Wireless networking is a relatively new technology in the timeline of computers, considering that a few decades ago only a handful of households owned a computer and networking was not as widespread as it is now.
With wireless connections, users can do a lot on their computers from just about where there’s a signal. You don’t need cables and Ethernet ports to connect to a network and you do not need to remain tethered in just one location.
When it comes to WiFi on computers, you have three very common options: Onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi Card vs Wi-Fi USB. Here we will learn about how these three differ in terms of pros and cons.
More computers, especially portable ones like laptops, come with built-in Wi-Fi to facilitate wireless networking. However, most desktops do not ship with this and it, therefore, falls upon the user to find workarounds if they need to connect to Wi-Fi networks.
Also Read: Best Motherboards with WiFi
Wi-Fi on a Motherboard
Some motherboards come with inbuilt Wi-Fi whereas most do not. Common ways to add Wi-Fi connectivity to a desktop motherboard is through a PCIe Card or a USB WiFi Dongle.
Despite what method you use, one benefit that is common to all wireless interfaces is that Wi-Fi connection is easy to establish with your computer compared with an Ethernet.
Onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi Card vs Wi-Fi USB
What are the differences between the three and what advantages and disadvantages do they bring about.
What is Onboard Wi-Fi?
An onboard WiFi basically means that the motherboard has a Wi-Fi modem built in. It allows users to connect their computers to a wireless network without having to install any extra components.
This is perhaps simplest way to build a desktop where you absolutely need a Wi-Fi connection. However, onboard Wi-Fi is supported only in certain motherboards.
Desktop motherboards with inbuilt motherboards are not quite common particularly in the budget and in the mid range – to an extent.
Also Read: Best Motherboard with WiFi
Pros of Onboard Wi-Fi
For users who need to use Wi-Fi, a motherboard with onboard Wi-Fi will eliminate the cost of purchasing an extra component.
USB Wi-Fi dongles may be cheap but it saves the time and cost for purchasing and delivering the component if you already have it pre-installed.
Plus an Onboard WiFi is superior in performance to a USB WiFi in terms of latency since it is directly interfaced with the motherboard and uses a high speed PCIe Lane.
Furthermore, you can get fairly consistent transfer rates with an onboard Wi-Fi.
With onboard Wi-Fi, people without access to cable networks can access their networks immediately after finishing their builds. This lets them access online content faster and with less hassle.
They are more, in a sense, streamlined and optimized.
Another important benefit is that an on-board WiFi saves you from utilizing your precious PCIe slots. This is particularly important on motherboard that have limited PCIe slots such as on a Mini ITX motherboard.
Cons of Onboard Wi-Fi
One significant disadvantage of having an onboard WiFi is that it hinder upgradability of WiFi network. There may be faster options for accessing Wi-Fi in the future with greater range, higher speeds and lower latency.
With onboard Wi-Fi, upgrading the built in WiFi is not a feasible option and you will end up having to settle for the speeds that are provided by your board’s onboard Wi-Fi adapter.
For example, if your motherboard comes with WiFi 5 card, you will not be able to upgrade it to the newer WiFi 6.
Additionally, all things considered, a motherboard with onboard Wi-Fi is more expensive compared to one without the facility given the same specs. This might be something that users who don’t need Wi-Fi would have to consider.
What is a Wi-Fi Card?
A Wi-Fi card is a high-speed PCIe device that adds Wi-Fi support for a motherboard by connecting to one of its PCIe slots.
Wi-Fi cards themselves are relatively affordable, but compared to WiFi USB, they can be a little more expensive. However, for users with a PCIe slot to spare, this maybe the best option for fast wireless connections.
Also Read: Which PCIe Slot for Wireless Card
Pros of Wi-Fi Card
It offers high speed stable wireless connections. This is great for activities like online gaming. You can get a card that suits your taste. Budget options can be used for basic home and office use. More expensive ones can be used for tasks like gaming.
One of the biggest advantage here is that you can replace them with a newer card. You can also switch them over to another PC when need be.
Since they connect to a motherboard’s high speed lane, they are consistent in their transfer rate as well as have lower latency compared to USB WiFi dongles.
Most PCIe WiFi cards make use of the multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) method using multiple antennas which basically allows the card to transmit and receive multiple data signals at a time. This further allows for higher and stable transfer speeds.
Cons of Wi-Fi Card
Wi-Fi PCIe cards can be challenging to install for the novice user. They are also more expensive than USB Wi-Fi adapters so most users on a budget would opt for the latter instead.
Another big disadvantage with WiFi card is that they occupy PCIe lanes and slots. If you do not have a PCIe slot available, they are of no good. Therefore, you need to make sure that you have both a free PCIe slot as well as a free PCIe lanes.
Also Read: How Many PCIe Lanes do I Have?
Finally, a WiFi PCIe Card can be an issue when you have cramped up space inside in the PC. In some instances, they can even block larger components like graphics card from being installed.
Recommended WiFi Cards
The following are our recommendations. The first two conform to the latest WiFi 6 Protocol.
What is Wi-Fi USB Adapter?
Unlike PCIe cards, these do not go inside the case. They are plugged into a USB port.
These adapters are usually very affordable meaning that most users who want a decent or basic WIFI can go for them. Because they are affordable, you may be tempted to think that they are low-quality options.
However, over the years, high-quality USB adapters have been developed. Some also have antennas for better signal reception.
Pros of Wi-Fi USB Adapter
They are very easy to install. All you do is plug the device into an available USB slot and Voila! Drivers are installed and you’re good to go.
You can get one with a USB extender that can help you beat WIFI dead spots in your workspace, allowing you to get the best signal coverage.
You don’t need to open up your case, learn about PCIe lanes or about PCIe slots with these. They are small and compact devices that do not occupy much space.
Since they are small you can literally carry them around with you.
Cons of Wi-Fi USB Adapter
One of the biggest advantage here is that they are weak. They have weaker reception. Their transfer rate is much slower as compared to a built in card and they are not as stable.
They are also suffer from lower latency or ping rates and their performance is generally based on which USB slot you use. We recommend you use the USB 3.0 for best performance.
Also, since they’re exposed, you could end up unseating the adapter in the USB slot by accident, therefore, interrupting your network connection.
Another common issue with USB WiFi adapters is that they are less durable. If you get a sub quality option, you may end up replacing it sooner than you think.
Recommended USB WiFi Adapter
What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a technology that is based on the IEEE 802.11 standard. It is the technology behind wireless internet that most people use today from their homes to their offices. It lets users with Wi-Fi-enabled devices connect to a wireless access point.
Wi-Fi itself does not connect devices to the internet, instead, it connects devices to each other, and somewhere in the network; an edge router exposes the interconnected devices to other networks and the internet.
Where is Wi-Fi Used?
Large institutions use Wi-Fi because cabling all network devices can result in cable clutter and high costs, not to mention cable installations and maintenance.
Imagine having a cable connected to your phone whenever you need to browse the internet. It’s not ideal, right? Wi-Fi is used with mobile devices to make it easier to connect to the internet.
When cabled connections aren’t possible, Wi-Fi becomes the next option. The radio waves can allow multiple devices over a certain area to be connected.
What is the Latest WiFi Protocol?
The latest WiFi iteration is the WiFi 6 or the 11AX. As is the case with each iteration, WiFi 6 improves on many aspects including the data transfer rate compared to the previous version.
The following is the primary difference in terms of specs:
|WiFi 6 |
|Frequency Range||2.4 and 5 GHz||5 GHz||2.4 and 5 GHz|
|20, 40||20, 40, 80,|
|20, 40, 80, |
|Highest Sub Carrier |
|Spatial Streams||4||4 to 8||8|
|MU-MIMO||No||Downlink||Uplink and Downlink|
|Access Scheme||OFDM||OFDM||OFDM and OFDMA|
Table extracted from the following video. Recommended watch.
Here we compared onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi card vs Wi-Fi USB. While the final say remains with you, each of these implementations has its own perfect applications.
An onboard adapter is great for those who want to save themselves from the hassle of procuring separate WiFi cards.
A PCIe Wi-Fi card is excellent for users who want very stable connection and future upgradability.
A USB dongle can be a great way to provide basic Wi-Fi to a motherboard that doesn’t have onboard Wi-Fi. It’s also ideal for moderate Wi-Fi users on a budget as well as for those who want the portable aspect of this method.