection a boost, as there are several micro Wi-Fi adapters available that are barely visible when they are plugged in. Our favorite is the D-Link DWA-181.

This tiny device is about as fast as micro Wi-Fi adapters get, providing speeds of up to 400Mbps on 2.4GHz and nearly 900Mbps on the 5GHz channel. If you have an older laptop, this should be a significant speed boost when compared to the internal Wi-Fi chip. These are even reasonable general Internet use speeds if you want to use the adapter to add Wi-Fi connectivity to a desktop.

The lack of an external antenna does restrict the potential coverage range. This is lessened by the addition of MU-MIMO and beamforming, but don’t expect the DWA-181 to provide the same range performance as you might get from an adapter with multiple antennas. These small Wi-Fi adapters just don’t have room for a large, efficient internal antenna, so this is not a problem exclusive to this device.

Compatibility is another point in the D-Link adapter’s favor. It is fully compatible with several versions of Windows and macOS and advertises support for version 5.6.1.5 of the Linux kernel, too. Alongside its small size, this makes it a great option for anyone wanting to upgrade the Wi-Fi capabilities of a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computer.

The final thing worth mentioning is the price. The DWA-181 is available for $20. This makes it cheap enough to be bought as a backup adapter, making it ideal for keeping in a laptop bag in case of a Wi-Fi emergency.

If you are prepared to put up with an adapter that is a little bit bigger, there are some available that offer slightly better performance, including this AC1300 adapter from Cudy. But as a combination of tiny size, performance, and price, the D-Link DWA-181 is hard to beat.

Best Small Wi-Fi Adapter

D-Link DWA-181

Small, but perfectly formed, this micro Wi-Fi adapter will allow you to add AC1300 wireless networking to your computer without getting in your way.

The Best Wi-Fi 6E Routers of 2022

Best Wi-Fi 6E Router Overall
Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000
Best Budget Wi-Fi 6E Router
Linksys MR7500 Hydra Pro 6E
Best Wi-Fi 6E Router for Gaming
Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500
Best Mesh Wi-Fi 6E Router
Netgear Orbi RBKE963
Best Budget Mesh Wi-Fi 6E Router
ASUS ZenWiFi ET8
Profile Photo for Russ Ware Russ Ware
Russ is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about technology. He loves exploring and figuring out how complex things work, and sharing that knowledge with others, something he has been doing online and in print for more than 15 years. When not writing for How-To Geek, Russ can usually be found planning his first novel or taking something apart to see how it works.
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