How to choose a wireless adaptor

Features James Hunt Jan 11, 2013

There are loads of wireless adaptors on the market. How can you tell one from the other? James explains

Wireless networks can greatly enhance the way you use your Internet and network-enabled devices at home. In many cases, setting up a wireless network is simple, with the hardware readily available for comparatively small amounts of money. There are also options, however, for enhancing your existing network that are worth considering - there could even be advantages setting a new one up from scratch.

Wireless networks need two things: a wireless hub/access point, such as a router, and wireless adaptors, which connect devices to the hub. In order for your computer to connect to a wireless network, it needs to have a wireless adaptor available, whether plugged into a USB port, inserted into an expansion port or built into the motherboard itself. If you bought a reasonably high-end desktop or notebook PC, it’s likely that it came with a wireless adaptor of some kind already installed. That that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best one, or even a good one.

So, what should you be looking for in a wireless adaptor? What are the differences between the different kinds available and how do you go about choosing one? In this week’s guide, we’ll be answering those questions and more, in the hope that next time you choose a wireless adaptor, you get the right one for your needs and budget.

How much should you spend?

Wireless adaptors are some of the cheapest hardware you can buy, but choosing one isn’t as simple a decision as it first seems. The cheapest adaptors are often poor quality products that are likely to break easily and establish weak or slow connections.

While you can buy the cheapest USB adaptors for as little as £6, we strongly recommend budgeting at least £15, whether you plan to buy an internal PCI adaptor or an external USB-based one. This should ensure you get quality hardware and support for the latest protocols. The most expensive wireless adaptors cost up to about £60, before you enter specialist territory, but in our view you need to have very specific needs to spend more than about £35 on network hardware of this type. The most expensive models have triple antennas (unlikely to offer huge value to most home users) and desirable form factors that artificially inflate the price.

As with any hardware, at a certain point, you’re not getting a huge return on your money, and we’d argue that network adaptors reach that point much earlier than most, so be careful. If you’re thinking of spending more than £35 on one, you’ll probably find it’s cheaper if you can buy an internal model, and unless you’re planning to use the adaptor on more than one machine, or have specific needs that make external hardware a more appropriate choice, a PCI adaptor is probably the better option.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

Since wireless adaptors are cheap to manufacture, the market is full of poor-quality off-brand hardware that’ll do the job, but not very well. Stay away from them if you can. Instead, favour the standard network brand names, such as Cisco, Belkin, Linksys and TP-Link, most of whom offer well-priced, efficient hardware. There’s also Asus, who can virtually do no wrong in any section of the market they enter at the moment.

Specific models are tough to pick out, but we have a few suggestions. If you want basic wireless functionality, try the TP-Link TL-WN727N adaptor, which adds USB wireless functionality to desktop and notebook PCs. It’s as good as any USB adaptor is, with support for wireless B and G standards, and a maximum transfer rate of 150Mbps.

Like all USB adaptors, it’s easy to install and manage. Do beware the packaging blurb, though, which sneakily suggests compatibility with wireless N networks, but that’s only because wireless N is backwards compatible with wireless G. Still, it’s the best you can buy at the low end, and at £6 it’s not going to be a disaster if you find you want something more sophisticated further down the line.

Our mid-price recommendation is another of TP-Link’s USB adaptors: the TL-WN822N. It’s almost at the bottom end of the mid-range, costing £18, but with full wireless N support and a nifty foldable design, it delivers all the compatibility that any demanding networker could want. Speeds of up to 300 Mbps and a much better range than wireless G are just two of the numerous benefits.
The package even includes a 1.5 metre USB extension cable to allow you to position it for maximum signal coverage - although the range and strength are already impressive due to the dual-antenna design. It’s an ideal wireless N package for desktop or notebook users, and at less than £20 it’s no more expensive, but considerably more versatile than PCI wireless N adaptors.

If, however, you’d prefer to have an internal card with hardware components instead of software emulation (see the next section for a full explanation of the difference) then we recommend the Cisco WMP600N, a dual-band wireless N device with two antennas, ensuring the best possible speed and range. It costs in the region of £35, so it’s fairly steep, but it’s got all the features a modern enthusiast could want. If you don’t want a USB network adaptor, this is the one to aim for.

What technology should you look for?

As we alluded to in the previous section, there are two main kinds of wireless adaptors: those that are mainly hardware-based, and those that are mainly software based. Here, we’ll explain the difference.

Software-based adaptors are minimalist pieces of hardware which contain little more than an interface between the antenna and your system. The actual processing of the signal is done on your CPU. Instead of having the hardware to process and reply to the signal, the functionality of the missing chips is replicated in software - kind of like running an emulator of an old games console.

This has its benefits, of course. Such devices are cheaper to manufacture, and thus for the consumer to buy. The lack of solid hardware means they can be housed in some incredibly compact packages as well. The smallest are little more than a USB plug with an antenna attached!
However, they’re also a drain on your system, because they take up CPU time that could be spent on, for example, playing a game, or encoding video. If you’re a performance enthusiast or hardcore gamer, you may resent having to relinquish some of your processor’s precious resources to something that could be done better by other, task-specific, components when you pay a little extra.

Which is where the alternative, hardware-based, adaptors come in. These are more expensive and bulky, and typically fit in expansion ports rather than USB sockets (although there are exceptions in both cases) but are more efficient and less of a burden on a system. More expensive pieces of hardware contain the chips and components required to analyse and process the wireless signal directly, meaning they make less use of the CPU and give a faster, smoother experience all round. The down side is that they cost more, are less simple to install and can’t be easily moved from computer to computer, but that’s the price you pay for performance. It’s still a relative small increase in cost compared to some other PC components - no more than £10 difference at the lower end of the spectrum, and £20 at the top - so you might find it worth paying for in the long term.

Whichever type of card you buy, make sure it supports the latest standards. There are several active versions of wi-fi right now, and you’ll probably see hardware that accepts wireless B, G and N, with the newest, wireless AC, coming soon. We won’t bore you with the specifics of each technology, but we will tell you what to look for and why.

Wireless B is old and slow, and probably not worth worrying about, but if you’ve got an old wireless router it might be worth checking your hardware’s compatibility with it. wireless G and N are both much faster, but N is the more recent version of the standard.

If you’re looking for a new adaptor, then ideally you should be buying one that supports dual-band wireless N, which will ensure reasonably fast speeds and wide compatibility for years to come. N-based devices are even backwards-compatible with wireless G networks, so even if you’ve got an old wireless router you can still use your new adaptor with it.

Finally, there’s one other factor to account for, and that’s internal antenna versus an external one. Internal antennas are little more than thin strips of metal which are obscured by the casing. You’ll often find these in USB devices which appear to have no aerial at all. External antennas, by comparison, are bulky and instantly visible, but bring with them superior range and better signal strength. Although we recommend the latter, there are benefits to internal antennas - portability, for example - so do think it over before you decide.

Is now the right time to buy?

Practically speaking, there’s little reason not to buy a network device immediately. Wireless adaptors aren’t going to get any cheaper if you wait, and the technology is fantastically long-lived. Wireless G devices are still massively popular despite being years out of date, and wireless N compatibility is high across the board in new devices. Whatever adaptor you spend your money on is likely to survive longer than practically any other component in your system.

It’ll be years before everyone is even using wireless N, let alone its successor, wireless AC. Nevertheless, that’s due a formal release very soon, and you can already get routers which support draft versions of the protocol, even though no adaptors with official wireless AC support exist. It’s a bit like being able to buy a TV before there are any channels out there to watch on it.
Nevertheless, wireless AC support is here to stay, and it does mean that even the most sophisticated wireless N adaptor will be nudged firmly away from the cutting edge of technology within a year or so. If you desperately care about having the best technologies available (and don’t mind paying extra) then you might want to wait a few months for wireless AC support to start emerging in the consumer market.

Still, if you’re the gambling type, you could also get a dual-band wireless N device and hope for a firmware upgrade. Since wireless AC uses (mostly) similar hardware, it should be possible for some components - just don’t get too set on that happening.

What are the technical constraints?

There are fairly minimal restrictions on what wireless adaptors require. Obviously, you need wireless access point so that it can connect to the network (although in a pinch, you can set up a connection between two adaptors without an access point) and you need a USB or PCI port for it to go in. Other than that, it’s very straightforward.

It’s worth noting that the protocols themselves do have restrictions about compatibility. Wireless connections only run at the speed of their slowest connection, so a wireless G router connected to a wireless N adaptor will only run at wireless G speeds, and vice versa. Both devices have to be wireless N or better to get a full-speed wireless N connection established.

Furthermore, protocols have different ranges and susceptibility to interference. Despite the specs on paper, most wireless devices only operate convincingly over a range of about 10 metres, once you account for things like floors and walls, which block and absorb a wireless signal. Basically, if you’re expecting a signal to travel further than that (or through several particularly solid walls), you are more than likely going to need to invest in a more expensive adaptor, or additional supporting hardware, such as a signal repeater or directional antenna. 

What’s the alternative?

The obvious alternative to buying and installing a wireless adaptor is to forego a wireless network completely and use a wired network adaptor instead. You might be surprised to learn that there actually are some advantages to this.

For example, wired Ethernet, in both its 100 Mbit and Gigabit forms, is faster and more reliable than wireless. It’s less susceptible to interference, simpler to troubleshoot, and far more consistent in operation. Even the range is greater, given enough cable.

Therein lies the technology’s downfall. As well as being an extra burden on the wallet, cable is also aesthetically displeasing and inconvenient to install. Where wireless operates invisibly out of the box, Ethernet cables must either be intrusively trailed along sideboards or subject to a complicated in-wall installation. Furthermore, cable connections only operate at the point where the cable ends. Good luck picking up your laptop and carrying it into another room if it’s tethered to the wall.

Despite this, wired Ethernet is a viable alternative to wireless, especially if range or interference problems would require you to buy additional hardware. A wired network is almost certainly cheaper in those circumstances. It’s even more secure, since someone would have to physically connect to your router to get at your data.

The other benefit is that almost every modern laptop and desktop computer already has an Ethernet port on its motherboard, meaning you don’t have to buy additional hardware. Although popular in high-end, ultra-thin portable systems, wireless hardware remains a fairly expensive extra when it comes to motherboards, while even the cheapest will have an Ethernet port of some description.

So don’t despair if you’re driven to use a wired network. It might not feel like the cutting edge, but it’s far from a definitive second place in technical terms.