The Complete Guide to Buying USB Wi-Fi Adapters/Dongles

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The Complete Guide to Buying USB Wi-Fi Adapters/Dongles

The expectation of constant Internet access in one form or another has become a modern axiom amongst the computer using public. The USB Wi-Fi adapter is a radio that operates on the 2.4 GHz frequency. It ensures reliable Internet connection in nearly all circumstances, whether for home or mobile Internet use. USB Wi-Fi adapters connect people to the web wherever Wi-Fi is offered via a wireless router, in universities and schools, libraries, airports, or public transport.

The majority of newer laptop computers are built Wi-Fi ready, with internal adapter cards making any external accessory unnecessary. Desktop computers, however, are a different story, with inbuilt wireless facilities still not standard. For those without the would-be-necessary inbuilt hardware, USB Wi-Fi adapters solve this problem and throw open the doors to Internet access. Although USB Wi-Fi adapters address the problem of computers without an internal adapter card, the customer still needs to choose between purchasing a Wi-Fi adapter and installing an internal adapter card.

When USB Wi-Fi Adapters Are Necessary

It is necessary to use an external adapter to connect to the Internet whenever an internal network LAN card adapter is not installed on the motherboard. A USB Wi-Fi adapter is plugged into an available USB port on a desktop or laptop computer to access the Internet through a wireless modem router or other equivalent device. USB Wi-Fi adapters are also used to access the Internet away from home in any place that offers public wireless Internet. Computer users can now access the Internet virtually anywhere they go.

As an alternative to USB, there are Ethernet Wi-Fi adapters that have the same functionality as a USB adapter. These adapters connect to the LAN port of the computer and the user conducts the on-screen set-up via a web browser. The computer then reads the connection as a LAN configuration.

Adapter Speeds

As mentioned at the beginning, most new laptops come with built-in adapters attached to the motherboard, making USB adapters unnecessary. However, laptops started including built-in wireless adaptors quite some time ago, which means the first models are quite slow compared to newer ones. The 802.11b and 802.11a USB adapters represent the first generation of wireless connection. The theoretical download speeds of these adapters are limited to 11 Mbps. In applied use, however, speeds are normally closer to 4 or 5 Mbps.

The following generation of network adapters are 802.11g. These adapters have a theoretical speed of 54 Mbps, with actual speeds again much slower. New generation adapters are 802.11n and capable of theoretical speeds of 300 Mbps, although naturally, it is rarely this fast in real life application.

Those with an outdated network adapter who have high speed Internet should consider upgrading their adapter in order to take full advantage of their high speed Internet connection. This is because an old USB adapter or network card, such as an 802.11.b, holds back speed potential. However, upgrading an internal Wi-Fi card in a laptop is a specialist job, and only a qualified technician should be employed for this task.

Internal Cards or External USB Adapters

A customer has two choices for connecting their desktop or laptop computer to a wireless network: an internal wireless adapter attached to the motherboard or an external USB wireless adapter attached to a USB port. Both of these methods of connecting to a wireless network are effective, but there are minor advantages and disadvantages to both.


The main advantage of internal wireless adapters is that they generally display more consistent signal strength, sometimes accompanied by faster download speeds. Another benefit is that being internal, there is nothing to accidently knock, which can be an issue for external devices. On a PCI or PCIe internal network card, there are two antennas protruding from the rear; thus, it is unlikely to be knocked. On a laptop, internal wireless cards are of the miniature variety in the form of an integrated circuit chip and do not have an antenna.


Modern external USB wireless adapters are generally Wi-Fi compatible and have an advantage over the internal variety for their portability. This makes the external type highly versatile and convenient when a user needs to swap their wireless network to another computer. In terms of installation, external adapters are much simpler to set up, taking only a few minutes as compared with an internal adapter, which often needs to be installed by a technician.

The signal strength in a USB adapter is generally good, and the antenna is often a cable attachment that can be positioned for optimal signal. The exact design of external USB adapters depend on age and model. USB Wi-Fi adapters are equally suitable for either desktop or laptop computer, so the same adapter can be used between the two computers with no more trouble than logging into the network with a password each time the adapter is swapped over.

The following chart summarises some of the advantages and disadvantages of internal and external Wi-Fi network devices. Personal experience, however, may testify to additional benefits or problems associated with each.

Connection Type




Unlimited portability; adaptability; less expensive


A less consistent signal strength


Does not take up a USB port; not prone to knocks; has a more consistent signal

Limited to a single computer; has a more complex installation; more expensive

Making the choice between these two types of wireless connections may be dependent on personal preferences, home set-up, or professional demands that potentially require mobility. Only an individual user can ultimately decide which is most appropriate for them.

Choosing the Right USB Wi-Fi Adapter

Some important points to consider in choosing a USB Wi-Fi adapter include signal strength and purported download capabilities, power consumption, and antenna design. Depending on the type of work or recreational Internet use a customer wants a Wi-Fi connection for, not all of these points may be significant to everyone.

Speed and Signal Strength

For obvious reasons, speed is a priority for most people. The quality of the chip set does vary between some adapter manufacturers. One way to ensure a high quality adapter is to choose one that supports the RTL8192cu chip set. A great example of such an adapter is the Raspian USB Wi-Fi adapter that offers high speed and strong signal performance.

The strength of a wireless signal does not usually have a significant bearing on download speeds, but it depends on how strong and weak it is. Although download speed is much the same with either four or five bars showing in the taskbar, a signal with only one or two bars showing does substantially reduce download speed.

Power Usage

USB Wi-Fi adapters vary in their power consumption but are especially power intensive during data transfer. Some adapters even require a separate power supply, so it is a good idea to choose one that is powered by the computer as this indicates that less voltage is needed.

Antenna Design

Antenna design on USB Wi-Fi adapters vary according to manufacturer and model. The best choice in adapters is those with an antenna, which allows for maximum manoeuvrability as it facilitates greater tweaking for optimal signal strength.

How to Buy USB Wi-Fi Adapters on eBay

As USB Wi-Fi adapters all have the same functionality, you need only choose between preferred brands or types with specific characteristics that especially appeal to you. When shopping for this item on eBay, you can enter a simple search criteria such as USB Wi-Fi adapters and look through the relevant listings. Alternatively, you could refine your search according to your preferred manufacturer, such as Netgear USB Wi-Fi adapters.

When selecting between a few different items, be very careful to read and understand all the provided information. This especially pertains to any supplied photographs, illustrations, and technical specifications of the item. Do likewise for details on terms of sale and returns policies as these can vary between sellers. If you are unsure of anything, contact the seller in question and ask for clarification. Showing this initiative indicates to the seller that you are serious about their product, and generally solicits a favourable response from them.


Determining the best way to wirelessly connect to the Internet is a matter of personal choice, according to a whole host of both recreational and professional demands. USB Wi-Fi adapters are without doubt, however, the most cost effective, convenient, and flexible method. Upgrading to a new computer is then simply a case of swapping over the USB Wi-Fi adapter to the new system and reinstalling the software, rather than having to mess about with an internal card.

eBay is the ideal place to begin a search for USB Wi-Fi adapters, along with a host of other computer and Internet accessories. USB Wi-Fi adapters have halved in price over the last few years, but prices are even further reduced when sourced from eBay. Although for some items more than others, prices here hardly compare to those at retail stores, either online or brick and mortar. No wonder the eBay listings for USB Wi-Fi adapters continue to grow.

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