Best wireless adaptors in 2023: PCIe and USB dongles for boosting Wi-Fi

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The best wireless adaptors remain incredibly useful even in 2023, as they can allow pretty much any device to connect to a Wi-Fi network.

While most modern devices have Wi-Fi built in, there are many that don't such as PCs and set-top boxes. Even though an increasing number of PCs now have Wi-Fi connectivity built into their motherboards, you may find that the connection isn't great, and an external USB wireless adaptor can help improve your wireless connection.

The best wireless adaptors make it easy to add Wi-Fi functionality, either via a USB dongle, or by slotting into the PCI slot of a PC's motherboard.

As for the best laptops, while they will have Wi-Fi connectivity, you may still want to invest in a wireless adaptor. For example, it's an affordable way to add newer Wi-Fi technology, such as Wi-Fi 6, without any costly upgrades - all you need to do is plug in an adapter. Using a USB extension cable can also help you fine-tune the wireless reception for even better performance.

So, read on for our pick of the best USB and PCI wireless adaptors. We’ve compared their features, including key specs like frequencies, weight, and dimensions, design and aesthetics, while also considering the performance on Wi-Fi speed, plus additional touches such as magnetic desktop cradles, remote antennae, extension cables, and ease of installation.

You should also consider one of the best USB-C docks if you have multiple devices.

The best wireless adaptors of 2023 in full

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Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Wi-Fi USB Adapter

(Image credit: Netgear)

1. Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Wi-Fi USB Adapter

The best wireless adaptor money can buy

Specifications

Standard: AC1900 IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Frequencies: 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Dimensions: 4.7 x 1.8 x 0.9 in (120 x 45 x 22 mm)
Weight: 2.3oz (66.5g)

Reasons to buy

+
Fantastic connectivity
+
Includes a desktop cradle

Reasons to avoid

-
Rather large
-
Pricey

Netgear is a trusted brand when it comes to networking kit, and its Nighthawk range has an enviable reputation for offering brilliant performance, so it's little surprise to find the AC1900 Wi-Fi sitting at the top of our best wireless adaptors list.

It adds blazing-fast WI-Fi to any device you plug it into, and the magnetic desktop cradle means it's an ideal adaptor for desktop PCs as well. It plugs into a free USB port, so it's easy to install, though its large size means you may worry about it sticking out of your laptop and accidentally getting snapped off.  

You'll get dual-band Wi-Fi speed of up to 1900Mbps, and it's compatible with Apple MacOS X 10.8.3 or later, and Microsoft Windows 7, 8 and 10. Netgear also offers 24/7 technical support for 90 days after purchase, and the product is under a one-year hardware warranty.

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ASUS PCE-AC88 Wireless PCI-E Network Interface Card

(Image credit: Asus)

2. Asus PCE-AC88

The best PCI wireless network adaptor

Specifications

Standard: AC3100 IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Frequencies: 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Dimensions: 103.3 x 68.9 x 21mm
Weight: 125g

Reasons to buy

+
Brilliant performance
+
Remote antenna

Reasons to avoid

-
Can be tricky to install
-
Extension cable is a bit short

If you've got a PC and want to add a Wi-Fi adaptor to your motherboard, then the Asus PCE-AC88 is the best PCI wireless adaptor money can buy right now. Its powerful antennae can pick up wireless signals with ease, and you can use the included extension cable to better position the antennae for even better reception.

Designed with smooth streaming and low-latency online gaming in mind, Asus confidently claims that its PCE-AC88 provides 60% faster Wi-Fi speeds and a wider Wi-Fi range than 3x3 AC adapters.

The attractive design of this PCI card includes a custom heatsink to keep it running cool when in use, as well. This does make it a little bit more tricky to install than other adaptors, and the extension cable could do with being a bit longer, but overall this is a fantastic PCI wireless adaptor.

Trendnet TEW-809UB

(Image credit: Trendnet)

3. Trendnet TEW-809UB

Ideal for accessing previously unreachable locations

Specifications

Standard: AC1900 IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Frequencies: 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Dimensions: 85 x 75 x 20mm
Weight: 48g

Reasons to buy

+
Fast speeds
+
Great range

Reasons to avoid

-
Design won't be for everyone
-
Bulky

Don't be put off by the spider-like design of the Trendnet TEW-809UB that makes it look like something from HG Wells' War of the Worlds. For this is one of the most powerful and best wireless adaptors money can buy right now. Sure, it's big and bulky, but it comes with four large antennae that can be positioned to maximise the range this adaptor can achieve.

Add support for Beamforming - which increases real-time performance by directing stronger wireless signals to each device's specific location - and you've got a formidable USB wireless adaptor that can allow your device to access your Wi-FI network from previously unreachable locations.

The guided setup is intuitive and should have even inexperienced users set up in just minutes, while the latest drivers can - along with the installation guides and data sheets - be downloaded from the Trendnet site.

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(Image credit: TP-Link)
The best Wi-Fi 6 wireless adaptor

Specifications

Standard: Wi-Fi 6 IEEE 802.11ax/ac/n/a
Frequencies: 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Dimensions: 95.2 x 120.8 x 21.5 mm
Weight: 481g

Reasons to buy

+
Supports Wi-Fi 6
+
Includes mount

Reasons to avoid

-
No macOS driver

If you have a new Wi-Fi 6 router, then you'll want to make sure your device is able to make use of the improved speeds and coverage the new technology offers, which is why the TP-Link Archer TX3000E is on this page. 

This is one of the few wireless routers that offers Wi-Fi 6 support, and plugging it into your PC's PCI slot will allow it to benefit from next-generation wireless speeds. TP-link promise 75% lower latency, geared toward ultra-responsive real-time gaming

Again, it comes with external antennae for improving reception, and it's small enough to be easily installed in desktop PCs - even ones with very compact cases. 

Like the Asus it can keep cool using heatsink and gold plating, while it also features WPA3 security, allowing you to implement personal passwords for additional security.

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(Image credit: Asus)

5. Asus USB-AC68

Perfect choice for frequent travellers

Specifications

Standard: AC1900 IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Frequencies: 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Dimensions: 115 x 30 x 17 mm
Weight: 44g

Reasons to buy

+
Easy install
+
Positionable antennae

Reasons to avoid

-
Not the best 2.4GHz performance

This handy USB wireless adaptor supports USB 3.0, and features Asus AiRadar Beamforming, and MU-MIMO via its easily-positioned antennae. While it's not the fastest wireless adaptor on this list, it is affordable and easily portable, meaning that it's a great choice for someone who does a lot of travelling. At just 44 grams, it's the second lightest adapter on this list.

What's more, it does still come with a promise to deliver up to ten times faster data-transfer speeds, with Wi-Fi speeds up to 1300 Mbps (5GHz) and 600 Mbps (2.4GHz).

For added value, the Asus USB-AC68 also includes a desktop cradle for use in the home or office, which not only means you can maximise the location of its dual 3-position external antennas, but it also makes it a good choice for a desktop PC as well.

Linksys WUSB6300

(Image credit: Linksys)

6. Linksys WUSB6300

Best for those requiring a compact adapter

Specifications

Standard: AC1200 802.11ac
Frequencies: 2.4GHz + 5GHz
Dimensions: 41 x 18 x 12 mm
Weight: 5.9g

Reasons to buy

+
Very small
+
Decent features

Reasons to avoid

-
Not the best 2.4GHz performance

The Linksys WUSB6300 is a micro wireless adaptor, and it's - by some considerable distance - the smallest one on this list of best wireless adaptors. This pocket rocket weighs under six grams, making it lighter than a pencil.

That makes it brilliantly portable, and ideal for people who like to travel. However, just because it's small, it doesn't mean it lacks features.

It still delivers data transfer speeds of up to 876 Mbps, supports AC1200 speeds, and is dual-band. There's also MU-MIMO and Beamforming tech packed into its small body. Best of all, the asking price is almost as small as the device itself, making this a great budget choice that doesn't compromise on performance.

The WUSB6300 supports Microsoft Windows 10, 7, 8, XP, and Vista, and its Wi-Fi Protected Setup features an easy setup wizard and wireless WPA/WPA2 encryption.

What is a wireless adapter?

Quite simply, the best wireless adapters bring Wi-Fi to hardware that didn't previously have an in-built way to connect to it. This can come in the form of a USB device that plugs into the USB port, or alternatively it can take the shape of PCIe - a Peripheral Component Interconnect Express - which typically slots directly into a computer's motherboard.

Of course, in an era where even your fridge or car can boast Wi-Fi, its increasingly rare that a device doesn't include built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. That doesn't render the wireless adapter obsolete. Far from it, in fact. Instead, with Wi-Fi tech constantly improving, the latest adapters can be used to upgrade your device's existing Wi-Fi speed, or improve poor connectivity.

How to choose the best wireless adapter for you

The first thing to consider is whether you'll be opting for a USB device, or a PCI adapter. The latter tends to offer more consistent performance, but unless you have some expertise, it is likely to bring with it additional hassle at the installation stage. By contrast, USB wireless adapters take the term plug and play to a new level of ease.

You'll then want to consider what frequency you'll require for your wireless connection, 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz. Note the latter tends to be a better choice if you have a number of wireless devices on the same network. Many of the latest adapters, including some featured in this list, feature dual band options.

If cost is a concern, you'll need to consider what you can afford to spend on upgrading your wireless, while size and portability is another consideration. If it's for your desktop home PC, you're unlikely to be too fussed about your adapter being compact and portable. But if you're regularly travelling for work and need your adapter to hand everywhere you go, then some of the smaller and lighter models in this list should be your first port of call.

The best wireless adapter: How we test

We've narrowed down the vast choice of wireless adapters to a pick of six, and we've done so by roadtesting each adapter's leading features, outlining how each compares with the other in terms of performance, design, reliability, and usability. 

As mentioned above, frequency is an important consideration, and so we've noted where adapters offer the versatility of dual band. We've also described where adapters are light and portable, or better off staying put once installed. Ease of installation has also been tested, and we've warned where some level of expertise may be required.

Useful additional touches have also been looked at, including desktop cradles and flexible antennae, but there is of course one main reason why people look to buy wireless adapters, and that's to improve their Wi-Fi performance. With that in mind, we've tested the promised Wi-Fi speeds and signal connectivity of each product.

Matt Hanson
Managing Editor, Core Tech

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. Ever since he got an Amiga A500+ for Christmas in 1991, he's loved using (and playing on) computers, and will talk endlessly about how The Secret of Monkey Island is the best game ever made.