What Is a Wi-Fi Adapter?

Not all Wi-Fi adapters are created equal

A Wi-Fi adapter lets you convert a desktop computer or a laptop into a wireless-capable device. Once installed, it enables you to use the internet without the need for a network cable.

There are several kinds of Wi-Fi adapters, both internal and external. The one you choose depends on the type of computer you have, available ports, and how much you're willing to spend.

What Does a Wi-Fi Adapter Do?

A Wi-Fi adapter allows you to connect your desktop or laptop computer to your wireless router so that you can access your home network and the internet.

Without a Wi-Fi adapter, you would need to run an ethernet cable from the router to your computer and plug it into your computer's ethernet port.

These days, most newer computers come with Wi-Fi capability built-in (as an internal Wi-Fi adapter card). However, if you still have an older computer that only has an ethernet port and no Wi-Fi capability, you'll need to use a Wi-Fi adapter to connect to your router wirelessly.

Does a Wi-Fi Adapter Give You Wi-Fi?

There are two things you'll need for a Wi-Fi adapter to work correctly. Just installing a Wi-Fi adapter on your computer won't give you a Wi-Fi network. You'll also need:

  • A working internet connection to your home (typically from an Internet Service Provider or ISP)
  • Modem (usually provided by the ISP) to connect to the live internet cable or DSL wire
  • A router that handles wireless communication between your devices, the network, and the internet

Many ISPs provide one device that serves as both the modem and router. But in either case, you'll need a router capable of providing a Wi-Fi network. You'll connect the Wi-Fi adapter to the network provided by the router.

Types of Wi-Fi Adapters

There is a wide variety of Wi-Fi adapters available, depending on your needs. Choose the adapter that's best suited for your computer setup and how you want to use your wireless network.

A PCI adapter is a card you'll need to slide into one of the PCI slots inside your desktop computer. Before you buy one of these, open your computer case and ensure that an empty PCI slot is available. These are long, narrow slots near one side of the case where you can remove a metal covering to open up an external hole where the external antenna usually screws into the card.

A PCMCIA adapter fits into the PCMCIA slot on the side of laptops that support it. It may also include an antenna. The adapter looks like a thick credit card. It's convenient because you can easily remove it and use it on any other laptop that supports PCMCIA adapters.

A MiniPCI or MiniPCI express adapter inserts into a PCI slot inside your notebook. You'll need to open your notebook case and ensure you have an available PCI slot to install the adapter. The adapter is all internal and will enable wireless functionality for your notebook without having to use one of your PCMCIA slots.

A USB Wireless adapter is one of the most convenient Wi-Fi adapters because it works with both desktop and laptop computers, so long as you have an available USB slot. It's the best option if you don't want to open up your computer case and want a plug-and-play solution. However, you may need to install driver software that comes with the USB adapter when you buy it.

An ethernet port adapter either plugs directly into your computer's ethernet port or comes as a box with an ethernet port and antenna. If you buy the box version, you'll also need an ethernet cable to connect your computer's ethernet port to the box. This solution is best for older computers that have an ethernet port but no wireless functionality.

If you choose a Wi-Fi adapter that requires internal installation, remember to follow proper grounding practices, such as wearing a grounding strap, which will protect from damaging any internal components due to static charge.

Do I Need a Wi-Fi Adapter?

If your computer is close enough to your router that a network cable will reach it, use the cable as this is usually the best option. Using a wired connection like this eliminates Wi-Fi range and interference issues and, as a bonus, allows faster transmission of data.

However, if you're too far from the router, a Wi-Fi adapter is the best option. It lets you use your computer or laptop at any location, as long as you're within range of the wireless router.

As mentioned earlier, most computers sold today have Wi-Fi capabilities built-in, so make sure to turn on your Wi-Fi before you decide to buy a Wi-Fi adapter.

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