Technology Explained

The Pros and Cons of PCI-e Wireless Network Adapters vs. USB Wireless Solutions

Dann Albright 11-12-2019

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 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 What Is Static Electricity? And How to Get Rid of It Concerned about static electricity? If you're building a PC, you should be. Learn how to get rid of static electricity today. 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.

Rosewill RNX-AC1900PCE Rnx-AC1900PCE, 802.11AC Dual Band AC1900 PCI Express WiFi Adapter/Wireless Adapter/Network Card, 11AC 1900Mbps Rosewill RNX-AC1900PCE Rnx-AC1900PCE, 802.11AC Dual Band AC1900 PCI Express WiFi Adapter/Wireless Adapter/Network Card, 11AC 1900Mbps Buy Now On Amazon $60.01


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

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 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 Buy Now On Amazon $11.15

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 Why Is My Wi-Fi So Slow? Here's How to Fix It Need to download data fast, but have slow Wi-Fi? Why is this happening? Here's how to fix a slow Wi-Fi connection and speed it up. 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 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) Buy Now On Amazon $25.00

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 Tech Adapter TP-Link AC1900 WiFi PCI-Express Wireless Network Card Beamforming Tech Adapter Buy Now On Amazon $169.99

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 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.

Related topics: Buying Tips, Computer Networks, Hardware Tips, USB.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. LauraW070
    March 13, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    Hi! Recently i bought the NETGEAR A6210-100PES adapter (descriprion here - ) and find out that the adapter sometimes works on win10 and sometimes doesn't. Is it defect or i do something wrong?
    Thank you!

  2. Coast Ranger
    January 4, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    I tried the ANEWKODI USB AC WIFI adapter on a computer running Windows 8.1. Whenever it was plugged in, the computer would crash on boot.

  3. Jeremy Condes
    May 14, 2019 at 6:06 am

    I have Wavlink AC1300 Wireless Dual Band USB3.0 Adapter. I'm getting good speeds in my PC.

  4. Seldon Wright
    March 28, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    All the talk about router placement leaves me with one question. Why not put the blooming thing outside? A weather proof cover, some pretty power and cables and you should get great wifi. An apartment also would work.

  5. Rüdiger
    November 23, 2018 at 3:35 am

    I have used both Wireless USB-dongles and PCI-E Wireless Cards. From my experience, PCI-E Wireless Cards are the better choice for Desktop PC's. On average, they are faster and more stable. In terms of dual supported Wireless & Bluetooth , Wireless PCI-E Cards are way better than USB-dongles. Some USB-dongles don't even ransmit Wi-Fi and Bluetooth simultaneously, meaning that as as soon as you switch on Bluetooth, the Wi-Fi signal gets lost, and appears again as soon as you switch your Bluetooth off again.
    In my opinion, the best PCI-E Wireless Cards are the ones that are actually adapters which have laptop mini-PCI-E cards installed on them. I prefer them to the PCI-E Wireless cards with soldered on chip sets. From my experience, mini PCI-E cards that are actually designed for laptops offer the highest the performance of any Wireless cards , hence, have the highest quality when combined with a PCI-E Wireless Card adapters for Desktop PC's.


  6. Noah Ater
    October 11, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    I used a linksys WUSB6100M and at least two different intel m.2 2230 WiFi adapters (their dual band AC-3165 WiFi adapter in an old HP desktop and the slightly less powerful dual band AC 3160 in my MSI GE70-2QE Apache Pro laptop) and have noticed no difference in speed between all three. I have also tried 802.11n single band adapters made by Realtek and they suck really bad, stay away from them if you can. My current PC has a Qualcomm QCA9377 dual band adapter in it and I have noticed no difference in speed from that either, even though they’re all the same distance from my router.

  7. yayaya
    October 28, 2017 at 11:10 pm

    windows 10 doesn't like pce ac1900 cards... i know a couple of brand (asus ac66, ac68..) that make windows 10 freeze on boot.
    no matter which driver.. they don't work under windows 10.

    on the other hand usb ac1900 dongle, are weak.. you almost need a clear line of sight . the more wall there is the slowr its gona be.

    • buck
      December 9, 2017 at 1:33 am

      yep you're right. i just bought the asus pci-e ac1900, did a windows update...and it's gone for good.

  8. 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.

    • buck
      December 9, 2017 at 1:34 am

      which usb wifi adapter do you use?

    • Ken Currie
      January 22, 2019 at 12:52 am

      Hi, I would like to try the usb adapter, to try to speed up my slow wifi download speed.

      Could you advise me on the brand you have that works so well.
      Appreciated, Ken