USB Wi-Fi Adapters For Your Computer: 4 Picks For Improved Connection Speeds

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Linksys and TP-Link USB network adapters

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While most people have become accustomed to connecting to Wi-Fi using their phones or tablets, anyone who handles data-heavy tasks knows that connecting to a router directly via an ethernet cord results in the fastest speeds. 

That being said, Wi-Fi tech has come a really long way over time, as routers and wireless network adapters have both improved in quality and performance over the years. This has made the prospect of relying on Wi-Fi, even for data-heavy tasks like uploading video or gaming, more viable. However, the right network adapter is needed if you plan to leverage the maximum speeds your ISP can provide. 

The beauty of external USB Wi-Fi adapters is that they are easy to install, cheap, and may outperform the hardware inside of your device. Recent enhancements with Wi-Fi 6 technology, for example, can provide much faster speeds and more stable connections than what might be available natively on your PC or laptop.

Wi-Fi adapters — candidates and methodology

a collection of Wi-Fi network adapters on top of a PC

For this test, we'll be comparing four different wireless network adapters: the Linksys USB Wireless Network Adapter AC1200, Nineplus 1200Mbps Dual Antenna Adapter, TP-Link's AC1300, and the TP-Link AX1800 Wi-Fi 6 Adapter. All of the options have over four stars on Amazon, and each costs $50 or less.

We'll be testing the adapters from a fixed position behind a brick wall using a 1 TB Verizon Fios connection, about 25 feet away from the wireless router. When plugged directly into the router via an ethernet cable, tested speeds averaged out to 872 Mbps for downloads and 731 Mbps for uploads. These numbers were reached by averaging five different tests from Google's internet speed test. The same methodology will be used to test the speeds of the Wi-Fi adapters.

Keep in mind that a 1TB connection is generally considered very fast, and depending on the quality of the connection and your network setup, your results may vary. 

Linksys USB Wireless Network Adapter AC1200

Linksys USB wireless network adapter on a paint splattered background

Linksys has a reliable brand of network equipment and is arguably the most well-known company for home Wi-Fi. The Linksys USB Wireless Network Adapter 3.0 AC1200 has the smallest form factor of the Wi-Fi adapters tested, making it the perfect size for a laptop on the go. Available on Amazon for $49.99, the adapter is one of the pricier models out of the four we tested.

However, the Linksys USB Wireless Adapter was the slowest out of the four, averaging about 166 Mbps download speed and 264 Mbps upload speed. The speeds did see a decent range, with the highest tested download speed clocking in at 190 Mbps and the lowest test coming in at 111 Mbps, which may point to some level of connection instability.

The device itself utilizes USB 3.0 technology with 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) and works on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. While it is plug-and-play, it may be smart to look on the Linksys website to download the latest hardware drivers, as it may boost its performance.

Ultimately, while the slowest on the list, the Linksys USB Wireless Network Adapter AC1200 is the smallest, coming in at just 8 x 3 centimeters, which makes it one of the more convenient adapters to use. It also doesn't have any antennas, as the device is about the size of a large flash drive.

TP-Link USB Wi-Fi Adapter AC1300

TP-Link USB wireless network adapter on a paint splattered background

While the TP-Link USB AC1300 or Archer T3U Plus is rather tiny, the adjustable five dBi antenna (which was positioned vertically for the test) makes the device nearly seven inches long. Sadly, this bulky antenna didn't end up helping with the overall speed, as this model still came in as our second slowest among the four. When all was said and done, download speeds reached, on average, 211.5 Mbps, while upload speeds averaged 227 Mbps.

The TP-Link USB AC1300 is available on Amazon for $22.99, which means that this device is also the cheapest on the list, which is handy if you're trying to save a few bucks. Like Linksys, the TP-Link has dual-band technology, a standard for these devices, and works on 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. However, the long, rigid antenna and middling speeds make it one of the less practical in the bunch.

Nineplus Wireless USB Wi-Fi Adapter 1200Mbps

wireless network adapter on a paint splattered background

While Nineplus may be something of a lesser-known name in some corners of the world, the Nineplus Wireless USB Wi-Fi Adapter does maintain a 4.3-star rating out of nearly 19,000 ratings on Amazon. The device itself costs $29.99, putting it right in the middle in terms of cost. Like other devices on the list, it uses USB 3.0 and Wi-Fi 5.

The Nineplus Wireless USB Wi-Fi Adapter performed well in testing, with a pretty even spread across all five tests. It averaged a 244 Mbps download speed and 289 Mbps upload speed. The device itself is fairly small, but the two 5 dBi antennas cause the device to require a little more room. The plastic for the network adapter feels a bit more flimsy than the Linksys TP-Link models, though it is possible to bend the antennas with a more free range of motion than the TP-Link AC1300.

That being said, Nineplus is less of a known company than TP-Link or Linksys, which are respected networking businesses, so things like customer service and driver support may be better with those brands.

TP-Link AX1800 Wi-Fi 6

wireless network adapter on a paint splattered background

The Wi-Fi 6 TP-Link AX1800 or Archer TX20U Plus outperformed other wireless adapters by a large margin. Normally priced at $49.99 on Amazon, the device is the same cost as the Linksys but blows its speeds out of the water. When tested, the TP-Link AX1800 averaged 635 Mbps download speeds and 670 Mbps upload. This is double that of the second-highest tested adapter, the Nineplus 1200Mbps, and over three times faster than the slowest tested device, the Linksys AC1200.

Most of this boost in performance is likely chalked up to the new Wi-Fi 6 technology that the Wi-Fi adapter possesses. Rather than using Wi-Fi 5 tech, the TP-Link AX1800 utilizes Wi-Fi 6 technology or 802.11ax. It is important to note that to leverage the additional speed, your router will also need to have Wi-Fi 6. Since the adapter makes use of this technology, it also means it comes with enhanced WPA3 encryption and security.

However, out of all the USB Wi-Fi adapters, the AX1800 is certainly the largest and will require extra space. Though it is only 3.3 x 6.15 inches, the device is much wider than the others we tested and requires a flat surface to sit on. It also requires a USB 3.0 cord, unlike the other models that can plug directly into your device. 

Final results

TP-Link AX1800 Wi-Fi 6 on desk

Ultimately, the USB Wi-Fi adapter that is best for you comes down to what you need. If you're looking to do basic data tasks and just want something that won't take up a lot of space, the Nineplus Wireless USB Wi-Fi Adapter 1200Mbps or Linksys USB Wireless Network Adapter AC1200 will suffice. However, if you're handling more data-heavy tasks, you'll probably want to go with the TP-Link AX1800 or another Wi-Fi 6 model for a significant boost in speeds.

Keep in mind that larger Wi-Fi adapters need some space to place them. Though they are all lightweight options, the convenience of a thumb-drive-sized option like the Linksys AC1200, even though it's the slowest, might be better for those who need it on the go. 

It is surprising, however, that Wi-Fi speeds when leveraging Wi-Fi 6 nearly reached the baseline speed of an ethernet cord, proving that Wi-Fi technology has improved significantly over time. Keep in mind that these results may also differ depending on how far away your network adapter is from the router.

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