WiFi Card vs WiFi Adapter: Which One Should You Get?

WiFi Card vs WiFi Adapter

For years I used cheap USB WiFi adapters in my desktop PC, never getting more than 25 Mbps speeds despite having a fast 100 Mbps home connection. I always blamed the distance to my router, even though signal strength seemed fine.

Recently I finally upgraded to a PCI-E WiFi card and saw speeds instantly jump to 80-100 Mbps!

Moral of my story: When choosing between WiFi cards vs WiFi adapters for desktop PCs, PCI-E cards provide far better performance than USB adapters.

If you’re building or upgrading a desktop PC, don’t make my mistake – skip the external USB adapters and go straight for an internal PCI-E WiFi card. You’ll enjoy significantly faster speeds and more reliable connectivity, especially for gaming and streaming.

Keep reading as I break down the key differences between these two wireless options to help you decide which is best for your needs.

A Quick Overview

First things first, what exactly are these devices we’re talking about?

  • WiFi card is a piece of internal hardware that gets installed directly into a desktop computer’s motherboard or an open expansion slot. It allows a desktop PC to connect to wireless internet networks.
  • WiFi adapter is an external device that plugs into a computer, usually a laptop, using a USB port. It also provides WiFi connectivity for devices without built-in wireless capabilities.

So in summary:

  • WiFi cards are internal, installed in desktop PCs
  • WiFi adapters are external and plug into laptops via USB

Pretty straightforward so far! Now let’s look at each in more detail.

WiFi Cards: The Internal Option

WiFi cards are designed specifically for desktop computers. Here are some key things to know about these internal WiFi enhancers:

  • Get inserted directly into a PCIe or PCI slot on your motherboard. This allows direct access to your desktop’s internal buses for a fast and stable signal.
  • Provide stronger WiFi connectivity than most built-in wireless cards that come with desktop motherboards. You can access 5GHz bands and newer WiFi standards like 802.11ac.
  • Let you place your desktop anywhere without worrying about running ethernet cables. Great for flexible room setups!
  • Come in both standard and mini PCIe sizes to fit normal and small form factor PCs.
  • Require installation but are easy to set up. Drivers are included or automatically installed by your OS.
WiFi Card working

So if you want faster and more reliable wireless network access for your stationary desktop computer, a WiFi card is likely the best choice. The internal connection type provides plenty of bandwidth for high-intensity tasks like online gaming, video streaming, or video calls.

WiFi Adapters: The External Option

Now let’s explore WiFi adapters. As we learned earlier, these are external devices made specifically for laptops. Here are the key advantages WiFi adapters provide:

  • Plug-and-play devices. No installation is needed, just connect to an open USB port and you’re good to go. Great for portability between locations.
  • Provide WiFi access for laptops without built-in wireless capabilities. If you have an older laptop, this is a simple upgrade path.
  • Enable connections to newer, faster wireless standards like 802.11ac that older laptops may not support. Great for breathing new life into aging machines!
  • Stronger signal and speeds compared to outdated internal WiFi cards in older laptops.
  • A wide range of styles is available like tiny nano adapters or larger ones with long-range external antennas. Find one that best fits your needs and laptop setup.
WiFi Adapter Photo
WiFi Adapter Photo

So if you have a laptop with no wireless capabilities or poor wireless performance, a WiFi adapter is an easy plug-and-play upgrade. The external design makes it simple to get better wireless access on both desktop replacement and ultraportable laptops alike.

Comparing WiFi Cards and Adapters

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s compare these two options head to head. Here’s a quick rundown of their main differences:

WiFi CardWiFi Adapter
Device TypeDesktop PCLaptop
ConnectivityPCIe slotUSB port
SpeedVery fastFast
Signal StrengthExcellentVery good
MobilityNoneFull (bring with you anywhere)
ConvenienceRequires installationTrue plug and play
Cost$20 – $100$10 – $50

As you can see, there are good reasons to pick either one depending on your computer type and needs. Both will significantly boost your WiFi capabilities compared to outdated built-in wireless options.

For more on how environmental factors like wind can impact WiFi signals, check out this helpful guide on does wind affects WiFi.

Which Should You Choose?

Now for the big question: should you get a WiFi card or adapter?

Here are some quick tips to help you decide:

  • If you have a desktop PC, go with an internal WiFi card for best performance.
  • If you have a laptop, grab an external WiFi adapter for portability and convenience.
  • If you value a strong, lag-free WiFi signal above all, lean towards a WiFi card.
  • If you need something inexpensive and mobile, pick a WiFi adapter.
  • If your device is more than 3 years old, either option will provide a significant upgrade over outdated built-in WiFi.

At the end of the day, it comes down to your specific computer setup and needs. Assess whether the benefits of speed, strength, mobility, or ease of use matter most and choose accordingly.

Shopping Tips and Recommendations

Ready to take the plunge and buy one of these handy devices? Here are some quick shopping tips for both options:

For internal WiFi cards:

  • Make sure it fits your motherboard – choose PCIe or PCI connector.
  • Get a model with attachable antennas for best reception, ideally with at least two.
  • Look for cards with 802.11ac support for fast 5GHz performance.
  • Brands like TP-Link, ASUS, and Netgear make excellent, affordable WiFi cards.

Once you’ve installed your new WiFi card, you’ll want a high-performance router to take advantage of its capabilities. Check out this comparison of top models like the Archer BE800 vs Nighthawk RS700 to find a robust WiFi 7 router worthy of your upgraded desktop’s WiFi card.

For external WiFi adapters:

  • Opt for compact nano models if portability is crucial, or larger adapters with antennas to maximize range and speed.
  • Search for adapters offering dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz for best compatibility.
  • Check that your laptop OS officially supports the adapter before buying.
  • Stick with trusted brands like Netgear, Linksys, or TP-Link for reliability.

Doing a bit of research will ensure you get the perfect card or adapter tailored to your specific desktop or laptop’s capabilities.

Let’s Recap…

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. To quickly recap:

  • WiFi cards install internally on desktop PCs while WiFi adapters plug in externally to laptops via USB.
  • Cards offer faster maximum speeds and connectivity while adapters provide portability and easy plug-and-play use.
  • Choose based on your computer type, age, OS, and whether you prioritize strength, mobility, or affordability.
  • Both options deliver significantly better WiFi performance compared to outdated built-in wireless cards and adapters.

And that wraps up this complete guide to understanding the differences between these two wireless wonder devices!

While we focused on WiFi upgrades here, improving other parts of your desktop setup can also boost performance. For example, if your graphics card is being limited by a lower-wattage power supply, installing a dedicated, higher-wattage PSU just for your GPU can remove that bottleneck. Check out this guide on using a separate PSU for your graphics card to learn more about the performance benefits and installation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about WiFi cards and adapters that we didn’t cover above:

Do I need any special hardware or tools to install a WiFi card?

You may need a Phillips-head screwdriver to open up your desktop case and access the motherboard. Other than that, the card should come with any cables or antennas required for installation. Always refer to the manufacturer’s installation guide for full instructions.

What internet speeds can I expect from a WiFi card or adapter?

You can expect fast wifi speeds up to 1.3Gbps on a clear 5GHz connection with 802.11ac cards or adapters. Actual speeds will depend on your WiFi router capability, signal strength, distance and interference. Both cards and adapters will provide significantly faster speeds than old built-in wireless options.

What is the range of a USB WiFi adapter?

The range depends on the adapter, but you can expect at least 100 feet indoors and up to 300 feet outdoors for adapters using higher gain antennas. Obstacles like walls and interference will reduce this range. Adapters with external antennas generally have better range than tiny nano adapters.

Can I use a WiFi adapter on multiple computers?

Absolutely! Since adapters are external USB devices, you can plug them into any laptop or desktop PC and connect to WiFi networks on the go. Just remember to install any required drivers for your operating system before first use.

Will a WiFi card or adapter work with my current router?

Most likely yes, unless you have an extremely outdated router. WiFi cards and adapters support backward compatibility with earlier standards like 802.11n/g/b, in addition to the latest 802.11ac. Just double-check your router’s specs if unsure.

Avatar photo

Nafiul Haque

Nafiul Haque has grown up playing on all the major gaming platforms. And he got his start as a journalist covering all the latest gaming news, reviews, leaks, etc. As he grew as a person, he became deeply involved with gaming hardware and equipment. Now, he spends his days writing about everything from reviewing the latest gaming laptops to comparing the performance of the latest GPUs and consoles.