Everything you need to know about buying the best wireless adapter for your custom PC
Published: Jan 31, 2019
How do you get WiFi on a gaming PC build (or how do you add WiFi to a prebuilt desktop)? It's a common newbie question when building your very first gaming computer if you just realized the fact that the majority of modern motherboards don't actually come with built-in wireless included. Some do, but you'll usually have to pay a bit more for a more feature-rich motherboard that includes onboard WiFi.
So, if the motherboard you're choosing for your PC build won't have WiFi, or you're wanting to add WiFi to an already-assembled PC, you'll need to buy a wireless adapter (or "adaptor" for our UK readers). How good of a model you should choose (AKA how much you spend) depends on how fast your internet connection and router is, and other factors like how far away your gaming desktop will be from your router, and of course how serious you are about getting the most reliable, low-ping, low-lag, dropout-free online gaming experience.
Speaking of wireless and gaming, before proceeding with everything you'd ever need to know about choosing a good wireless adapter, the gaming gods have whispered in my ear that I first must reiterate to you (in case you're unaware) that if you want the best, most reliable internet connection possible for online domination then you should ideally be using wired ethernet whenever you can. Especially if you're trying to be the next eSports/pro gaming phenomenon or you're just really, really competitive and even the thought of lag makes you shudder.
That said, despite understanding that wired cannot be matched as a committed gamer, some of you will still want to use WiFi for gaming anyway, and that's okay. Wireless tech has, and continues to, come a long way. There are plenty of good, reliable affordable wireless adapters out there that'll allow you to get a fast enough connection for super smooth online gaming with low ping.
However, not all WiFi adapters are created equal and you want to consciously choose which type and specific model is right for your particular gaming computer so you don't encounter issues or bad performance. That's where this comprehensive guide to buying a good wireless adapter is here to help, and we'll cover everything you need to know regarding what to look for when choosing best wireless adapter for desktop, including a breakdown of the features that matter and the best wireless adapters for the money.
We'll cover the specs to look for in a good wireless adapter throughout this guide, but if you simply want to know what our current top 2019 recommendations are for the best internal/external wireless adaptors to get WiFi on your new gaming PC build, let's discuss these first. All our below picks have been hand-picked based on countless hours carefully considering the wide spectrum of current available models, and are what we would personally buy ourselves for any given budget.
See Also: How to Install an Internal WiFi Card
Swipe to Scroll the Table:
Best Internal PCIe Wireless Adapters
|Price Range||Our Pick||Connection||WiFi Standard||Bands||Maximum Speed|
||PCI-E||802.11ac||Dual||867Mbps (5.8Ghz) +
|< $70||TP-Link Archer T9E AC1900
||PCI-E||802.11ac||Dual||1300Mbps (5Ghz) +
ASUS PCE-AC88 AC3100
||PCI-E||802.11ac||Dual||2100Mbps (5Ghz) +
Best External USB Wireless Adapters
|Price Range||Our Pick||Connection||WiFi Standard||Bands||Maximum Speed|
|< $15||TP-Link TL-WN823N
||USB 2.0||802.11n||Single||300Mbps (2.4Ghz)|
|< $20||TP-Link Archer T2U
||USB 2.0||802.11ac||Dual||433Mbps (5Ghz) +
150 Mbps (2.4Ghz)
|< $30||TP-Link Archer T2UH
||USB 2.0||802.11ac||Dual||433Mbps (5Ghz) +
|< $60||Netgear A6210 AC1200
||USB 3.0||802.11ac||Dual||867Mbps (5Ghz) +
|> $60||Netgear Nighthawk A7000 AC1900
||USB 3.0||802.11ac||Dual||1300Mbps (5Ghz) +
If we had to simply pick one internal network card to recommend to most PC gamers, this very affordable yet decent Gigabyte card is it..
A reliable Intel-based network card, the GC-WB867D-I may have a lousy name but it packs enough punch to please most and allows for maximum theoretical bandwidth speeds of up to 867 Mbps on the 5Ghz band and has a decently-strong and reliable antenna (plus Bluetooth support).
At its current sub-40 dollar price, it's clearly one of the best wireless adapters for gaming desktops in 2019 without question and gets a good wrap across the DIY community as excellent overall value that's hard to beat.
You'd only need a faster model if you can actually get higher speeds from your router (such as AC1900 or higher). To see our recommend high-end models check our more in-depth review:
The Best PCIe WiFi Cards (for all budgets)
As for getting an external USB adapter for your WiFi needs, the TP-Link Archer T2U is a solid buy and enough for many gamers. However this is assuming your router isn't faster than AC600, in which case you should invest in a better USB dongle.
Plus, if you want the most reliable range and reliability, a better model might also be necessary and this cheap adapter might let you down. All depends on your needs, but the TP-Link Archer is hard to go wrong with for the price.
To see all our recommend USB adapters, see our in-depth comparison review:
The Best USB WiFi Adapters (for all budgets)
USB Wireless Adapter (External "Dongle")
Also called a USB WiFi dongle, getting a USB WiFi adapter is the most convenient way to enable wireless on a desktop computer as it's simply a matter of plugging this little device into the front or back of your PC and voila - your system will now pick up the wireless signal of your wireless router.
PCI/PCI-E Wireless Adapters (Internal Network Card)
The next step up is to buy a wireless network card that you have to plug in to your motherboard. Less convenient overall than getting a USB dongle, especially if you're adding this to an already-assembled PC as you'll have to go in to your case and carefully install it on your motherboard (and sometimes it may not fit as other parts may get in the way, or you might not have a spare PCI/PCI-E slot, etc).
However, getting a wireless adapter card is definitely not a hassle at all if you buy one when building a brand new PC build, as it's just one extra little easy step in the hardware installation process, and you can ensure that the adapter you buy is compatible with all your parts (and that you have the spare PCI/PCI-E slot to accommodate it) before building your computer. Also, in 2019 a wireless network adapter card will typically be with a PCI-Express connection (as PCI is the older style).
USB vs PCI-E Wireless Adapter for Gaming
Which is cheaper? Which is faster? Which is more reliable? Which has the most range? Fair questions, but either an internal or external wireless adapter can work just fine for a gaming desktop (assuming you pick a decent model and one that's right for your particular setup). Both types can offer good wireless signal and speeds, so choose whichever you prefer or is right for your setup, but they do have pros and cons explained below.
A USB adapter is going to be cheaper in general, and is more convenient as mentioned. They may also be good enough in terms of signal strength, and a decent USB model will allow for fast-enough speeds to match a good router.
However, an internal PCI-E/PCI card will typically give the best signal strength, as they tend to have better/bigger/more antennas than a USB adapter (which might not have an antenna at all). Although to be fair some good USB adapters do have multiple (and good-quality) antennas.
With an internal PCI-E/PCI network card you also don't have to worry about overheating, as USB adapters can definitely overheat when under load for too long, therefore making an internal network card the better overall long-term pick for reliability. Also, another little benefit to internal adapters (albeit small) is having an extra free USB port.
Just don't forget to make sure you have the room for an internal card if you go that route, as you'll need a spare PCI Express slot inside your rig (or PCI for older motherboards; in which case you'd need to buy a PCI adapter). Plus, make sure there's enough room in your computer case, especially if you get a bulky card that takes up a lot of space. Large CPU coolers could also get in the way of your spare PCIe/PCI slot/s.
What We Generally Recommend If You're Unsure
We like being as objective as possible here at BGC and looking at both sides of the coin, but when push comes to shove, you may wonder what's our subjective opinion on internal network cards vs USB adapters. In other words, if we were building a new computer today in 2019 and wanted WiFi capability for online gaming (assuming that choosing a higher-end motherboard with built-in WiFi is out of the equation), what would we personally do?
As a PC builder we'd favor buying and installing a good internal PCI-E network card for the most reliable WiFi possible, and not have to worry about the oftentimes-finicky reliability that USB adapters often have. But even in saying that, don't hesitate to get a USB stick as there are indeed some good ones in 2019 (especially ones with an antenna).
A USB adapter might actually be a necessity for your particular setup, such as if you have a small form-factor (mini ITX) motherboard with only the one expansion slot that's already been taken up by your graphics card.
What features should you look for when choosing the best wireless adapter for desktop gaming? Let's discuss, and we'll keep things as simple as possible as discussing wireless technology can get into what-the territory all too easily. There's no need to understand all the specs in detail, but if there's a certain feature you must know more about it, we hope you'll find enough nuanced guidance below.
This is simply the version of wireless technology that an adapter (or router) supports, with the current latest standard being 802.11ac. Wireless technology advances every few years or so, with the biggest recent changes being the following:
So which WiFi standard/technology should you choose when buying the best wireless adapter for your gaming desktop (or laptop)? Should you always just get the latest and fastest version (802.11ac)?
Well, yes, if at all possible, but getting the standard before that, 802.11n, may be an okay move if your router only supports that standard and you don't plan on upgrading your router anytime soon, as 802.11n can still provide fast speeds that is plenty for smooth online gaming, and plus, an older adapter for that older standard can save you money. People still buy 802.11n adapters all the time to match their 802.11n routers.
Although, even if you have an older 802.11n router, you could still get a newer 802.11ac adapter and have it work fine, as 802.11ac is backwards compatible with 802.11n. This is what I would do, as there isn't going to be a huge price difference in just getting the latest and greatest adapter.
Summary: Buy a wireless adapter with the latest 802.11ac WiFi standard if at all possible, and especially if your router supports this. Otherwise, an 802.11n adapter will still get the job done and can provide fast enough speeds for online gaming. Keep in mind the maximum speed of 802.11ac is 1300 Mbits, while 802.11n is 450 Mbits, so the latest version has the potential for much faster speeds assuming you also get a good internet plan and router.
When you look at a particular wireless adapter, the speed will be listed using the AC or N naming convention, such as AC600 or N300. However, this isn't the actual maximum speed you can get. Let's discuss.
This naming convention starts with either AC or N depending on the WiFi standard (AC for the latest 802.11ac and N for the previous 802.11n) and then lists the combined total speed will be listed (in Megabits per second, ie Mbps), such as 600 Mbps for an "AC600" adapter.
The keyword here is combined speed: AC adapters have 2 wireless bands (dual band), and the 600 Mbps that the AC600 refers to is a combination of the maximum speeds that both the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz bands can get individually. The 2.4 Ghz band has better range, but slower speeds, whilst the 5 Ghz bands has the faster speeds but shorter range.
So, let's look at the real-world maximum speeds for each type of "AC" or "N" adapter:
N150: 150 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz band)
N300: 300 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz)
N600: 300 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 300 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
N900: 450 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 450 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
AC600: 150 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 433 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
AC1000: 300 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 650 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
AC1200: 300 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 867 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
AC1900: 600 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 1300 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
AC3100: 1000 Mbps (on 2.4 Ghz) + 2100 Mbps (on 5 Ghz)
What speed should you look for when choosing the right wireless adapter for your new gaming PC setup? Depends what speed your router and your internet plan can provide you, as there's no point spending more on a top wireless adapter that supports super-fast speeds if you won't be able to even get those speeds from your router/plan in the first place.
Check what maximum speed your home setup is capable of, then pick an internal or external wireless adapter that isn't slower than that.
So, if your internet connection can theoretically get up to 600Mbps (your real-world speed will almost always be slower than what your router is actually capable of), buy an adapter that supports this speed such as an AC1000
Remember that with dual band wireless adapters (pretty much any AC adapter), the maximum speed will be listed under the 5Ghz speed spec as that is the faster band of the two.
There's also nothing wrong getting a faster adapter then what your current internet plan can actually provide. For example, whilst there definitely is the possibility of overkill when buying an adapter (if your internet can only get up to 300Mbps, no point spending on an expensive high-end adapter that supports 2000Mbps etc), getting an adapter that's a little faster than your current connection could be a good move if you plan on keeping your adapter around as a long-term investment. That way, you wouldn't need to upgrade your adapter if you were to upgrade your router and/or internet plan to a faster speed later on (assuming it's the same WiFi standard though).
Note that this applies to internal USB adapters, as external PCIe WiFi cards have external antennas by default.
But which is best for a USB adapter: an internal antenna or an external one? I'm sure you've already guessed that an external one is going to provide the stronger signal, and you're spot on. Multiple external antennas is even better for the strongest signal possible. However, there are some decent internal antennas on higher-quality USB adapters.
But the real question is, do you need an external antenna (or 2, or 4) for your wireless adapter when it comes to gaming (or general internet use for that matter), or will an internal USB adapter suffice for gaming?
The answer depends mostly on how powerful you need your adapter's signal strength to be, or in other words, how far away your router is located compared to your PC and/or how much interference your signal will experience over that distance (such as walls, floors, other wireless connections/devices, etc).
If your router's signal has to cover a long-ish distance, and/or has to pass through walls (which weakens the signal), you may really benefit from an adapter with an external antenna, or you may even need it to keep a strong-enough signal for your liking. If your router is fairly close, and/or there's not much interference around your home, an internal antenna (ie no visible external antenna) may be just fine to get a strong signal.
Summary: Depends if you want/need the strongest signal strength possible. An external antenna is generally always best, however an internal antenna on a USB adapter may serve you well (especially if it's one of the very best USB WiFi adapters on the market such as a top of the range Netgear).
When choosing the best wireless adapter for your desktop, you'll see both single band and dual band models. No surprises that dual band is better, and allows for a stronger, more reliable signal with less interference. With a dual band adapter, you can receive data from your router across two wireless channels - both on a 2.4GHz frequency and a 5GHz frequency. The 2.4GHz frequency is the longer range yet slower band, whilst 5GHz is the fastest but with less range. However, this assumes that your router is also dual band, otherwise one of the bands will just go unused.
But even if your router is a single band model, you can still get a dual band adapter as it'll still work (just be limited). Same goes if you get a single band adapter and use that with a dual band router - it'll still work, but doing that would be a waste and so always try and get a dual band adapter if your router is dual band. But what's the benefit of dual band wireless? Faster speeds, as you won't be limited by the speed that you get from a single band.
Summary: Get a dual band wireless adapter if your router is dual band to reap the full benefits and fastest speeds. Otherwise it doesn't matter, as any combination is compatible, as a decent single band WiFi setup can still be fine for gaming.
What Are Beamforming Wireless Adapters?
What is the beamforming feature you see in some wireless adapters? Without getting too technical here as it's not something you need to know about when choosing an adapter for your desktop, beamforming is a nice-to-have feature in an adapter that works to more efficiently target the coverage of your wireless connection. In other words, it's a fancy feature that helps signal speed and reliability, but isn't at all necessary.
Summary: Beamforming is a nice-sounding feature that wouldn't feel out of place in Star Wars, but it's not necessary for gaming and just a nice bonus to have. It works to improves your adapter's signal.
Does the Brand of a Wireless Adapter Matter?
Lastly, I would favor trusted names in the networking game when buying any sort of networking equipment. There are plenty of cheaper, lesser-known brands out there that may work out just fine for you, but when it comes to something like WiFi where there are plenty of potential issues with products, I'd avoid them if you want a higher chance of longer durability and reliability.
Buying a good brand, which likely won't cost much more (if anything) than a no-name model, also increases the likelihood of nice-to-haves like 24/7 support, technical support that actually knows their stuff, proper documentation, better OS support, easier driver support, etc. Same goes when buying any computer products, really. Just our two cents.
Summary: To avoid a dud, incompatibility issues, lack of support if things go wrong and so on - stick with well-known respected networking manufacturers when buying wireless products (Netgear, Asus, TP-Link, D-Link, etc).
Need Help Choosing Parts?
Don't miss our flagship guide, The Best Gaming PC Builds for the Money, which pinpoints the current best value parts for Q1 2021, and feel free to ask for help in the comments section if you get stuck along the way.