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Friday, July 12, 2024

How to Upgrade Wi-Fi in Your Laptop or Desktop

You don’t necessarily need a new computer to enjoy the latest Wi-Fi speeds. Adding Wi-Fi 6 compatibility to an old PC or Wi-Fi 6E connectivity to your laptop can be easy and relatively affordable. By squeezing more life from your computer, you can avoid adding to the ewaste problem and save yourself a bundle of cash.

There are a couple of ways to upgrade your computer’s Wi-Fi. If you don’t mind opening it up, a new Wi-Fi card is the way to go, while a plug-in USB Wi-Fi adapter is a solid alternative. We’ll explain what’s involved with both.

Table of ContentsGetting StartedA Word on Wi-Fi VersionsInstall a New Wi-Fi CardUse a Wi-Fi USB AdapterFinding the Sweet Spot

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Getting Started

We assume you already have a mesh system or a single router capable of delivering the Wi-Fi you want. For advice and an explanation of Wi-Fi standards, channels, and everything else you need to know, read our How to Buy a Router guide. But in short, if you want Wi-Fi 6, you need a Wi-Fi 6 router.

Before we go any further, it is worth checking what Wi-Fi card is currently in your computer. Here’s how to do it:

Windows: Click on the Windows logo in the taskbar and type “Device Manager” into the Search bar. Click on Device Manager and select Network adapters. You should see a Wi-Fi card listed, perhaps with IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) or IEEE 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) next to it.Mac: Click the Apple logo at the top left, choose About This Mac, and then System Report. Look for Network in the left pane and select Wi-Fi listed underneath. You should see a Wi-Fi card listed, probably with the IEEE standard (802.11ac or similar).Chromebook: Open the Chrome browser and type chrome://system in the address bar. Click Expand All and scroll through the list, or press Ctrl and F to open a search window and search for “Wi-Fi” or “wireless” to find your card.A Word on Wi-Fi Versions

You will likely be upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E. Both standards are also known as IEEE 802.11ax; the difference is that Wi-Fi 6E adds the 6-GHz band to the familiar 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. While we are starting to see routers that support the latest Wi-Fi 7 (IEEE 802.11be) standard, they are pre-certified, so there aren’t many options for upgrading computers to Wi-Fi 7 just yet.

Note: If you decide to go for Wi-Fi 6E, you need a computer running Windows 11 or later, as Microsoft is not backporting 6-GHz support for Windows 10.

Install a New Wi-Fi Card

The cheapest and neatest way to upgrade your Wi-Fi is to buy a Wi-Fi card that’s compatible with your computer and install it yourself. It is generally an easy procedure for a desktop. You don’t have to be a PC builder to tackle it. All you need is the confidence to open your computer, remove the old card, and slot the new one into your motherboard (some cards also have a Bluetooth connector). A Wi-Fi card for your PC will likely include a PCI-e adapter, a bracket that screws into place, and a couple of adjustable antennas to screw onto the back.

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There are many excellent Wi-Fi cards, but we recommend sticking with a big brand name such as Asus, TP-Link, or Netgear. If you want a Wi-Fi 6 card for your desktop, we can vouch for the TP-Link Archer TX3000E ($50). It offers speed, range, and reliability at a reasonable price. For Wi-Fi 6E, upgrade to the TP-Link Archer TXE75E ($55). TP-Link’s magnetic antenna attachment is excellent and can go wherever you get the strongest signal.

Laptops can be tougher to fit a new card in. For older laptops (Wi-Fi 4 or earlier) and models where the Wi-Fi adapter is soldered onto the motherboard, it may be impossible. You need an NGFF (Next-Generation Form Factor) 2230 (22 mm wide, 33 mm long) M.2 slot that’s Key A or Key E. Here’s a quick M2 explainer if you want to know more. You also need compatible antenna wires to attach to the card.

The easiest way to determine whether your laptop is suitable is to use the method above to find the Wi-Fi card that’s currently in your laptop and search for it to ensure it is an NGFF 2230 card (you can always compare the connector keys and antenna connectors). If you search YouTube for “upgrade Wi-Fi card + [your computer model]” you can likely find a video guide. If you don’t want to do it yourself, consider asking a tech-savvy family member or friend. You could also take it to a repair shop where they will do it while you wait.

If you need a card for a laptop (or have a tight budget), the Intel AX210 card ($16) works fine for Wi-Fi 6E, and comes with antennas for a laptop, try something like this AX210 kit ($30) for a desktop. If you feel Wi-Fi 6 is enough for now, you can get the Intel AX200 ($14) for a laptop or go for the Intel AX200 kit ($22) for a desktop.

Use a Wi-Fi USB Adapter

You can always buy an adapter or dongle that slots into an available USB port on your desktop or laptop. A plug-in adapter is the easiest way to upgrade your Wi-Fi if you don’t want to open your computer. Some adapters are plug and play, but you may have to run through an installation, download drivers, and disable your old network adapter. (Disabling your old network adapter avoids conflicts and ensures your computer uses the new adapter.)

Before you buy any adapter, ensure you have a spare USB-A port and check the requirements. The latest adapters work best with a USB 3.0 port. The USB version is often printed next to the port, so look for a number or letters (for example, SS stands for SuperSpeed and denotes USB 3.0). Here’s how to check when there’s nothing printed:

Windows: Click the Windows logo or key, search for and open Device Manager, click on Universal Serial Bus controllers. If the USB version isn’t clear, you can right click on the devices listed for more information.Mac: Click the Apple logo, choose About This Mac, and then System Report. Look under Hardware in the left pane and click on USB.Chromebook: Open the Chrome browser and type chrome://system in the address bar. Click Expand All and scroll through the list, or press Ctrl and F to open a search window and search for “USB” to find your ports.Most PopularGearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

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We have not tested many Wi-Fi USB adapters, but one we can recommend for Wi-Fi 6E is the Netgear Nighthawk A8000 ($79). It’s a versatile option that plugs directly into a laptop via USB-A or into the cradle provided, which has an extension cable to enable better positioning. The top folds out to extend the antenna and snag a stronger signal and it performs well on all three bands.

If Wi-Fi 6 is enough, we have tested the affordable Plugable WiFi 6 USB Adapter ($40). It offers solid dual band performance and has a similar design to the Netgear, with the option to plug in or use the extension cable and cradle, and a fold out antenna section. It also comes with a handy USB-A to USB-C adapter.

Finding the Sweet Spot

There are various ways to upgrade your Wi-Fi, but positioning is often overlooked. Moving your router or mesh nodes to better spots (central, high up, and in the open) can make a big difference. And whether you went for a new card or an adapter, placement is crucial for the connecting device, too. It is worth playing around with the position of antennas and even moving your computer to ensure you find the best spot for a strong signal.

There is one final alternative: The humble Ethernet cable will always trump Wi-Fi for speed and stability. If your computer has an Ethernet port and you can run a cable from your router, or even from a mesh node, you should seriously consider doing it.

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