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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky

Volume 17 Issue 9

September 2023

Do You Need a USB Wifi Adapter?

The Problem

Here are some of the reasons why you might need a USB Wifi Adapter:


  • You want to add Wifi to a computer (like a desktop PC) so you can connect it to a wireless network.
  • Your computer already has Wifi and it’s working ok, but you’ve got a newer, faster router and you’d like to upgrade your computer’s wireless to make the best use of it.
  • Your computer already has Wifi, but it isn’t working well on your wireless network. For example, your Wifi may be slow or even frequently gets disconnected, but other wireless computers (or mobile devices) in the same room work ok on your Wifi.
  • Your computer can no longer connect to your Wifi at all.


Trying a USB Wifi adapter can help with some of the causes of Wifi problems, including:


  • Your computer may be too far from your router for its built-in Wifi card to pick up its signal.
  • Your computer’s built-in Wifi hardware may be failing, or may have stopped working entirely.


In theory, a 2.4Ghz router may reach approximately 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors, and a 5Ghz router may reach about 50 feet indoors and 100 feet outdoors, but factors like distance, blockage, interference, and more can greatly reduce that.


If you’re having Wifi problems, there are dozens of other things that you can try (restarting your router, restarting your computer, trying other devices, trying an Ethernet cable, etc.). Getting a USB Wifi adapter is just one approach.


What is a USB Wifi adapter?


Simpler USB Wifi adapters are small electronic devices that plug in to a USB port on your Windows or Macintosh computer, and they resemble flash drives. They’re small (about the size of your finger) or very small (about the size of your fingernail), but instead of providing storage, they add the ability to connect your computer to nearby wireless networks.


If your computer already has built-in Wifi hardware, adding a USB Wifi adapter gives you an additional Wifi connection.


Note that in order to connect to a wireless network, you will need to know both its name (or SSID) and its Wifi password (or “network security key”).




  • In general such adapters are small, easy to set up, and inexpensive, especially compared to repairing or replacing your computer.
  • They can be helpful to diagnose and even fix wireless problems.




  • They take up a USB port (either on your computer itself or on a connected USB hub), stick out from the side or back of your computer, and because they’re small they can easily get misplaced.


Most Wifi adapters have one of these two physical designs:


  • No visible antenna: These simpler models resemble flash drives and have a built-in (omnidirectional) antenna, so you don’t need to point them in any particular direction.
  • A visibly protruding antenna (or two, sometimes four): These “high-gain” adapters usually have better Wifi range, and the higher the power level (the “gain”), the farther they’ll reach across your home or office, but you may need to experiment with the position of the antenna. Using a USB extension cord can help with that, and also prevent the adapter from blocking any adjacent USB ports.


I recommend


Often a simpler (omnidirectional, low-gain) Wifi adapter will work well (or well enough), and you can always switch to a high-gain adapter if needed. However, if you already know that your computer is very far from the router, you might choose to start with a high-gain model.


Regardless of the type that you get, keep the following in mind:


  • Consider getting a “dual band” adapter so you can connect to both 2.4Ghz & 5Ghz frequency networks. 2.4Ghz is more common among a variety of devices, covers a farther range, but it’s slower. 5Ghz is less common, covers a shorter range, but it’s faster.
  • USB 2 devices have a theoretical speed of up to 480 megabits per second (Mbps) through the USB port into your computer, which is faster than (and thus more than capable of handling) most residential internet connections. For example, my Comcast/Xfinity service is rated at “up to” 200 Mbps. When I measure my actual download speed, it varies between 25 and 60 Mbps, so a USB 2 Wifi adapter would be quite fast enough for me.
  • If you get such an adapter, I suggest labeling it “Wifi” to avoid confusing it with any flash drives that you may also have.




  • I’ve had good experiences with simpler Tenda models.
  • Colleagues of mine like both Tenda and TP-Link units.


I wouldn’t recommend


The following features are probably not worth paying extra for:


  • USB 3 interface: Only if your internet service is faster than 480 Mbps and your router can handle that speed over Wifi
  • Wifi 6, Wifi 7: Only if your router already supports these protocols


Internet access on the road


If you’re interested in getting internet access for your computer anywhere, i.e., when you’re away from your home or office router, you’ll need a completely different (and slower) technology called “mobile broadband” or “mobile internet,” which uses a “mobile hotspot” device whose underlying internet connection relies on the cellular phone network, and you’ll also incur monthly fees for such a service. If you have an iPhone or an Android smartphone, it already has this ability built in.


Where to go from here


As always, if this seems too complicated to manage on your own, I recommend that you talk to someone you know and trust to help you.


In the first two searches below, capitalizing the word “OR” makes the search work properly.


  • google: USB wifi adapter review OR compare
  • google: high gain wifi adapter review OR compare
  • google: troubleshoot internet connection
  • google: troubleshoot wifi
  • http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2020/2020_11_30.html - “If Your Internet Connection Stopped Working, What Would You Do?” - see the “Mobile Hotspot” section
  • http://fast.com - A simple website that measures the internet speed coming into your computer

How to contact me:

email: martin@kadansky.com

phone: (617) 484-6657

web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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