Why Do I Want a Wireless Adapter?
Wireless networking has added a degree of flexibility and connectivity for both business and personal use that was, until recently, unthinkable. The technology allows for fast and easy setup of a relatively simple network in the home or one that is widespread throughout a business. Further, it does it all without the expensive and inconvenient infrastructure associated with a wired network. Use of USB wireless adapters also allows for making internet connections at an ever-growing number of public locations like cafés and hotels. They also allow for direct ad hoc connections between Wi-Fi enabled devices without the inclusion of infrastructure devices like a router.
There are a number of prevalent wireless technologies that affect just about all of our daily lives. Most ubiquitous are the cell phone networks. Bluetooth, a short-range technology that pairs wireless devices to one another, is also common. But when it comes to wireless networking, the specific technology involved is Wi-Fi. The wireless adapters featured in this review site are vital components of Wi-Fi connectivity.
It’s true that most newer laptop computers generally come with Wi-Fi built in. Even with such computers, the role for wireless adapters is widespread. Many laptops have older versions of Wi-Fi and therefore can’t take advantage of the tremendous improvements that are contained in the current standard. Additionally, the integrated Wi-Fi is typically single band which limits its ability to stream high definition, bandwidth-intensive content. The older standards are also much more susceptible to interference from other electronic devices.
Wireless adapters can be ideal for desktop computers which rarely have Wi-Fi built in. It’s a far simpler matter to plug in a USB Wi-Fi adapter than it is to run an Ethernet cable to a computer, especially when multiple machines are involved.
Though they’re rather simple devices, there are distinct differences and advantages between wireless adapters. Our reviews will help you choose the best one for your particular needs.
What to Look for In a Wireless Adapter
The differences between wireless routers are relatively few but they’re significant. These are the points that should be considered when making your choice:
Data Transfer Performance
All the devices covered in this review site comply with the current Wi-Fi performance standard known as Wi-Fi n. Wi-Fi n devices are backwards compatible with prior Wi-Fi standards but add important new capabilities. For more information on Wi-Fi specifications generally, take a look at our article, ”The Evolution of Wi-Fi.”
The technology that separates Wi-Fi n from legacy standards is called MIMO, Multiple-input/Multiple-output, and there are two important advantages that stem from it. First is increased range. Wireless adapter manufactures are prone to quote some pretty amazing figures with regard to a device’s range, often stating that it is four to twelve times greater than that of older products. The reality is that wireless range is greatly affected by factors such as walls, furniture, building materials and the amount of network traffic. It is nonetheless true that Wi-Fi n products will cover far more area than their predecessors do. With these products, anywhere within a typical house is likely to be adequately covered.
MIMO also nearly eliminates dead spots that were common with legacy devices. This advantage, as well as the increased range, is a result of MIMO technology being able to reuse and intelligently reroute radio signals that confused older products.
Wi-Fi products can operate in two different frequency ranges, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. All n standard adapters operate in the 2.4GHz range but there is some possibility for interference because so many other devices also utilize the frequencies. The top rated products can also operate in the 5GHz band which is nearly immune to interference and also has the notable advantage of being better able to carry network traffic that requires extensive bandwidth. Examples of such traffic include high definition video streaming, voice applications like VoIP telephony and graphics-intensive games.
All networks, including wired ones, have security vulnerabilities. Wireless ones pose an additional risk because would-be hackers don’t have to gain physical access to the network to compromise it. All wireless n devices have multiple layers of protection which make them very reliable for transmitting even the most sensitive information.
Both 64- and 128-bit WEP, Wired Equivalent Privacy, are employed by Wi-Fi n devices. This protocol comes from Wi-Fi’s first generation and is known to be easily breakable. We mention it primarily because if a network includes any legacy device which has only WEP protection, it renders the entire network equally vulnerable.
New Wi-Fi devices employ two levels of Wi-Fi Protected Access, WPA and WPA2. WPA is a second generation security protocol that greatly improves data protection and access control to the network. Most importantly, WPA2 uses the Advanced Encryption Standard, AES, which major enterprises and governmental entities use to protect their critical data. We won’t claim that any system is fool-proof, but to date, there is no recorded incident of AES encryption having been compromised.
Ease of Use
Using a wireless adapter is a simple proposition. Most come with a setup CD that installs the required drivers and walks the user through installation using a setup wizard. The easiest-to-use devices have all of the required software embedded right on the adapter. It’s automatically installed and setup when plugged into a USB port.
Help & Support
For the most part, the use of a wireless adapter is intuitive and the need for outside assistance is pretty rare. Still, when help is needed, it’s good to have it easily accessible. The top rated adapters offer numerous means for contacting customer support and very helpful websites.
Wireless adapters all require driver software to make them interact properly with a computer. Each operating system needs a driver that is specifically made for it. The critical issue here is that the adapter you choose must be supported by the operating system that’s installed on your computer.
Wireless adapters can bring an added dimension and great utility to just about any computer. Our objective reviews will help in deciding which adapter best suits your needs. We’ve rated the Cisco Linksys AE1000 as the best option overall but invite you to read our reviews of the D-Link DWA-160 Xtreme N and Netgear RangeMax WNDA 3100 as top alternatives. Also, check out our learning center articles.