Last Updated: Feb 8, 2019
If you wish to add WiFi capability to your gaming desktop computer because your motherboard doesn't have it (or for a laptop without wireless), getting a USB WiFi adapter (also known as a USB dongle) is a convenient way to do so. However, there are a myriad of different USB adapters on the market, and it can be an nightmare trying to find the best USB WiFi adapter for your particular budget and speed requirements.
There's also a lot of average, unreliable, hit-or-miss models out there by lesser-known brands that may not be worth the money at all, and could die on you within months or even weeks (or less) - if they even work in the first place.
To avoid a bad product, we've done the painstaking market analysis from the perspective of a PC gamer looking for maximum speed, reliability, and signal strength for any given budget, and picked out the current best WiFi USB adapters for the money in 2019.
See Also: Best Value PCIe WiFi Cards (2019)
Confused About the Specs Below?
Hover over the below for a quick overview, or see our more comprehensive Wireless Adapter Buyer's Guide for more detail on what all the wireless features mean (including whether a USB or PCI-E adapter is right for you).
Swipe to Scroll the Table:
Comparing the Best USB WiFi Adapters for the Money (2019)
|Model:||TP-Link TL-WN823N Mini N300||TP-Link Archer T2U AC600||TP-Link Archer T2UH AC600||Netgear A6210 AC1200||Netgear Nighthawk A7000 AC1900|
||300Mbps||433Mbps + 150Mbps||433Mbps + 150Mbps||867Mbps + 300Mbps||1300Mbps + 600Mbps|
||USB 2.0||USB 2.0||USB 2.0||USB 3.0||USB 3.0|
||Internal||Internal||External||Internal High-Gain||Internal High-Gain|
|OS Support:||Windows (XP/7/8/10), Mac OS, Linux||Windows (XP/7/8/10), Mac OS, Linux||Windows (XP/7/8/10), Mac OS, Linux||Windows (XP/7/8/10), Mac OS||Windows (XP/7/8/10), Mac OS|
If your router isn't a recent 802.11ac dual-band model, and you don't need support for speeds any faster than 300 Mbps (which is still absolutely fast enough for online gaming mind you), this super cheap 802.11n single band USB adapter may be all you need. Iou'll want to be sure your router is not far away though, as USB dongles with a small internal antenna like this one won't be too far-reaching.
It's hard to go wrong for such a cheap price, and TP-Link is a well-known brand for networking reliability (I'd avoid the no-name brands if possible, of which there are many when it comes to wireless products). Just don't expect a perfect product that will last you forever, as cheap USB adapters are notorious for playing up as they age, and overheating or a straight-up early death isn't out of the equation, even from a good brand.
Moving on up and for a slightly larger budget you can get a decent adapter with the latest 802.11ac dual band standard, with very decent AC600 speeds. TP-Link gets the nod again in this price category as they produce many solid value-for-money wireless products, and their Archer T2U is probably the best budget USB WiFi adapter under $20 or so right now.
Again, like the aforementioned and slightly cheaper TP-Link pick above, this device only has a small internal antenna so don't expect a strong signal over long-ish distances. For a basic, very affordable USB WiFi adapter like this, make sure your router is close-by and/or you don't have many if any potential signal obstructions in the way such as walls or floors.
For this price you can buy a very decent USB wireless adapter with a better, stronger antenna for more consistent signal strength - especially if you have a fair bit of network congestion, signal obstruction between your router and PC (walls/floors etc), and/or if your router isn't all that close by.
Once again, a TP-Link model makes the cut (no, we're not affiliated whatsoever) as after careful in-depth research and comparisons between all the competing models we believe the T2UH is one of the most reliable, safe, bang for your buck buys in this price range. It's not USB 3.0, although this actually doesn't matter in this speed category, as USB 2.0 caps data transfer rates at a fairly high 480 Mbps anyway, which you won't reach with an AC600 adapter/router setup anyway which supports a pure maximum speed of 433 Mbps (on the 5 Ghz band).
Now we get into high-quality territory with the superb Netgear A6210 adapter with super-fast AC1200 speeds, and an internal yet fairly strong, high-gain antenna for much better range and signal strength than cheaper options. Netgear are one of, if not the best name in the networking game overall when it comes to reliability, and their high-end USB WiFi adapters are no exception and a pretty safe buy for consistent, smooth online gaming if you just cannot use wired Ethernet for whatever reason.
If you're after the best of the best in terms of both speed and potential signal strength, this is it. It comes with every possible feature out there, such as beamforming technology for stronger signals, a magnetic cradle/desktop dock with an extension cable to get the best positioning, a 3x4 MIMO design, 4 internal high-gain antennas for the strongest and longest range, and more.
Definitely worth buying if you're a serious gamer or internet user, and if your router and internet connection will actually allow you to get AC1900 speeds. Just make sure you have a spare USB 3.0 port for it otherwise you'll be restricting the speed.
"Are USB WiFi Adapters Good Enough for Online Gaming?"
Generally speaking, yes - assuming your internet connection is fast enough for online gaming (don't worry, you absolutely don't need crazy-high internet speeds for smooth online gaming) and you get a good-enough USB adapter that is suitable for the distance your internet connection has to travel from your router to your desktop/laptop (read: if your at a fair distance and/or with lots of interference such as walls, you'll need a solid model), then yes a USB adapter is totally fine for online gaming if that's the way you wish to play (though remember that nothing beats wired Ethernet for online gaming of course).
"How Much Do I Need to Spend On a USB WiFi Adapter for Gaming?"
Whether you'll be happy with a very cheap USB dongle or a more advanced, feature-rich higher-end model will depend on 3 main things:
"What Speed USB WiFi Adapter Do I Need?"
Check the speed of your router, and try to match that. For example, if your router is an AC1200 model, try and get an AC1200 adapter so that it won't restrict your connection. Also, don't worry if you get an adapter that has a faster speed than your router supports, as then you may not need to upgrade your adapter if you end up upgrading your router.
USB 2.0 vs USB 3.0 Wireless Adapters
Wireless USB adapter come in either USB 3 or the older USB 2 format. Favor getting a USB 3 model, assuming that you have a USB 3 port for it on the front or back of your desktop computer. A USB 3.0 device will be backwards compatible with a 2.0 port, but it would only work at 2.0 speeds.
However, buying a USB 3 WiFi adapter is only crucial if you have a router (and internet connection) that is at a certain level of speed. USB 2.0 supports data transfer speeds up to 480 Mbps, while USB 3.0 can do as high as 5 Gigabits (4800 Mbps) which is 10x faster.
So, if you're not gonna go higher than 480 Mbps with your connection (which is still real fast internet and good enough for online gaming in general btw) then it doesn't matter whether you choose a wireless adapter with USB 3.0 or 2.0. But if you have a high-end connection and router, with speeds over 480 Mbps, you'll need USB 3.0 otherwise your speed will be capped by USB 2.0.
"Do Nano Size USB WiFi Adapters Work As Well As Larger Models?"
As technology continues its quest to become smaller and smaller, wireless adapters are no different, and there are some "nano" style adapters out there such as the TP-Link N150.
Its thin, inconspicuous design means you'd hardly notice it plugged into a laptop or desktop. But are they worth it? Well, as you can imagine, the small size of a nano drive doesn't allow for a strong internal antenna, so you should only buy one if you're sure you'll get a strong signal from a hopefully-close-by router.
"Are USB WiFi Adapters Plug n Play?"
"What If I Don't Have a CD/DVD Optical Drive to Install Included Drivers?"
You may be wondering if you can simply plug a new USB WiFi adapter into your computer and immediately get connected to the internet so that you can then download the latest software device drivers for it. Some USB WiFi adapters come with drivers on a CD (even though these drivers are usually outdated and you should download the latest drivers from the manufacturer's website anyway) but sometimes you won't have a CD/DVD drive in your system to be able to install the basic drivers in the first place to be able to download the new drivers.
So, is it possible to connect a USB WiFi adapter to the internet without having drivers installed? Or, do USB adapters have pre-installed drivers inside the actual adapter? Fair questions.
Firstly, yes, some wireless USB adapters will indeed work as soon as you plug them in, as your operating system may have generic pre-installed wireless drivers that you can use to get online to then download the latest drivers. I know for a fact that Windows 10 has this, but I wouldn't bet your life on this working 100% of the time, but you should be okay if you have no other way to get online to download drivers.
As for whether USB adapters have pre-installed drivers inside of them, yes, I have heard of this to happen before, but I would say it's a rarity, and again, not something to be counted on.
If you plug in a USB WiFi adapter and it doesn't connect to the internet, and you either don't have CD/DVD drivers or don't have the CD/DVD drive to install those drivers, AND you don't have another way of connecting your computer to the internet such as using Ethernet or using your phone as a hotspot, then you will have to download the drivers on another system and save them to a USB flash drive (then use that flash drive to install the drivers on your new PC).
Or you could download the drivers on your phone and connect your phone via USB (there are plenty of tutorials online on how to do this). Where there's a will there's a way, and don't worry you'll be back online in no time and breathing vital internet air once again.
-Netgear A6210 AC1200 Review
-TP-LINK TL-WN823N 300Mbps Mini Wireless N USB Adapter Specifications
-TP-LINK Archer T2U AC600 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter Specifications
-TP-LINK Archer T2UH AC600 High Gain Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter Specifications
-Netgear A6210 AC1200 802.11ac Dual Band USB Adapter with High Gain Antenna Specifications
-Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 WiFi USB Adapter Specifications
Got a question or want to share your thoughts on the above guide? We're listening and you can reach us on the platforms below or email us direct and we'll gladly help you out where possible if time permits. If you need more in-depth help with tweaking a build or planning one from scratch for your specific budget/theme/performance aims/etc - see our Get a Done-for-You Parts-List service where for a small tip we can thoroughly research and plan the very best build for your exact wants and needs. Also, constructive criticism on any aspect of the site is always welcome and appreciated as it helps us continue crafting BGC into the best noob-friendly DIY resource that it can be. Thanks guys.
Former hobbyist game programmer turned tech fanatic, Julz is the founder and lead author at BGC and has kept a keen eye on the latest in DIY gaming since starting the site in his spare time over a decade ago as an almost-laughably basic, unimpressive little site with a simple aim to try and make building a PC more accessible to the average gamer since most resources were far from beginner-friendly.
Over countless reiterations to the quality and depth of the site's content and research process over the years, it's steadily grown into the fairly expansive, comprehensive and constantly-updated PC building resource that it is today, now reaching and helping thousands of gamers and power users each and every month to more effectively plan optimal setups for their exact needs. His fav PC games of all time are HL1, WC3 and SWKOTOR (OOT, Perfect Dark, DKC2 & MGS2 for consoles) and he promises never to speak in third-person again. You can learn more about the BGC mission here.