Plug and Play?
A wireless upgrade is therefore fairly obvious if you want to utilize modern routers optimally and if you want to make communication between your laptop and the outside world much faster. Luckily this is an easy task, thanks to separate USB adapters. Plug them in and you're set. We do recommend installing the driver provided by the manufacturer, instead of letting Windows Update do its thing. The manufacturer driver tends to be better in terms of performance and it also offers more configuration options.
Despite USB's simplicity, these adapters do know their limits. This is especially true for USB 2.0 models, which are limited to a theoretical speed of 480 Mbit/s, a ceiling that is usually even lower in practice. Remarkably enough USB 3.0 adapters are not necessarily any faster - the fastest models are capable of speed around 500 Mbit/s, even though the manufacturers mostly claim higher speeds. Plug-in cards for the desktop, that utilize the much faster PCI-Express bus, also clearly perform slower than advertised, even though the bus should not be a bottleneck at all.
Many of the adapters can directly be plugged into one of the many USB ports of your PC. Sometimes the manufacturer even includes a stand on which you can place the adapter. At first sight this might seem like a waste of space on your desk, however it does give you the option of aiming your receiver a bit better so that you can achieve the highest possible throughput speed. Especially for plug-in cards a separate module with antennas is everything but an unnecessary extra. Placing it directly behind your case usually results in a dramatically low speed. The case and wall basically form a Faraday cage which prevents wireless signals from reaching their target.
When looking at the USB adapters, the first thing that stands out is the huge difference in price. The Archer T1U from TP-Link can be yours for no more than 15 pounds. You will get one of the slower models we tested, however we can't call this adapter expensive by any means. Another advantage of this device are its very limited dimensions. It's so small that you can plug it and leave it in of the free USB ports on your laptop. Very useful indeed if your laptop features especially bad WiFi, however as we mentioned, this stick probably won't a huge upgrade. The most expensive USB adapter is the ASUS USB-AC68, which costs about 4 times as much as the aforementioned TP-Link model. The average performance is not four times as high, however it is more than twice as fast: this AC68 is the fastest adapter from this test.
This brings us to the testing procedure. We used a Mini ITX desktop, which we placed on a distance of 10 meters from the router. In order to get a good impression of compatibility we used two different routers, a Netgear R7000 with a Broadcom chipset and a R7800 from the same manufacturer based on Qualcomm technology. Using the professional analysis software Ixia Chariot we measured the bandwidth. The results can be found here in a table. We will discuss the adapter by manufacturer, in total we have 23 of them, including four PCI-Express x1 plug-in cards and three USB modules. The rest are USB sticks. We will first discuss the latter two categories.