Wireless internet is something practically everyone uses on a regular basis, but most people probably only pay attention to it when it's not working as well as they'd like. The Tech Buyer's Guru receives questions all the time about how to fix balky home networks, and the truth is that there are many factors that can slow things down, including the Internet service, the router, particular web pages or web apps, and limitations in processing power of the PC or other connected device being used. It's very likely that these factors will be blamed, in that order, by just about anyone who has Internet troubles.
But there's another component that some people may forget about, and that's the wireless adapter. Many devices have this built in, the most obvious being smartphones and tablets, which of course can't use add-on adapters. All modern laptops also have had built-in wireless, although models more than a few years old likely use an outdated wireless standard. We continue to be surprised, however, when readers of our guides assume that desktop PCs also have built-in wireless. Perhaps they should, and indeed many higher-end offerings include it, but for the most part, pre-built OEM PCs, as well as component motherboards, do not include built-in wireless capabilities. Therefore, desktop users looking for wireless ethernet are going to need an adapter.
There are two current form factors for such adapters: PCIe-based add-in cards, and USB-based plug-in adapters. Add-in cards are obviously a bit more complicated to install, so for the average user, USB models will be a lot more appealing, and have the added advantage of compatibility with laptops as well. But the big question we've long wanted to answer is whether USB models are in fact as good as add-in cards, or at least good enough to avoid having to dive inside a PC casde for an upgrade.
Well, we've finally gotten around to it; this is the review we've been wanting to do for a long time, and hopefully, it's the review you've been looking for too!
Description and Features
We tested a total of four wireless adapters, all supporting the 802.11ac standard in either its dual-stream (867Mbps) or triple-stream (1333Mbps) iterations. We selected two models each from Netgear and TP-Link, from left to right in the photo below:
- Netgear A6200 AC1200 USB 2.0 Adapter
- Netgear A6210 AC1200 USB 3.0 Adapter
- TP-Link Archer T8E AC1750 PCI Express Adapter
- TP-Link Archer T9E AC1900 PCI Express Adapter
Based on their names, the two Netgear adapters seem like they could practically be identical, while from their outward appearances, the TP-Link adapters look like they might be carbon copies as well. Indeed, one of these sets of twins might as well be identical, while the other is fraternal. But which is which?
Well, while both Netgear adapters are rated at 300 Mbps on the 802.11n 2.4GHz band and 867 Mbps on the 802.11ac 5GHz band, the fact that the A6200 is uses the USB 2.0 standard speaks volumes. USB 2.0 can support a maximum real-world throughput of about 30MB/s. Not to spoil the suprise or anything, but several of our benchmarks on the following page can exceed that throughput by a signficant margin. Thus, the Netgear A6200 has a technical cap on performance that you can't really see in the specs.
We really have to hand it to Netgear for creating two very distinct industrial designs for its two like-named adapters, which helps distinguish between them visually. In addition to the obvious difference in the USB plug being used (the A6210 has a tell-tale blue connector), the operation of the swing-out antennas is completely different. The A6200 has a rotating antenna plus a flip-out USB connector, allowing it to be used relatively easily with a laptop. The A6210 has a flip-out antenna, but no flip-out plug, meaning that it sticks way, way out of any device you plug it into. Frankly, it's clear that the A6210 is meant to be used with its base accessory. And speaking of the bases, they are also quite different, with the A6210 getting a bigger, heavier base, along with a very thick, somewhat stiff cable, likely required to meet USB 3.0 signaling standards.
As for the TP-Link twins, the specs that matter are very similar. The T8E offers 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band and 450Mbps on the 2.4GHz band, while the T9E offers 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band and 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band. That's how TP-Link arrives at their different speed ratings (AC1750 versus AC1900). Yes, these are real specifications, but no, they are not in the least bit relevant, as we'll soon prove.
Netgear and TP-Link have obviously taken different approaches with the designs of their products, with Netgear's being external and TP-Link's being internal. Interestingly, while Netgear does not market PCIe-based adapters, TP-Link does in fact have its own line of USB-based adapters, most notably the Archer T4U AC1200. We wanted to focus on the best of the best, however, and TP-Link's highest-end offerings are definitely its PCIe-based ones. Note that both come with a full-height PCI bracket pre-installed, but each also comes with a half-height bracket that can be attached easily for use in low-profile PCs.
We actually tested the Netgear A6210 way back in 2014, and found it to be excellent, but always wanted to conduct a shootout to really see if it was the best of the best. And to do so, we needed two significant upgrades to our test setup.
The first thing we needed was a router that could not possibly hold back any wireless ethernet adapter. Luckily, the Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400, shown below, is, in a word, mind-blowing. OK, so that's two words, but honestly, it's so much faster and has so much more range than any router we've tested before that it deserves at least two words to describe it! It features a single 802.11n 2.4GHz radio rated at 1000Mbps, along with two radios on the 5GHz band, both rated at a staggering 2166Mbps. This article will serve as an unofficial review of the EA9500 router, as you'll soon see the throughput it's capable of with some of the fastest adapters on the market. That being said, we're considering publishing a stand-alone review of the router in the future, as it really is an exceptional product.
The second upgrade we needed was a faster Internet connection. Sure, the 120Mbps/12Mbps asynchronous cable connection we previously tested with was fine for everyday use, but it offered well below the throughput that any of these adapters is capable of handling. We recently upgraded to a 1Gbps synchronous fiber connection (thank you CenturyLink for doing what Google Fiber promised but failed to deliver!), so now our four contenders will have no excuses: our Internet service is way faster than any current wireless standard. In fact, we are able to achieve over 900Mbps on our hard-wired test system, so we are indeed feeding plenty of data into our router! Of course, we also conducted a few file transfer tests using PCs on our intranet, each equipped with SSDs capable of 400MB/s or higher sustained throughput. Again, there's nothing holding our adapters back but the airwaves!
Here are the full specs on the high-end benchmarking rig we used to test our contenders:
- CPU: Intel Core i7-6700K
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 6
- Memory: Corsair 2x8GB Vengeance LPX DDR4-3000
- Solid-State Drive: Samsung 850 Evo M.2 500GB
- Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 SC 8GB
- Power Supply: EVGA Supernova 850 GS
- CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U14S
- Operating System: Windows 10 Home Download
- Solid-State Drive in second system used for intranet throughput tests: Crucial MX200 1TB
- Router: Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400
So, let's jump into our tests to see how our four adapters compare!