Wi-Fi, the invisible, slightly magical technology that connects us all into the greater human consciousness via the internet. You’d be hard-pressed to live without it these days.
But it’s mysteriously also one of the last things you think about when building your own PC.
Most people would rather focus on the fancy new hardware than something more mundane like Wi-Fi.
But once everything is said and done and you have your brand new PC next to you, it’d be a rough surprise to figure out that brand new machine you might have paid so much for can’t even connect to the internet.
Of course, there are other more physical ways to connect to the internet, but if you want to live that cable-free minimalist lifestyle, you’d have a hard time doing it without Wi-Fi.
So, in this article, I’ll go over the best Wi-Fi cards currently available and tell you what you need to avoid the above doomsday scenario.
What Is a Wi-Fi Card?
A Wi-Fi card is basically a small card with an antenna that you attach to your PC in order to pick up the Wi-Fi signal from your router.
Types of Wifi Cards
There are several types of Wifi Cards and how they connect to your PC.
The PCIe Wifi Adapter Card, the M.2 Wifi Adapter card, and the USB Wifi Adapter, which is also the easiest to install, as you don’t have to open up your PC to do so.
The PCIe and M.2 Wifi Adapter Card both have to be plugged into a slot on your Motherboard. The PCIe Card into its respective PCIe-Slot and if you buy an M.2 Wifi Card, it goes into a free M.2 Slot.
These cards come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the general idea is all the same. This doesn’t mean that all Wi-Fi cards are built equally, however.
|Wi‑Fi 6E (802.11ax)||600 to 9608 Mbps||2020||6 GHz|
|Wi‑Fi 6 (802.11ax)||600 to 9608 Mbps||2019||2.4/5 GHz|
|Wi‑Fi 5 (802.11ac)||600 to 9608 Mbps||2014||5 GHz|
|Wi‑Fi 4 (802.11n)||72 to 600 Mbps||2008||2.4/5 GHz|
|Wi-Fi 3 (802.11g)||6 to 54 Mbps||2003||2.4 GHz|
|Wi-Fi 2 (802.11a)||6 to 54 Mbps||1999||5 GHz|
|Wi-Fi 1 (802.11b)||1 to 11 Mbps||1999||2.4 GHz|
|Wi-Fi 0 (802.11)||1 to 2 Mbps||1997||2.4 GHz|
The key thing to watch out for is the Wi-Fi network standard that your chosen Wi-Fi card supports.
Wi-Fi has had many different iterations over the years allowing faster and more stable networks, and to make use of these improvements, you need a Wi-Fi receiver (i.e., Wi-Fi card) certified to work with these different iterations.
As of writing this, Wi‑Fi 6E (802.11ax) is the most advanced version of Wi-Fi currently available.
If you’re in the market for a new Wi-Fi card, you should make sure that the card you buy supports that standard.
Now, this isn’t to say that you have to have the latest Wi-Fi standards, however.
Yes, it’ll be the fastest, and it’ll be the most future-proof, but the reality of it is that most average home internet setups can’t even use all the new fancy bells and whistles of Wi-Fi 6E.
After all, your actual Internet Speed (the bandwidth from your Provider to your router) will most likely be much slower than what your local Wi-Fi supports. So unless you also need your Wi-Fi to send large Files or access remote PCs through your local network, you should be able to make do with a slightly older standard.
Wi‑Fi 5 (802.11ac) is more widely available, usually cheaper, and has pretty much everything you need.
So if you want to be a bit more budget-conscious, I would recommend going with a Wi-Fi card that supports Wi-Fi 5.
However, if you want the best speeds possible, want to future proof, you have fast Internet (Gigabit +) and/or you know what you’re doing, Wi-Fi 6E is the way to go.
What About USB Wi-Fi Dongles?
USB Wi-Fi dongles are another way that you can get Wi-Fi connectivity on something that doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
They are usually very affordable, compact, and plug-and-play, which makes them quite attractive if you don’t really want to fuss with opening up your computer and drivers.
The problem with them is that they usually aren’t as fast as a good Wi-Fi card.
Some of them can also have connectivity issues along with giving you lower speeds and higher latency than a wire or even a Wi-Fi card.
Why Don’t PCs Have Wi-Fi Built-In?
Some PCs do have Wi-Fi built-in. Some of the modern motherboards come with built-in Wi-Fi, and most if not all prebuilt PCs come with Wi-Fi cards.
But the main reason that most PCs don’t have Wi-Fi is because people usually choose to go with a wired ethernet connection for desktop computers instead.
And that makes sense because you’re usually not going to be moving your desktop PC around all that much. It’s just plug-in and forget.
A wired connection is the natural choice in that case because it offers the highest speeds, lowest latency, and isn’t that much of a hassle after the initial setup process.
Because of this, the use of Wi-Fi with desktops is lower than it is with something like a laptop or phone.
Why Do You Need a Wi-Fi Card?
Sounds pretty simple, right? You need a Wi-Fi card to get Wi-Fi.
But there are other ways to get connected to the internet, what’s special about a Wi-Fi card?
The main appeal of a Wi-FI card is that, compared to connecting with an ethernet cable or Wi-Fi USB dongle, Wi-Fi cards offer you the best wireless Wi-Fi connectivity.
Some people will say that connecting with a cable is the best way to connect to the internet, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but that doesn’t change the fact that most people just don’t want to bother with wires.
So, Wi-Fi cards end up being a nice middle ground between the fastest speeds and latency (wired ethernet) and slow wireless speeds and high latencies (Wi-Fi USB dongle).
The Top Three Best Wi-Fi Cards for Windows PCs
GIGABYTE GC-WBAX210 – The Best of the Best
GIGABYTE, best known for their GPUs and Motherboards is also in the Wi-Fi card game. And they are putting all that GPU and MOBO money to good use by making one of the best Wi-Fi cards currently available on the market.
The GIGABYTE GC-WBAX210—catchy—is a great, minimalist Wi-Fi card that supports Wi-Fi 6E (meaning tri-band 2.4, 5, and 6 GHz support) while touting the Intel WI-FI 6E AX210 module for all the modern bells and whistle anyone could ask for.
It supports speeds greater than 2 gigabits per second (2400 Mbps), which is a bit overkill for most home network setups as most home networks hover around 20 – 500 Mbps, but if you got a gigabit network connection or just want lots of future-proofing, you can’t do much better than this.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s also a Bluetooth 5.2 (the latest version) supporting receiver?
Meaning that you’ll be able to connect to Wi-Fi and any Bluetooth supporting device (Wireless headphones, earbuds, peripherals) through just one receiver!
It also has a nice detachable antenna that allows you to position the antenna wherever you need to get the best connection instead of it being stuck in the back of your PC.
At around 45 to 50 bucks, this thing is a steal and is my recommendation for a Wi-Fi card if you want to go all out.
EDUP AX3000 – The Middle of the Road Option
EDUP might be a brand you’ve probably never heard of, but that doesn’t change the fact that they make a lot of great networking gear for cheaper than most of the “name brand” counterparts.
And the EDUP AX3000 is no exception. It supports Wi-Fi 6 (dual-band 2.4 and 5 GHz) via the Intel AX200 Chipset.
It’s capable of speeds over 2400 Mbps and has all the bells and whistles of higher-end Wi-Fi cards sans tri-band support.
It also supports Bluetooth 5.1 so that’s a nice bonus if you make use of Bluetooth devices.
The AX3000 is a very capable Wi-Fi card that isn’t the best of the best but gives you pretty much everything you need, along with good future-proofing, all for around $35.
EDUP AC1300 – The Affordable Option
The EDUP AC1300 is the younger cousin of the AX3000.
It’s a good option if you want something that’ll work well without having to spend a lot of money.
It’s a generation old at this point (Wi-Fi 5 instead of 6) so it’s definitely not the greatest around, but it supports speeds of up to 867 Mbps and comes with Bluetooth 4.2 support.
For around $28, this is a very capable Wi-Fi card that’ll handle all but the most demanding networking tasks that you throw at it.
Hopefully, that cleared up any questions you had about picking out a good Wi-Fi card for your PC.
It can seem a bit daunting with all the different numbers and techno mumbo jumbo, but it’s not all that complicated once you figure it out.
The most important thing to look at is the Wi-Fi version that your chosen Wi-Fi card supports. That’ll then give you most of the info you need to know what that card will offer. Check your router to see if it’ll have any trouble connecting with your Wi-Fi card and you’re all set.
Do You Need to Buy a Wi-Fi Card for a PC?
Some motherboards these days come with integrated Wi-Fi receivers, but if you know you’re lacking one, check if you can run a LAN cable to your router first.
Both, transferring large files, or running interactive applications (like Games, or a remote PC) will benefit from a wired connection.
Wi-Fi is a fragile beast. If you don’t have a good, clear connection, you can have random drops in connection, high latency, and all sorts of other weird issues.
But if you want Wi-Fi on your desktop PC, getting a Wi-Fi card is a good way to get it.
Be wary of Wi-Fi USB dongles, however. They are cheaper than Wi-Fi cards and easier to use, but they can have connectivity issues and their speed/latency isn’t great either.
They have their uses if you want something really portable for example, but if you want the best Wi-Fi can offer, then go with a Wi-Fi card.
What Is Faster, Ethernet or Wi-Fi?
Ethernet. Wi-Fi is getting very fast these days, but it can’t compete with a physical wire.
The latency will be lower, the speeds will be higher and more stable, and the connection will also be more stable.
Wi-Fi is great and incredibly convenient. But if you want the fastest available, with the correct CAT Cables and supported router LAN connection speeds (e.g. 2,5, 5, 10GBit), nothing beats the good ol’ wire.
What’s the Difference Between a Wi-Fi Card and a Wi-Fi Dongle?
Wi-Fi cards are bigger and more of a hassle to install as you have to open up your PC, but offer greater speeds, latency, and stability.
Wi-Fi dongles are a lot more compact, easy to install, but don’t offer the greatest speeds, latency, or stability.
If Wi-Fi is more of a permanent solution for you, meaning you expect to use only Wi-Fi as your main way of getting connected, then Wi-Fi cards make the most sense.
But if you just want to connect a non-Wi-Fi capable machine into a network for a bit, or just periodically want Wi-Fi connectivity, then Wi-Fi dongles are perfectly fine.
What’s the Difference Between 5 GHz and 5.8 GHz?
There’s no practical difference. The 5 GHz network encompasses the whole of the 5 GHz spectrum.
But some manufactures advertise 5.8 GHz instead of 5 GHz to confuse uninformed people and make them think that they’re offering more than their competition when in reality it’s all the same thing.