FIRST LOOK: Gigabit Wi-Fi adapters

New 802.11ac USB-based adapters allow users to speed up Wi-Fi links on existing devices

gigabit wifi adapters

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 around $100. 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 Netgear A6200 uses the finalized 802.11ac standard and is Wi-Fi Certified. The others are all using draft versions. (Read the story version.)

Netgear A6100 Dual Band Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter
Netgear A6100 Dual Band Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter

The Netgear A6100 Wi-Fi USB Mini Adapter cost around $50. It only supports single-stream 802.11ac Draft 2.0, offering hypothetical data rates of 150Mbps via 2.4GHz and 433Mbps via 5GHz. Consequently it was the slowest device in our tests, delivering average throughput of 68Mbps. And it only runs on Windows. 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.

Netgear A6200 Wi-Fi USB Adapter
Netgear A6200 Wi-Fi USB Adapter

The Netgear A6200 Wi-Fi USB Adapter provides two-stream 802.11ac and is the only adapter using the finalized standard and is Wi-Fi Certified. It was the fastest in our tests, with an average throughput of 147Mbps. It is also Windows-only. 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 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. The adapter also comes with a three-foot USB 3.0 extension base.

Edimax AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter
Edimax AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter

The Edimax AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter costs around $40. It supports two-stream 802.11ac Draft, offering hypothetical data rates of 300Mbps via 2.4GHz and 867Mbps via 5GHz. It also supports Mac OS X and Linux in addition to Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8. This is a mid-sized adapter 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 for better signal reception. This adapter doesn’t include a GUI program to configure and connect the Wi-Fi.

ZyXEL AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter
ZyXEL AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter

The ZyXEL AC1200 Wireless Dual-Band USB Adapter costs around $40. It supports two-stream 802.11ac Draft, and supports Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8. Being manufactured by Edimax, this adapter has the same exact physical form as Edimax adapter 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 possibility help you place the adapter in more optimum location to help increase signal reception.

TRENDnet AC1200 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter
TRENDnet AC1200 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter

The TRENDnet AC1200 Wireless Dual Band USB Adapter costs around $40. It’s a two-stream 802.11ac Draft and supports Windows and Mac. This adapter is slightly smaller than the Edimax and ZyXEL adapters: measuring about 2 ¾ inches long, 1 inch wide, and ½ inch high (excluding the USB connector). It doesn't provide a pull out antenna. 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.

ASUS AC1750 Wireless Dual-band PCI-e Adapter
ASUS AC1750 Wireless Dual-band PCI-e Adapter

The ASUS AC1750 Wireless dual-band PCI-e Adapter provides three-stream 802.11ac Draft, and delivered the best performance, with average throughput of 170Mbps. It’s Windows only. This is 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. 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. This adapter's GUI program is the slickest and most advanced of those we reviewed. It provides great network details with signal levels via bars, negative dbm values and band and channel width info.

gigabit wifi adapters
Performance Testing

We used IxChariot to run throughput tests on each wireless adapter with a Ubiquiti UniFi access point. The AP has a 2.4GHz radio and 5GHz radio, supporting three spatial streams. We enabled WPA2/AES security and 80 MHz channel-width support. All wired connections were made via Gigabit Ethernet ports. The distance between the adapters and AP was about 25 feet with one wall and a closet partially blocking the line of sight. The USB adapters were plugged into a USB 3.0 port on a Windows 7 PC and the PCIe adapter was plugged into a PCIe x1 slot of the same PC.

We ran the tests three times for one minute each with each adapter. We added uplink and downlink speeds to show total simultaneous throughput.