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When you want to add wireless networking capability to your computer, you have two options: a PCI-e network adapter or a USB wireless solution. USB wireless adapters are small, portable, and cheap, but does that mean they’re better?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

PCI-e Wireless Adapters: More Power, Less Flexibility

A PCI-e wireless network adapter, as you might expect, plugs into the PCI-e (PCI express) port in your computer. If you’re building your own PC How To Build Your Own PC How To Build Your Own PC It's very gratifying to build your own PC; as well as intimidating. But the process itself is actually quite simple. We'll walk you through everything you need to know. Read More , taking apart the case and locating this port on your motherboard should be pretty easy.

That said, some people might not be comfortable doing this sort of work on their own computer. It’s not hard, but opening up your PC and working with electrostatically-sensitive parts Your Sneakers Can Kill Your Computer: How Static Electricity Works [MakeUseOf Explains] Your Sneakers Can Kill Your Computer: How Static Electricity Works [MakeUseOf Explains] Static electricity is the number one computer hardware killer, and its everywhere! Panic aside, if you do any work with computer components - even as simple as upgrading your memory - you need to know... Read More can be a bit nerve-wracking.

Once you’ve installed it, though, the PCI-e wireless adapter is going to give you more networking power. They typically pack at least two antennas, each of which is going to boost your Wi-Fi signal reception. Some of them, like the Rosewill RNX-AC1900PCE (UK), even have three antennas, further increasing the card’s potential for high-speed communication.

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Multiple antennas let a wireless card take advantage of multiple-input-multiple-ouput (MIMO) spatial multiplexing… which is quite a mouthful, and rather complicated.

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What you need to know is that it can result in better signal strength and faster Wi-Fi transmission. (Though it isn’t guaranteed to do either.) And many wireless cards include Bluetooth capability, which is less common in USB Wi-Fi solutions.

So a PCI-e wireless adapter is likely going to get better reception. Why wouldn’t that always be the best choice?

First of all, because once you install it in your motherboard, it’s not easy to move it to another PC. You have to take apart both cases, being careful about static electricity, and and transfer it over.

pci-e ports
Image Credit: HamsterMan via Shutterstock

Some people also find that placing the antennas between your computer case and the wall (where the back of your case is often positioned) can severely limit the receptivity of the adapter. Even though the antennas are more powerful, putting metal in between them and the source of your Wi-Fi signal can degrade performance.

And it’s not a huge deal, but some people really don’t like the look of antennas sticking out of the back of their computer.

USB Wireless Adapters: Less Power for Convenience

A USB wireless network adapter is about as simple as it gets: you plug it into a USB port on your computer and it connects your device to a Wi-Fi network. (Well, you might need to download some drivers and things first, but you get the idea.)

And that’s the single biggest advantage of using a USB wireless adapter. It’s super easy to use, it only takes a few seconds to transfer it to a new computer, and you really can’t screw up the installation. The adapter itself doesn’t take up much space, and it’s easy to use on a desktop or a laptop, where as a PCI-e card will almost certainly be limited to a desktop.

usb wireless adapter
Image Credit: alice-photo via Shutterstock

Unfortunately, the convenience of small size comes with some drawbacks. Because most USB wireless adapters don’t pack any external antennae, they’re less powerful Is Your USB Wi-Fi Dongle Lagging? 3 Ways to Fix It Is Your USB Wi-Fi Dongle Lagging? 3 Ways to Fix It Got a wireless dongle that's misbehaving? Three different methods can solve the majority of dongle problems: USB extenders, changing router channels, and dual-band routers. Read More . They likely won’t get as strong reception as PCI-e cards, and many people report that they see lower speeds with USB adapters as well.

Some USB adapters do come with a single external antenna, like the Anewkodi model pictured below. And while this isn’t much compared to the triple-antennaed PCI-e cards, it can definitely increase the receptivity of your adapter. Others have remotely wired antennas that allow you to move the antenna to an idea spot for Wi-Fi reception.

ANEWKODI 600Mbps Dual Band (2.4G/150Mbps+5G/433Mbps) Wireless USB Wifi Adapter,802.11N/G/B Antenna Network Lan Card For Windows XP/Vista/7/8/8.1/10 (32/64bits) MAC OS ANEWKODI 600Mbps Dual Band (2.4G/150Mbps+5G/433Mbps) Wireless USB Wifi Adapter,802.11N/G/B Antenna Network Lan Card For Windows XP/Vista/7/8/8.1/10 (32/64bits) MAC OS External Powerful Antenna:High Gain Long-Range 2dBi Antenna can help you connect even when signals are weak. Buy Now At Amazon $16.99

A USB adapter is best used when there’s a straight, clear line from the adapter itself to the wireless router. (That’s the best case for any wireless adapter, but it’s especially the case with USB.)

That said, some people do find that they get very good speeds with USB wireless adapters. It likely depends on the quality of the adapter and the locations of the router and computer. If you buy a high-quality adapter that’s capable of 802.11n or 802.11ac transmission and have a clear line between the adapter and the router, it’s quite possible that you’ll get very respectable Wi-Fi speeds.

One thing to note is that the bandwidth of USB ports used to be a limiting factor. With USB 3.0, however — which has become nearly universal — that’s no longer an issue.

PCI-e vs. USB Wireless Adapters: Which Is for You?

Now that you’ve seen a few of the pros and cons, you can make a better decision about which wireless solution will be better for you.

If you’re using a desktop, you don’t plan on moving the wireless card between different computer, and you can position the antennas well (preferably where the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t have to travel through the computer case), a PCI-e card will likely give you better performance.

However, a USB wireless adapter does have benefits. It’s small, easy to install, a cinch to transfer between computers, and can get very respectable speeds in the right setups. And because your router probably isn’t in the best place for maximal speed 4 Reasons Why Your Wi-Fi Is So Slow (And How to Fix Them) 4 Reasons Why Your Wi-Fi Is So Slow (And How to Fix Them) When you rely on Wi-Fi, speed issues can hurt -- and Wi-Fi speed issues aren't always easy to diagnose. Here are some things you ought to check. Read More , there’s a good chance you’ll be able to move things around to get better results.

Choosing a Wireless Network Adapter

If you’ve decided on one format or the other, you might be wondering about which one you should buy. There’s a huge range of makes, models, and prices, but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

For both types of adapters, dual-band capability How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes Using a router that supports the dual-band standard can significantly boost your Wi-Fi speeds in many circumstances. Read More is recommended. Having the option to use the 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz transmission standards is helpful for getting the best reception. 2.4 GHz, while slower, is stronger and will penetrate walls and other obstacles more readily.

While almost all PCI-e adapters are dual-band, not all USB adapters are. The TP-Link N300 (UK), for example, is 802.11n-capable and very affordable, but single-band. You’ll usually find dual-band capability prominently featured in the title, as you can see here:

TP-Link N900 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter (TL-WDN4200) TP-Link N900 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter (TL-WDN4200) Wireless N adapter for PCs and laptops Buy Now At Amazon $40.20

If do decide to go with a network card, three antennas are going to give you more power than two. TP-Link’s AC1900 (UK), for example, has three antennas and is capable of 1,300 Mbps over 5.0 GHz Wi-Fi (your internet connection probably isn’t that fast):

TP-Link AC1900 WiFi PCI-Express Wireless Network Card | Beamforming Technology (Archer T9E) TP-Link AC1900 WiFi PCI-Express Wireless Network Card | Beamforming Technology (Archer T9E) EVERY GAME MATTERS - Blazing WiFi speeds up to 1900Mbps (1300Mbps on 5GHz band or 600Mpbs on 2.4GHz band) Buy Now At Amazon $58.68

Beyond dual-band capability and more antennas, your best bet is simply to look for a wireless solution from a reputable company that can handle the wireless standard of your router. If you have an AC router Everything You Need To Know About AC Routers Everything You Need To Know About AC Routers While wireless standards lack a logical progression in terms of letters, the technology under the hood is notable, and with each new release we get one step closer to painless connectivity. Read More , for example, an AC-capable wireless network adapter will give you better speeds.

Your Wireless Networking Recommendations

Now that we’ve laid out the basics for you here, we want to hear about your experiences. Different setups with different cards, layouts, and combinations of gear will have different effects. Share your experience with us so we can all get better networking results!

Do you use a PCI-e or USB wireless network adapter? If you’ve tried both, which was faster? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. Rich
    June 2, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    USB all the way. I get solid connections at 866Mbps in a separate room from the router (~30') with excellent signal strength. Being able to significantly change the positioning is a huge advantage over pcie.