While the most secure connection to a router is a wired one, the reality is it can be quite a project to get wires throughout a house. For gaming desktops in the same room as the router, there really is no excuse to not be directly connected over Ethernet, but it becomes more challenging for that notebook in the family room. Even in the case of an all-wired network at home, how about when using Wi-Fi at the local coffee house, away from home in the hotel lobby, or on a buddy’s guest network? While the gaming purist may balk, the reality is that at some point there will be reason to rummage though that laptop bag in search of a trusty USB Wi-Fi adapter.
All laptops have a wireless adapter integrated via a mini PCIe card. (Heck, many desktop motherboards have Wi-Fi built in these days—although we are hardly encouraging anyone to connect their main gaming rig to their network wirelessly.) However, the wireless adapters that most computers ship with are generally behind the current curve, often by a generation or more. This is another opportunity for a USB Wi-Fi adapter to be utilized: to upgrade the wireless networking capability of the laptop with a simple plug-and-play solution for those not adventurous enough to crack open their laptops.
Sifting through piles of reviews on Amazon, Newegg and other online retailers can be frustrating as the reviews frequently alternate between “Best Wi-Fi Ever” and “Fails To Connect” with little explanation, leaving us wondering if these folks know how to connect their wireless router to a network, let alone configure it correctly, or even actually own the product. We’ll evaluate these wireless USB adapters more methodically—collecting the latest hardware of this segment from several manufacturers and running them through their paces to quantitate performance, as well as comparing the adapters to the previous generation of gear for a realm of comparison.
Within the 802.11ac standard, there are many speeds that are supported. They are based on the combined theoretical maximum speed of the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz frequencies, rounded as needed. For example, AC1200 has a 2.4GHz speed of 300Mbps and a 5GHz speed of 867Mbps, which sums to 1167 and gets rounded up to AC1200. Here’s a chart of current speed ratings:
It should be noted that on the fastest standards, AC3200 and AC5300, this is based on total bandwidth sent across three connections: one 2.4GHz and two 5GHz. A single client will never receive that much bandwidth. While this is not a significant limitation, it does amount to a certain amount of manufacturer exaggeration. On an AC5300 router, for example, they state “delivers faster Wi-Fi speeds of up to 5300 Mbps,” but do not make note that it’s only in aggregate, and the fastest clients we could find for testing are AC1900 which top out at less than the theoretical AC1300 speeds.
The latest so-called ‘Wave 2’ routers support MU-MIMO. This stands for multiple user, multiple input, multiple output. While 802.11n MIMO was limited to a single client, MU-MIMO can be used across four simultaneous clients. It takes advantage of the radio wave phenomenon of multipath propagation. By this process, data transmission becomes more efficient as less bandwidth is wasted, and simultaneous transmissions can occur across multiple channels.
The limiting factor is there are few clients that support MU-MIMO at this time. However, on the cutting edge, a few USB Wi-Fi adapters do support it, providing a pathway for upgrading to improved throughput. In our previous testing, MU-MIMO in a client improved throughput by a serious 134% compared to non-MU-MIMO speeds.
While beamforming debuted with the 802.11n standard, it was significantly limited by requiring the router and the client to be from the same manufacturer. With 802.11ac, beamforming is now part of the standard, providing compatibility between different manufacturers.
This technology allows the router to focus the transmission of the data stream more directly to the client, rather than transmitting equally in all directions. This increases the signal strength to where it is needed, with less interference. While this is now a standard, there are still proprietary implementations of beamforming such as Netgear’s Beamforming+ or D-Link’s AC Smartbeam, which promise even faster speeds when both the router and client are both from the same manufacturer.
USB 2.0 vs 3.0
Older adapters interface with the computer via the older USB 2.0 connector. This ubiquitous, but now aging standard has a theoretical maximum throughput of 480 megabits per second (mbps) (equivalent to 60 megabytes per second [Mbps]). This is still plenty quick, but with today’s faster adapters, with a good signal to a high end router, it can turn into a bottleneck to network throughput.
Better to use an adapter with the more current USB 3.0 interface, as most current models do. This faster flavor of USB offers performance of 5 gigabits per second (gbps), which is equal to 640 Mbps. With the faster connector, the networking speeds can be maximized.
Every USB Wi-Fi adapter has an antenna. However, there are many approaches to this essential component. Some adapters have an internal antenna, or even multiple internal antennas, all in a compact form factor. For a stronger signal, size can make the difference, and a larger, external antenna can help increase signal strength. In areas of congestion, a directional antenna can also be useful, while most of these adapters have an omnidirectional antenna that transmits in all directions.
Many adapters print their antennas directly onto the circuit board. This is a simplified approach, that preserves the svelte lines of the adapter. The drawback is that the antennas are vulnerable to electrical interference from other circuitry in proximity on the board. An alternative approach is to have the antenna for the adapter as a foldout to get it away from the electronic interference, but able to become compact for storage and transport.
Various adapters ship with different software packages. Some manufacturers take the barebones approach, with the only software included as the driver for the OS to utilize the adapter. While minimalist in theory, this has its merit as Windows does a pretty good job these days of managing the wireless connections (as opposed to some prior versions of Windows such as XP that were beyond mediocre at this essential task).
The alternative approach is for a USB Wi-Fi adapter to ship with a full software package. While this can bring some additional features, the downside is that in some implementations, this can end up interfering with the integrated wireless settings and become a bloated application that doesn't offer anything more than what Windows can natively do.
USB Wi-Fi adapters come in various form factors of various sizes, each of them more ideal for certain use case scenarios. At the small end of the scale, there are nano adapters. While generally slower, a nano adapter has less protrusion, and is ideal for a smaller notebook doing traveling duty.
Going to the opposite end, there are the large adapters. These would be a hindrance from a portability standpoint with a notebook, but work well with a desktop (or desktop replacement notebook) that needs a wireless connection. They have high gain antennas, and offer the faster wireless standards.
In between, are the standard size adapters, that are roughly the size of a traditional USB flash drive. They balance throughput speed, and signal strength within a reasonably sized package that maintains portability.
In some cases it is all about the accessories. Consider the “Total package” with such extras as a USB extension cable or docking cradle. While these hardly make or break the purchase, it can definitely enhance the usability factor for the wireless adapter.
How we test USB Wi-Fi adapters
Testing was done for throughput using NetPerf software. A desktop with a Gigabit Ethernet port (10/100/1000) is used to send the data via a wired connection to the router.
Three test runs were done on each wireless adapter at each of the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, at both the close and far distances, with the highest throughput of each parameter reported. The router used is the Netgear Nighthawk X4S, our choice for the Best Gaming Router. The throughput is tested both at a “close” 8’ (2.4m) distance with direct line of sight, and also at a “far” 30’ (9.1m) distance with an obstructing floor and wall in the way, as well as some metal ductwork intervening.
The results are presented below, with all speeds reported in Mbps, and the top results in bold.
We get it; not everyone has a Franklin to spend on a wireless adapter. In fact, many folks must want a cheapie wireless adapter as the Edimax EW-7811Un is the “#1 Best Seller” on Amazon for $8.99—at a price that is hard to argue about.
It does have the really compact size going for it, as it barely protrudes from a USB port, and cannot really be made any smaller despite the solitary blue LED. However, the wireless standard it adheres to is N150, so don’t expect it to win any speed races. That being said, in testing, despite its small size, the signal is maintained, and the speeds are at least passable at 51.5 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz close test, and 44.7 Mbps on the far test.
While eating ramen noodles every day of the week, and riding your bike to work are frugal activities, this Edimax adapter somewhere along the way goes beyond frugal to downright cheap. Unless you are downright broke with only a $10 budget for a wireless adapter, our recommendation would be to look at the better budget choices above, and spend a little more to get an adapter that features 802.11ac for compatibility with the 5 GHz signal.
This Edimax EW-7833UAC promises to build on their previous model, the 722UAC. While the prior model conforms to the AC1200 standard, this new model features the faster AC1750 standard for speeds of 450 Mbps on the 2.4 GHz frequency, and 1300 Mbps on the 5 GHz frequency. In addition, the two antennas that are on the prior model, have now been upgraded to three antennas easily deployed for use, and folded to stowaway, and still in the same compact form factor of the Edimax 722UAC. The Edimax AC1750 has a USB 3.0 interface, and a blue LED. The software consists of only a driver, with Windows handling the networking duties.
The real step forward here is that this latest adapter features MU-MIMO technology. In fact, despite MU-MIMO becoming widespread on higher end routers, the client adapters have been lagging. Aside from this Edimax EW-7833UAC, the only other MU-MIMO clients available are the Linksys Max-Stream AC600 (which is on the slower standard of AC433/N150), the Asus USB-AC68 and the Killer NIC (which is the internal wireless available in gaming laptops, and not available for separate purchase). This Edimax EW-7833UAC has an Amazon price of $59.99, making it more affordable than some of the other higher end options.
There was an anticipated improvement from the Edimax 722UAC, as the EW-7833UAC was newer, and AC1750. Unfortunately, the speeds were slower on both frequencies. It was disappointing that the 2.4 GHz speeds were close to what Edimax’s N150 adapter can do. In addition, their AC1200 product beat this AC1750 adapter across the board, making it hard to recommend the EW-7833UAC adapter unless you need it in a black plastic color.
Upcoming products in the USB Wi-Fi adapter space are expected to have incorporation of MU-MIMO, as well as faster speeds, such as AC1900 and AC2600. Beyond that, look for products that will work with WiGig, the 802.11ad standard that is anticipated to offer speeds of 4 to 7 Gbps utilizing the 60 GHz higher frequency.
As new products and technologies become available, we’ll incorporate them into this guide to help you make an informed purchasing decision.
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