First Look: Gigabit Wi-Fi adapters

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Low-cost 802.11ac USB adapters deliver an early taste of super-fast Wi-Fi

At some point, desktops and laptops will come with the new Gigabit Wi-Fi standard 802.11ac built in. But if you can't wait and want to speed up the wireless links on your existing devices, you can buy an 802.11ac adapter today.

We tested USB adapters from Netgear (two different models), Edimax, ZyXEL, and TRENDnet, plus a PCI Express card from ASUS. The USB adapters range in price from $40 to $70, while the ASUS card sells for $100 or more. (See a slideshow version of this story.)

In terms of performance, when tested at a distance of 25 feet from our access point, with one wall in between, our top performer was the ASUS card, with a maximum throughput of 280Mbps and an average of 169Mbps. That’s pretty fast, but not close to the Gigabit speeds promised by the 802.11ac standard. However, when we moved the laptop to within a foot of the access point, performance skyrocketed to 800Mbps. So, your mileage will vary, depending on several variables, distance being one. Also, the ASUS product is a three-stream card, while the USB adapters we tested supported only two streams (and in the case of the second Netgear adapter, only one stream.)

As for the USB adapters, in our 25-foot test, the two-stream Netgear averaged 147Mbps, followed by Zyxel at 118Mbps, Edimax at 114Mbps.  The single-stream Netgear adapter only averaged 68Mbps.

+ MORE ON NETWORK WORLD See previous tests of consumer-level 802.11ac routers and enterprise-level 802.11ac access points +

All the adapters provide dual-band connectivity, supporting 802.11b/g/n in the 2.4GHz frequency band and supporting 802.11a/n/ac in 5GHz BAND. 

The best wireless adapter for your situation depends upon many factors, including the type of computer or device you're trying to upgrade.

 If you're going to use a laptop or netbook and don't need the highest speeds, consider the mini Netgear A6100 adapter because of its compact form factor.

 If you want higher speeds, the Netgear A6200 performed the best in our tests of the USB adapters, but it could be bottlenecked in some environments since it only supports USB 2.0.

 If you want to use the adapter on a Mac computer, your options are Edimax or TRENDnet. And if you also want Linux support you'll have to go with Edimax.

 If you're using a desktop PC and want the higher speeds, consider the ASUS PCIe adapter if the $100+ price isn't an issue.

Here are the individual reviews:

Netgear A6100 Dual Band Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter

The Netgear A6100 Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter is available online with prices varying $50 to $60. It supports single-stream 802.11ac Draft 2.0, offering hypothetical data rates of 150Mbps via 2.4GHz and 433Mbps via 5GHz. It's supported for use with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

This is the smallest USB adapter we reviewed, measuring about 1 inch long, ¾ inch wide, and ½ inch high (excluding the USB connector); a great design for use with laptops and netbooks. Since the adapter only protrudes about an inch out from the side of the laptop you can likely keep it plugged in when storing in your laptop bag, unlike the other adapters that would protrude about 3 or 4 inches. Though it includes a Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button like all the other USB adapters, it's one of the two that doesn’t allow positioning of the antennas for better signal reception.

This adapter uses the Realtek RTL8811AU chipset. During the performance testing we used the driver from Realtek. Like the other Netgear adapter, this one supports 802.11ac beamforming along with Netgear's own implementation: Beamforming+.

Along with the adapter comes a printed installation guide and a resource CD containing a standalone driver, Netgear Genie software and driver combined, and a digital version of the installation guide.

The GUI program is called Netgear Genie (v1.0.0.26), which is also provided for the other Netgear adapter. It's the simplest of the GUI programs, which makes it user-friendly but lacks some advanced features. Signal levels are only shown in bars, whereas the others show percentage or even the negative dbm values. It displays details about available networks but some info like the channel, wireless mode, and MAC address are only shown when you click on a network's Details button.

With Netgear Genie you can't prioritize your wireless networks. Although it supports connecting to hidden SSIDs, there's no support for creating ad-hoc networks or for connecting to networks secured with 802.1X. However, it does offer one potentially convenient feature: the ability to compile and save diagnostic information for troubleshooting network issues.

Netgear A6200 Wi-Fi USB Adapter

The Netgear A6200 Wi-Fi USB Adapter is available online with prices ranging from $50 to $70. It provides two-stream 802.11ac and is the only adapter currently using the finalized standard and is Wi-Fi Certified. It offers hypothetical data rates of 300Mbps via 2.4GHz and 867Mbps via 5GHz. It's supported for use with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

netgear a6200

This is the largest of the five USB adapters we reviewed, measuring about 3 ½ inches long, 1 ¼ inches wide, and ½ inch high (excluding the USB connector and the included base). It's the only adapter that offers a hinged USB connector allowing you to position outright or up/down in a 45-degree angle. Plus you can swivel the top around to try and position the antenna for optimum signal reception. And on the side of the base you'll find the WPS button.

The adapter also comes with a three-foot USB 3.0 extension base. This is great when using with desktops so you can place the adapter in a more optimum location to help increase signal reception.

Unlike the other two-stream USB adapters we reviewed, this one only supports up to USB 2.0, which could potentially bottleneck your wireless speeds. USB 2.0 is rated at 480Mbps and with effective throughput up to somewhere around 350Mbps max, which is much less than the 867Mbps 802.11ac supports.

This adapter uses the Broadcom BCM43526 chipset. During the performance testing we used the Netgear driver. Like the other Netgear adapter, this one supports 802.11ac beamforming along with Netgear's own implementation: Beamforming+. But unlike the other Netgear adapter, you may have to update your driver to get the beamforming functionality.

Like the other Netgear adapter, this one comes with printed installation guide and a resource CD containing: a standalone driver, Netgear Genie software and driver combined, and a digital version of the installation guide.

Edimax AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter

The Edimax AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter can be purchased online from $40 to $50. It supports two-stream 802.11ac Draft, offering hypothetical data rates of 300Mbps via 2.4GHz and 867Mbps via 5GHz. It's supported for use with Mac OS X and Linux in addition to Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

edimax

This adapter has the same exact physical form as the ZyXEL adapter. Both are mid-sized compared to the others we reviewed: measuring about 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and ¾ inch high (excluding the USB connector). The antenna can be pulled out, swiveled upright and extended outwards, which can potentially offer better signal reception. And on the side of the adapter is the WPS button.

This adapter uses the Realtek RTL8812AU wireless chipset. During the performance testing we used the Realtek driver. This adapter is one of the two we reviewed that don't include a GUI program to configure and connect the Wi-Fi. However, it will certainly work fine with the OS GUI.

Along with the adapter comes a printed Quick Installation Guide and a mini CD loaded with the driver setup and a digital form of the guide.

ZyXEL AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter

The ZyXEL AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter is available online with prices varying from $40 to $50. It supports two-stream 802.11ac Draft, offering hypothetical data rates of 300Mbps via 2.4GHz and 867Mbps via 5GHz. It's supported for use with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

zyxel

Being manufactured by Edimax, this adapter has the same exact physical form as Edimax adapter. It measures about 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, and ¾ inch high (excluding the USB connector). Like the Edimax adapter, the antenna can be pulled out, swiveled upright and extended outwards. This can potentially offer better signal reception. Plus on the side of the adapter is the WPS button.

Unlike with the Edimax adapter, ZyXEL includes an extender USB cable. However, it's a simple extension cable (not a base) and is only about 1-foot long. Nevertheless, when using with desktop PCs it could possiby help you place the adapter in more optimum locations to help increase signal reception.

This adapter also uses the Realtek RTL8812AU wireless chipset. During the performance testing we used the Realtek driver. This adapter is one of the two we reviewed that doesn’t include a GUI program to configure and connect the Wi-Fi.

Also included with the adapter and extension cable is a printed Quick Start Guide. Plus a CD is provided that offers the driver setup and a digital form of the guide and full manual.

TRENDnet AC1200 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter

The TRENDnet AC1200 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter can be purchased online from $40 to $50. It’s a two-stream 802.11ac Draft, offering hypothetical data rates of 300Mbps via 2.4GHz and 867Mbps via 5GHz. It's supported for use with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8 and Mac OX 10.4 through 10.8.

Trendnet

This adapter is slightly smaller than the Edimax and ZyXEL adapters: measures about 2 ¾ inches long, 1 inch wide, and ½ inch high (excluding the USB connector). It doesn't provide a pull out antenna, but it still offers a WPS button, though not labeled or marked on the adapter.

Like the Edimax and Zyxel adapters, this one uses the Realtek RTL8812AU wireless chipset. Additionally, the same driver was used during our testing, from Realtek.

The TRENDnet GUI program is named Wireless Configuration Utility. It provides a bit more advanced functionality than the Netgear GUI: supports creating ad-hoc networks and connecting to hidden SSIDs. It can connect to 802.1X networks, but only supports the EAP-TLS option; PEAP isn't supported. Unlike the ASUS GUI, it doesn't allow you to prioritize networks. However, it does provide some great status details like the driver version and detailed connection statistics.

Along with the adapter comes a printed Quick Installation Guide and a CD with the GUI and driver combined installation setup and a digital form of the guide and full manual.

ASUS AC1750 Wireless Dual-band PCI-e Adapter

The ASUS AC1750 Wireless dual-band PCI-e Adapter provides three-stream 802.11ac Draft, offering hypothetical data rates of 450Mbps via 2.4GHz and 1.30Gbps via 5GHz. It's pricier than the others; available online from $100 to $125. It's supported for use with Windows 2000, XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

Asus

This is the only non-USB adapter we reviewed. It's a standard PCIe card that fits into a x1 slot on your motherboard, and can even fit into a slim tower when using the included low-profile bracket. It has an integrated heat sink to dissipate heat from the Broadcom BCM4360 wireless chipset, potentially offering a more stable and reliable non-stop operation. During the testing we used the ASUS driver.

Along with the adapter comes a solid external magnetic antenna base giving you about a three-foot extension to place the antennas in a better spot for optimum signal reception. Additionally, in the box is a printed Quick Start Guide. Plus a CD is provided containing the GUI program and driver combined and a digital version of the Quick Start Guide.

This adapter's GUI program, titled ASUS PCE-AC66 WLAN Control Center , is the slickest looking and advanced GUI of those we reviewed.

It provides great network details with signal levels via bars, negative dbm values and band and channel width info. It supports creating ad-hoc networks and connecting to hidden SSIDs, and lets you prioritize the wireless networks. Both the PEAP and EAP-TLS options of 802.1X look like they're supported, but I couldn't get the adapter to connect to our 802.1X SSID.  In the IP portion you can release, refresh, and ping inside the GUI.

Performance Testing

For the performance part of the testing, we used IxChariot to run throughput tests on each wireless adapter with a Ubiquiti UniFi AP AC. The access point has a 2.4GHz radio and 5GHz radio, supporting three spatial streams. We enabled WPA2/AES security and 80 MHz channel-width support, and set the 5Ghz channel to 153.

All wired connections between the access point, Windows-based wireless controller, and Windows-based testing end-point were made via Gigabit Ethernet ports with newer CAT-6 cables. And these connections were tested as well and confirmed to running near Gigabit speeds. During the testing, the distance between the adapters and access point was about 25 feet with one wall and a closet partially blocking the line of sight (both made of drywall material). The USB adapters were plugged into a USB 3.0 port on the back of a Windows 7 PC and the PCIe adapter was plugged into a PCIe x1 slot of the same PC.

We ran the tests with the IxChariot High_Performance_Throughput.scr script for one minute with each adapter individually in the 5GHz band. It simultaneously tested both the TCP uplink (client to access point) and downlink (access point to client), which we add to show the total simultaneous throughput. I ran each adapter test three times and recorded the average and maximum throughput seen for each and then reported the average of those results.

gigabit wifi adapters

It's not surprising to see that the ASUS adapter came out on top since it's the only three-stream adapter and that the Netgear A6100 is on the bottom since it's the only single-stream adapter.

Of the four two-stream adapters, the Netgear A6200 performed the best — possibility due to the larger, movable antenna or Netgear's Beamforming+ feature. This is a little surprising as it only supports USB 2.0 and it beat the other two stream adapters that support USB 3.0.

You might be wondering why we didn't see near Gigabit speeds in our results since those speeds are touted with 802.11ac. First remember that the speeds, among other aspects, depend upon the number of spatial streams supported. Three streams is the maximum amount supported by routers, Access points and clients in the market today with hypothetical data rates of 1.30Gbps via 5GHz. Though the three-stream adapter from ASUS shows only about 280Mbps max in our results, we saw rates near 800Mbps when running the upstream and downstream tests separately and adding them to get a total throughput, all while the access point and adapter were a foot away.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer — keep up with his writings on Facebook or Twitter. He’s also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and On Spot Techs, a tech support company.

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