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If you’re struggling with the built-in Wi-Fi on your laptop or desktop PC, then you may want to look at one of the best USB Wi-Fi adapters. Available in a variety of different designs, these all have one thing in common: they connect to a USB port to give our Windows PC, Mac, or even your Linux box Wi-Fi connectivity.
A USB Wi-Fi adapter can be used to add Wi-Fi to a computer that doesn’t have its own built-in Wi-Fi, or just to upgrade your Wi-Fi if you find that your internal antennas just aren’t quite cutting it. For example, if you have an older laptop that only includes 802.11n Wi-Fi, a dual-band 802.11ac adapter can give you quite a performance boost, especially for downloading large files, online gaming or streaming.
Using a USB Wi-Fi adapter can also be a great way to get your transceiver away from the interference that’s often created by many desktop PCs. You can either pick up a Wi-Fi adapter that’s designed to sit a few feet away from your computer, which often also provide better antennas, or simply use a standard USB extension cable if you’re on a budget.
If you're looking for maximum performance for your online gaming or streaming, you'll want to check out the Netgear Nighthawk A7000. This USB Wi-Fi adapter is dual-band compatible, giving you maximum transfer speeds of up to 1,300Mbps when using a 5GHz band; if you're using a 2.4GHz band, you can still get speeds up to 600Mbps. Support for USB 3.0 helps eliminate the bottleneck between your computer and the adapter, although it's also still compatible with USB 2.0 as well, so it works with both current and older laptops and desktops.
Setting up your Wi-Fi connection is easy thanks to its plug-and-play installation and built-in configuration tools. The adapter features a WPS button for one-click access to encrypted Wi-Fi networks. The Nighthawk A7000 also includes a magnetic cradle to give you more mounting and placement options, and it uses beamforming to give you the most reliable signal no matter where you are in your home. The sleek, foldable design is great for preventing damage while traveling or moving your computer around the home.
"If you’re an avid gamer who likes to slay hordes of undead zombies online, or if you simply want to catch up on Fortnite, this is the adapter for you." — Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester
Windows, Mac, and Linux compatible
Linux setup is difficult
The Glam Hobby Ourlink Wi-Fi adapter is the perfect choice for new laptops. The ultra-compact design is great for both storage and travel; its low profile prevents damage to the adapter and USB port during travel and doesn't block other ports on your laptop. This adapter is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux laptops, and setup is plug-and-play.
The Ourlink also has a "soft AP" function to create a Wi-Fi hotspot so you can use your mobile devices without draining your cellular data, and of course supports WPA/WPA2 encryption to protect your information. This adapter works with most dual-band wireless routers and gives you speeds up to 150Mbps over a 2.4GHz band or up to 433Mbps over a 5GHz channel, automatically choosing the best band to handle different workloads or for better media streaming.
"If you’re simply looking for something to help you work on documents and get daily internet-related tasks done, then this is the best bang for your buck." — Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester
A bit bulky
Whether you're building a custom desktop or using an off-the-shelf computer, you don't need a fancy and expensive Wi-Fi card to get a fast, reliable connection. The NET-DYN AC1200 uses a USB 3.0 connection to give you up to 867Mbps data transfer speeds on the 5GHz band so you can stream movies or play games online without worrying about a sluggish connection. This USB Wi-Fi adapter has a 100-yard range so you can use it just about anywhere in your home: your porch, your basement, your attic, or even your backyard.
With this adapter, you don't need to download specialized programs to get it to work; simply plug it into a USB port and start using your favorite sites almost immediately. The AC1200 provides a fast and secure connection over the WPA/WPA2 protocols to encrypt your personal information. This adapter is also backed by a lifetime warranty that covers manufacturing defects and dead units.
"Up close to the router and on a new machine, YouTube played without any pixelation, Spotify was seamless, and online games didn’t rubber band. It was a truly magical experience." — Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester
Offers solid performance at longer ranges
Easy to install
Middling speeds at closer ranges
Linksys is one of the best-known names when it comes to wireless routers, so it shouldn't come as a big surprise that it also makes a lineup of pretty affordable USB Wi-Fi adapter, and among these the WUSB6300 is currently its fastest model.
In fact, the WUSB6300 was actually one of the first 802.11ac USB Wi-Fi adapters to arrive on the market a few years ago, offering dual-band AC1200 performance with speeds of up to 867Mbps on the 5GHz band. While it doesn't lead the pack in performance at close ranges, where the WUSB6300 particularly excels is in providing more consistent speeds as you move further away from the router.
This also comes in an adapter that's both portable and easy to set up, with USB 3.0 support to make sure you get the maximum throughput from your PC or laptop, and although the middling performance is fine for web surfing and streaming, the higher latency means that it may not be a go-to choice for gamers.
Trendnet's TEW-809UB is a solution for those looking to add Wi-Fi support to a desktop PC or a relatively stationary laptop who don't want to compromise on performance or signal strength. While it's definitely not the most portable USB Wi-Fi Adapter out there, thanks to its four large protruding high-gain antennas, it delivers strong dual-band Wi-Fi performance.
The AC1900 speeds mean that you can get 1.3Gbps throughput on the 5GHz band, and up to 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz side, and it supports beamforming technology to give you the maximum signal strength by aiming your wireless signals in the direction of your router, rather than letting them bounce around the house. You can also manually position the four antennas to help get even better performance.
An included three-foot USB cable lets you place the TEW-809UB away from your computer, helping to reduce interference further, and like most USB adapters the set up is pretty much plug-and-play, with your operating system handling most of the heavy lifting.
Dual band compatible
Easy to set up
Does not work with Linux based computers
When choosing a wireless adapter, a model with an antenna is a good way to go if you want to maximize your range. The EDUP-1635 adapter uses a USB 2.0 connection and your router's dual-band Wi-Fi to deliver up to 600Mbps so you can surf the web, play games, or stream video at blazing speeds. It also supports 5GHz 802.11ac speeds for even faster performance.
The antenna has 360 degrees of rotation and 90 degrees of angle to help you get the best signal reception no matter where your desktop or laptop is in the house. The EDUP-1365 has a one-key encryption function to protect your personal information while you use the internet, and it's quick and easy to set up with the included CD or downloaded drivers so you can start surfing the web almost immediately.
"While small adapters are great for portability—some are so small you can even leave them plugged into your laptop all the time—there's always a big tradeoff between size and Wi-Fi performance, so if you're looking for an adapter that will work in busy areas like airports and convention centers, it's always better to get one with external antennas." — Jesse Hollington, Tech Writer
Can create Wi-Fi hotspot
Installation issues with 64-bit Windows 10
The Wise Tiger GXIVR8020A5 features a wireless 802.11ac connection, which is three times faster than 802.11n to help you get more work done in less time. It also utilizes dual-band Wi-Fi connections to give you data transfer speeds over 400Mbps when connected to a 5GHz band.
The external antenna ensures a consistent and reliable internet connection whether your desktop is in the same room as your router or on a different floor of your house or office building. Setup is quick and easy. Drivers are downloadable and installation is plug-and-play. This adapter also features a soft AP mode that allows you to create a Wi-Fi hotspot for mobile devices so you can use your smartphone without eating up your cellular data.
For the best combination of performance, flexibility, and range, Netgear’s Nighthawk A7000 checks all of the right boxes, but if you’re looking for something really affordable and portable for travel purposes, be sure to check out the Ourlink U631.
Jesse Hollington is a freelance writer with over 10 years of experience writing about technology and three decades of experience in information technology and networking. He's installed, tested, and configured just about every type and brand of router, firewall, wireless access point, and network extender in places ranging from single-family dwellings to office buildings. university campuses, and even coast-to-coast wide-area network (WAN) deployments.
Rebecca Isaacs is passionate about how technology, no matter how big or small, can improve daily life. She works in higher education. When she’s not checking out the latest tech gadgets or writing about them, she’s snuggling up with a good book and her beloved cat, Hobbes.
A USB Wi-Fi adapter is one of the easiest way to add wireless network connectivity to a PC, laptop, or even a game console, and even if your device already includes built-in Wi-Fi, the right use Wi-Fi adapter can give you a nice performance upgrade.
Since USB is a universal standard, a USB Wi-Fi adapter can work with just about anything that has a USB port, and is often as simple as just plugging it in, making them a much better option than installing a traditional network card.
While USB Wi-Fi adapters are available in a wide variety of designs from ultra-portable dongles that aren't much bigger than your USB port to larger devices that sit on your desk, they all basically have the same goal: to give you better wireless connectivity.
With so many laptops already including Wi-Fi support built-in, you may wonder exactly why you need a USB Wi-Fi adapter. The truth is, if your computer already provides good solid built-in Wi-Fi, there's almost certainly no need to add a USB adapter, but for users of older laptops with poor built-in Wi-Fi or PCs that typically don't include Wi-Fi support at all, a USB Wi-Fi adapter can help to bridge the gap.
For example, you might have an older laptop that doesn't offer dual-band Wi-Fi or faster 802.11ac speeds, in which case a USB Wi-Fi adapter could give your device a new lease on life, especially if you're looking to stream 4K videos or do any serious gaming. Further, even computers that have modern Wi-Fi specs are often hampered by poor internal antenna placement, so an external USB Wi-Fi adapter can often still improve your range and throughput.
Most USB Wi-Fi adapters work reasonably well when you're close to your router, but if you're sitting right beside your router anyway, you could probably just as easily plug in an Ethernet cable and get even better performance, so the point of a USB Wi-Fi adapter is to give you the freedom to move around your home, so you're going to want to make sure that it offers the kind of range you need.
To be fair, this is something of a double-edge sword, since it's also up to your router to provide the coverage that you need, and a USB Wi-Fi adapter isn't going to work magic if your router can't get a signal out to it in the first place. It's a cooperative effort, and if you have a larger home, you should definitely start by making sure you have a good long-range router.
Even once you have a router that provides solid coverage for your home, however, the USB Wi-Fi adapter still has to do its part, and not all adapters are created equal in this regard. As a result, adapters that sit farther away from your computer's USB port—either by protruding out, offering external antennas, or using an extension cable—will generally provide better range, all other things being equal, since they offer better antennas and don't have to contend with interference from your computer.
A single-band Wi-Fi adapter operates on only one frequency—normally 2.4GHz—which offers basic compatibility with almost every Wi-Fi network on the planet, but also means that you'll be stuck using the exact same frequencies that most other devices are using. By contrast, a dual-band Wi-Fi adapter can make connections on the higher-frequency 5GHz band, providing your router supports it, giving you faster speeds and fewer devices competing for bandwidth.
Whether to choose a single-band or dual-band USB Wi-Fi adapter will largely depend on what your home router supports, although if you're purchasing an adapter for a laptop that you're going to travel with, you'll want to go with a dual-band adapter for maximum compatibility.
Further, since most laptops today already offer at least single-band Wi-Fi built right in, there's really no point in even considering an adapter that only offers single-band Wi-Fi, and these days even the most affordable ones provide dual-band W-Fi support.
Just to be clear, although you may have heard of tri-band Wi-Fi, that's a feature exclusive to routers that need to support a lot of devices—it offers an additional 5GHz frequency band to help divvy up devices into separate bands for maximum performance, but since a single device can only connect to one frequency band at a time, there's no such thing as a tri-band USB Wi-Fi adapter.
How fast you need your USB Wi-Fi adapter to be will depend largely on what you plan to do with it, although all of the modern dual-band adapters should be more than adequate for even 4K Netflix streaming, offering support for Wi-Fi 5 802.11ac speeds of 867Mbps or better on the 5GHz band.
One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that as with all Wi-Fi devices, throughput will drop off as you move farther away from your router, and not all USB Wi-Fi adapters are created equal in this regard. If you plan to work at a distance from your router, you'll want to make sure that your chosen adapter offers good performance at longer ranges.
Also, keep in mind that if you plan to use a USB Wi-Fi adapter for gaming, you'll have to consider more than just speed; make sure you pick one with low latency for maximum lag-free performance. On the flip side, there's no need to worry about buying a high-speed adapter if you're only planning to connect to public hotspots at airports, hotels, and coffee shops, as these usually don't offer particularly speedy internet performance in the first place
Note that while there are a number of routers out now offering support for the very newest Wi-Fi 6 802.11ax standard, at this point we have yet to see a Wi-Fi 6 compatible USB Wi-Fi adapter.
There are a lot of different styles of USB Wi-Fi adapters available, so it's easy to find an option that suits your own specific needs, but you'll want to make sure that you look beyond just the physical design, since there are some important tradeoffs here.
As a rule, the smaller the USB Wi-Fi adapter, the less range and performance it's likely to offer. Little dongles that barely protrude from your USB port may be great at close range, but it's not realistic to expect them to provide good Wi-Fi performance on the other side of your house (unless you have a mesh Wi-Fi system, of course).
Adapters that extend further out from your computer's USB port or connect separately via a cable will also avoid being affected by interference from the electronics in your computer, although your mileage will vary here depending on what type of PC or laptop you're using; some are better than others in this regard.
Larger USB Wi-Fi adapters may be bulkier, but offer more room for internal antennas—or even external ones, in some cases—that ensure you get maximum range and performance.
If you're looking for the best speeds at the edges of your Wi-Fi coverage, you should look for an adapter with one or more separate antennas that can be positioned and offer beamforming to maximize signal strength and focus your signal back to the router itself. Of course, an adapter with external antennas will sacrifice some portability.
While most modern USB Wi-Fi adapters are pretty much plug-and-play for Windows users, if you're using a Mac or a Linux system your options may be more limited, and you'll want to check the specs before buying a USB Wi-Fi adapter to make sure it's not only compatible with your operating system, but also the specific version of your operating system.
This is even more important if it's from a lesser-known brand, as you may need to install custom drivers even on Windows, and the manufacturer may not offer those drivers for other operating systems.
If you're looking for a USB Wi-Fi adapter for a game console, your options will be even more limited. Don't expect a standard USB Wi-Fi adapter to work with a PS3 or Xbox unless it very specifically lists compatibility with those devices.
Your USB Wi-Fi adapter can only offer you speeds that are as fast as the USB port on your computer, and since older USB 2.0 ports max out at 480Mbps, you're going to need to have a USB 3.0 port available on your computer if you want to benefit from the speeds offered by an AC1200 or better USB Wi-Fi adapter.
Of course, even if you don't have USB 3.0 available on your computer, this doesn't mean you can't buy a faster USB Wi-Fi adapter, as they're all backward compatible with older USB standards; you simply won't get the advertised speeds, however 480Mbps is still perfectly respectable for streaming movies and even gaming in most cases.
While Netgear is best known for its Nighthawk series of wireless routers, it also makes USB Wi-Fi adapters to complement them, bearing the same Nighthawk branding. Naturally, Netgear brings its years of networking expertise to bear in producing quality USB Wi-Fi adapters, and while they tend to be pricey, as with the company's extensive lineup of routers, you're getting what you're paying for.
Linksys is also a household name in Wi-Fi gear, having been in the business for over three decades, and having passed from independence to being a division of Cisco and later Belkin, however it still produces iconic routers under its own branding, while also offering a small lineup of USB Wi-Fi adapters that deliver solid performance at more affordable prices.
Net-Dyn is a small American family-owned business that does one thing, and does it quite well—making USB Wi-Fi adapters. While the company has branched out into a few other small products, USB Wi-Fi adapters are still its core business, and they not only offer impressive performance for the price, but they're also backed by a lifetime warranty.
While it may seem like there's a lot to consider when buying a USB Wi-Fi adapter, it's important to keep in mind that it all boils down to one thing: Getting better wireless connectivity for your PC, laptop, or console.
While you'll still almost always get better performance by plugging into your router directly, a USB Wi-Fi adapter can give you more flexibility to move around your home and save you from running Ethernet cables, and can be a great way to equip an older laptop with the latest Wi-Fi standards for when you're on the road.
That said, if you're simply looking to equip a stationary PC or game console with internet access, you may want to consider a Powerline adapter instead, which can extend a wired network connection to other parts of your home using the electrical wiring in your walls.