TL; DR – These are the best USB Wi-Fi adapters:
1. Netgear Nighthawk AC1900
Best USB Wi-Fi Adapter
The Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 is the USB Wi-Fi adapter that offers a bit of everything. In an ideal world, you can upgrade the Wi-Fi adapter inside your laptop or add a PCIe wireless network card to your desktop, but that won’t always be an option. In these scenarios, the USB-based Nighthawk AC1900 can step in and you won’t feel like you’re missing out on much.
The Nighthawk AC1900 supports Wi-Fi 5 with a dual-band connection, allowing you to connect on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. This means that you can get high speeds, with the 2.4 GHz connection capable of reaching up to 600 Mbps and the 5 GHz connection reaching up to 1300 Mbps. With optional docking station, beamforming and adjustable antenna array with four antennas inside, it can help you get a strong signal. Just make sure to connect this beast to your computers via USB 3.0, otherwise you’ll leave the performance on the table.
2.TP-Link Archer T2U Plus
Best Budget-Friendly USB Wi-Fi Adapter
If you are looking for something a little cheaper and are not concerned with high traffic activities like gaming, the TP-Link Archer T2U Plus offers solid performance thanks to its large antenna, while saving a few pennies in the process.
Rater for AC600 (so 200 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 433 Mbps on 5 GHz), it will handle web browsing and more occasional internet activities well, but suffer more over long distances. Works with Mac and Windows, but not Linux.
3.TP-Link N150 USB WiFi Adapter (TL-WN725N)
Best Ultra Cheap USB Wi-Fi Adapter
If you just need the Wi-Fi in a pinch, you can pick up the TP-Link N150 USB Wi-Fi Adapter for under $ 10. This is a small, simple and unobtrusive USB dongle that won’t take up a lot of space on the side of your computer. That said, you’ll get pretty basic Wi-Fi. This small dongle offers an 802.11n wireless connection, using only the 2.4 GHz band and maximizing with a bandwidth of 150 Mbps.
Considering the small size of the dongle, it won’t have the strongest antenna, but it should work just fine if you’re in the same room as your Wi-Fi router. And, although 150Mbps is not blazingly fast, that’s enough speed to enjoy HD video. Since many of us probably don’t even have an internet plan that offers more than 100 Mbps, there isn’t necessarily a good reason for a high-end adapter. This adapter is designed to work with Windows, Mac, and Linux devices.
4. Asus USB-AC68
Best USB Wi-Fi Adapter for Gaming
This AC1900 Dual Band Dual Antenna Toggle Adapter is a great choice if gaming is your top priority. While this looks like something that should be on your roof, rather than attached to your computer, the design allows it to achieve high 802.11ac speeds over a greater distance.
The included USB 3.0 cradle allows you to place it far enough from the computer to avoid interference, and the whole thing can be easily folded to make it more portable. Works with Windows and Mac.
5. D-Link DWA-192
Fastest USB Wi-Fi Adapter
It’s not a moon – D-Link’s Wi-Fi Adapter is quite unlike anything on our list. But it’s not just about cosmetics; The DWA-192 performs admirably, boasting an AC1900 rating, which means speeds of up to 600 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 1300 Mbps on 5 GHz.
This means that it can reach blazing speeds at shorter distances. The drivers are provided on a CD, but this is only for Windows. Sorry, Mac fans.
6.TP-Link Archer T4U V3
Good power / price ratio
TP-Link’s Archer Adapter looks a bit like the Nighthawk and works with Mac, Windows, and Linux. With an AC1200 rating, it will reach wireless speeds of 400 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 867 Mbps on 5 GHz, and supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Works with Mac and Windows.
Overall performance is excellent and reliable, and like the Nighthawk, the antenna can be adjusted to improve the signal. It is, however, still a bit bulky. The price is good though, but if you want to spend a bit more TP-Link has an AC1900 model available for double the price.
7. Net-Dyn AC1200
Best Dual Band USB Wi-Fi Adapter
The Net-Dyn earns a spot on this list by perfectly balancing size and speeds. It can reach up to 100 meters without the speed seriously suffering. This is also USB 3.0, which (as long as your computer supports it) will maintain low latency at these higher speeds.
Speaking of which, there is dual band connectivity with support for speeds of up to 867Mbps at 5GHz and 300Mbps at 2.4GHz. Works with Windows and Mac.
8. Netgear A6150 AC1200 WiFi USB Adapter
The best compact USB Wi-Fi adapter
You don’t need to rely on a bulky USB dongle to add Wi-Fi to your PC. Netgear’s A6150 AC1200 Wi-Fi USB Adapter is about as small as it gets. This adapter weighs just five grams and will barely protrude out of your USB port, so you don’t have to worry too much about accidentally bumping into it and damaging it or your USB port.
Despite its small size, the Netgear AC6150 adapter is ready for high speeds. It supports dual band connectivity, allowing you to access 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz networks, and it can reach speeds of up to 867 Mbps on the fastest band. This adapter even supports beamforming and MU-MIMO connections. The size of the adapter may not give it the best reception if you try to use it away from a router in a different room, but for shorter distance connections where you want to avoid a mess of cables, it will get the work done.
What to look for in a USB Wi-Fi adapter?
2.4 GHz vs 5 GHz: know the difference
You’ll see these numbers a lot when you research anything related to home Wi-Fi. Quite simply, they refer to the network standard on which your device operates; it all comes down to speed and range.
We all know that a signal only reaches a very long distance, and as you move further away from the source of that signal, the connection is usually going to deteriorate.
2.4 GHz is a more dated standard that doesn’t get the blazing speeds of 5 GHz, but it does have better range. 5 GHz gives you a much faster connection, but the range is not as good.
USB 2.0, USB 3.0 and 802.11 standards
The difference here depends on a few other factors. First of all, does your computer have USB 2.0 or 3.0 ports? If it is USB 2.0, your maximum speed (in theory) is lower, because USB 3.0 allows more throughput. Data speeds over USB 2.0 can reach up to 480 Mbps while USB 3.0 can reach 5 Gbps.
But that’s not all. In order to take advantage of these higher speeds, your router will also need to be able to transmit a signal greater than 60MB / s (if not, what’s the point?). If your router uses 802.11g, it will not exceed 54MB / s.
However, for routers with an 802.11ac standard, with higher connection speeds, USB 3.0 may be beneficial – but only for heavy use cases where you want less latency. In these cases, make sure that you are looking for an 802.11ac wireless adapter to get the most out of it.
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Hugh Langley is a technical journalist who is fascinated by clothing, health technologies, the smart home and more. You can find him tweeting (often nonsense) to @hughlangley.