There are a number of ways to connect your desktop computer to your local network.
These include via Ethernet cables (the most traditional and stable connection type), via wireless adapters, and via PCI Wireless cards. Each of these methods has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, but today we will take a look at PCI & PCI-E Wireless cards.
Top Picks: PCI Wireless Adapter Cards
- Asus Dual-Band Wireless AC1900 PCE-AC68 Card
- TP-Link Archer T9E AC1900 Card
- TP-Link N900 TL-WDN4800 Dual Band Card
- Rosewill RNX-AC1900PCE Dual Band AC1900 Card
- Trendnet Wireless N150 TEW-703PIL Low Profile Card
- Asus PCE-AC88 AC3100 Card
- Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I Wireless AC PCI-E Adapter
- Rosewill RNX-AC1300PCE AC Card
- Asus PCE-N15 802.11N Adapter
You can read more about these wireless cards below, or click the links above to take you straight to the product on Amazon.
What Are PCI Wireless Cards?
PCI Wireless cards are devices that are installed in your computer case using a spare PCI expansion slot, and they allow you to connect to a nearby wireless network.
Nowadays, as Wi-Fi is pretty much the most common way to connect to the internet and other networks, it is generally quite important that your computer has Wi-Fi capability. A PCI Wireless card is, therefore, one way to connect a PC that doesn’t already have wireless capability to the internet wirelessly.
Why Use A Wireless Network Card?
The most obvious reason to use a wireless network card is to allow a PC that doesn’t already have wireless connectivity to connect to wireless networks.
While an Ethernet cable is a solid way to connect to a local network and in some cases, such as for high intensity gaming, the best case, it is often not practicle to have wires running throughout your house.
A wireless network card however will allow you to connect to your network, wirelessly from anywhere within range of your wireless router.
There are some occasions where using a wireless card is not the best option however. For example, if your PC is a laptop computer. This is because laptops either don’t allow you to connect a wireless card (well a PCI-E card, at least) or even if they do, the size and antennas found in a wireless card would ruin a laptop’s portability.
Of course, your desktop PC may already have wifi capabilities. But if the radio isn't particularly powerful, the wireless standard is a little older, or if the antennas are buried within the case, then it may be that you aren't enjoying the best wifi experience.
One option is to use a spare PCI slot on your mobo (mobo is short for motherboard - all the geeks know that, hehe) for a wifi card that is Wireless AC and has fully-adjustable antennas with an extension cable for more position options.
Wireless Card vs USB Adapter - Is a PCI Wi-Fi Card Better Than a USB Adapter?
Both wireless cards and USB adapters have their plus points and negative points.
First let’s take a look at USB adapters. If you want the simplest way possible to connect a computer without wireless capabilities (or to improve the devices built-in wifi) to a wireless network, then a wireless adapter is certainly the way to go.
The only setup generally involved is plugging the adapter into the computer (into one of the spare USB slots). The computer should then install all the correct files, using Plug & Play, and you will generally be able to connect to a wireless network within seconds of plugging the device in.
USB wireless adapters are also good for laptop computers. These smaller portable computers don’t have the space or features required to allow a PCI card (well, the ones we're talking about today) to be installed so a wireless adapter is often the way to go. You can upgrade the internal card on some laptops. We wrote an article about it here.
Recommended USB Adapter: Netgear AC1200 A6210
There are certain occasions however when wireless cards are the best choice to make. If for example your computer is a bit further away from your router and you struggle to get a consistent signal, the extra antennas on a PCI card mean that you will often get a much stronger signal which can boost coverage distance.
Of course you also get the benefits of having an extra USB slot if you use a wireless card.
It is also worth noting the difference between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 adapters. If you are using a USB 2.0 adapter a wireless card will likely give you a much higher throughput and as such you should get a faster connection.
The difference between the latest USB 3.0 adapters and a wireless card is, however, less likely to be as pronounced.
Ok, that's great, but what about wireless cards....
Well, they are often a more solid bet for desktops, because they often sit in the same position 100% of the time and often in dark remote corners of a room. Yes, USB sticks are fine, but due to where PCs are physically positioned, the PCI expansion option can often be more preferred.
We'll come onto these particular reasons more later.
PCI vs PCI-E (PCI Express), Does It Matter?
If you do choose to use a wireless card to connect to your wireless network you will still have to choose between a PCI and a PCI-E (PCI Express) card.
PCI-E is the newer standard and if you have a recently bought computer you will likely have space for a PCI-E slot.
PCI-E cards offer more bandwidth than PCI cards and because of this it may seem like a great idea to buy one of these cards.
However, before you do, it should be noted that both PCI cards and PCI-E cards offer more than enough bandwidth to be optimised for wireless internet, as the speed on offer generally isn’t as fast as the speeds they can handle.
It could perhaps be worth buying a PCI-E card if you're doing a lot of local network file transfers but for general internet use it won’t matter which type you use. Although, to be honest, the vast majority of cards sold these days are PCI-E, and it's most likely that's what your mobo will accept - unless you've resurrected a very old PC!
PCI-E Pins, Size & Connection
There are three different versions of PCI Express; versions 1.0 , 2.0 and yep, you guessed it... 3.0
Luckily, all versions are backward and forward compatible with each other.
There's also the number of pins to think about, and the length. Well, you don;t have to think too much about it, because they will all fit into a PCI-E slot. The 11th pin is always solid and unused. After this "pin", the manufacturer can add a certain amount of pins. You can see the standard number of pins and the lengths in the table below.
No. of pins
PCI Express 1
PCI Express 4
PCI Express 8
PCI Express 16
Explaining The Jargon
When you're hunting around for your next wifi card, you'll see a lot of acronyms. What do they mean? Well, here's a short list of the most common acronyms you'll like come across when you're searching for your next wireless adapter, and a basic explanation of what it is and does...
PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) - Old skool slots on a motherboard. One particular way of connecting PCI cards for networking, USB, TV cards, and anything else that was a popular connect around 10-15 years ago.
PCI-E (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) - A newer version of PCI, that has less pins, but much greater throughput (bus speed). Some graphics cards have also used PCI-E over the years.
802.11ac - Also known as Wireless AC. A fairly new, and fast IEEE wireless standard, that uses the 5GHz radio frequency to transmit and receive data. Wireless AC is backwards compatible with older wireless standards, including Wireless N
802.11n - Also known as Wireless N. An older wireless standard, but uses both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands.
Dual Band - Devices that use both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio frequencies.
5GHz - Wireless frequency range, within 5GHz. Faster than 2.4GHz, and less prone to interference as there are many non-overlapping channels to pick from. Range is not as good however...
2.4GHz - Within the 2.4GHz frequency range. Still the most widely used band. Wireless range is better/further than 5GHz, but is limited by speed and interference issues, as there are only three non-overlapping channels.
Gbps (Gigabits per second) - A unit of data transfer. The more, the better.
Mbps (Megabits per second) - Same as Gbps, but less fast.
N300 / AC3100 etc - The N or AC refers to the wireless standard as explained above. The following number is the cumulative theoretical data speeds over all radios.
Anything Else To Think About?
So, now we know what PCI and PCI-E cards are and why a wireless card has its advantages, what else is there to consider?
More antennas mean the potential for more data streams (depending on your setup and devices), and faster wifi. You want to try to adjust your antennas to 45 degrees off each other. Out best antenna article might explain this better, but if you angle them at 45 degrees (and if a third one is available - leaving it totally vertical), then your chances of covering off all direction of wireless signal is increased.
Remember that wireless signals can bounce off your furniture and walls, so by adjusting the angle of the antenna off each other, you have a much better chance of capturing wifi signal as efficiently as possible.
Most wireless cards have the antennas screwed in directly into the card. This means there's no options for adjusting the height of the antennas. This can be a bit of a problem, especially if your PC is tucked down at floor level under a desk, with the rear of the case tight against a wall. Your wifi signals will likely have to traverse the case, walls, desk or a combination of the three!
Luckily, some PCI-E cards have a cable that connects the antennas to the actual card. This means you can raise the height of the antennas, and place them away from your PC and any furniture that might lead to wifi performance issues.
How to Install A Wireless PCI Card
Despite being harder than installing a USB adapter, installing a wireless card isn’t as hard as you may think.
However, it does involve opening up your computer so you should check out how that will affect your warranty before doing it. If you are unsure what to do, it is probably worth getting an expert to do it for you.
Here is the simple process required to install a wireless network card.
1. Turn off your computer
While it may seem obvious, this step is always mentioning as you can do your computer and yourself some real damage if you mess about with a computer without turning off the power.
2. Open your computer case
Most computers have a removable panel you can remove to get into your computer. It is worth checking your computer’s manual before doing this to make sure you don’t damage your computer.
3. Identify your PCI/PCI E slot
This is where you will have to install your wireless card. If you are unsure of its whereabouts again check the manual.
4. Remove the protective plate
Usually there will be a protective plate over the PCI slot. This can usually be removed by simply unscrewing the plate.
5. Align your wireless network card and the PCI slot and push in the card
Make sure all the important bits are aligned and that the chips are facing the bottom of the case. After this simply push the card into the slot.
6. Screw the wireless card back in
Using the screws from the protective plate in step four, fix the wireless card in place.
7. Attach the antennas
Your wireless card should have come with some antennas. Now is the time to screw these in place.
Here's a handy video demonstrating how to install a PCI wifi card...
8. Close the computer and finish!
Now your card is successfully installed, simply close your computer and turn the PC back on. The final step is to install the drivers which will be an automatic process if you use Windows 8 or above. You may require a CD to install the drivers if you use Windows 7, although we'd be surprised if Windows 7 couldn't find the drivers for you!
9 Best PCI-E Wireless Adapter Cards For Your PC
1. Asus Dual-Band Wireless AC1900 PCE-AC68 Adapter Card
This is a superfast adapter (with 802.11ac chipset) capable of delivering transfer speeds of up to 1.3Gbps. It is dual band, great for gaming, and includes fully flexible external antennas so you are more likely to be able to keep a consistent connection, by angling them to your home's aesthetics.
If your computer is further away from your router or wireless access point, this card also comes with an extendable external antenna (to help maximize wireless line of sight) which can be perfect if you have struggled to get good connections with other cards.
Much better to have your antennas as far away as possible from the back of your likely cramped PC.
2. TP-Link Archer T9E AC1900 Adapter Card
The TP-Link Archer also uses the 802.11ac wireless standard which means you can theoretically get speeds of up to 1300Mbps using this adapter.
It has beamforming technology which can improve the strength of your connection over longer distances as well as three external antennas.
Basically this is a great PCI card who don't want to spend too much, but want basic wifi from their desktop. Wireless N is great for coverage, and now that 802.11ac is all the go, these older "N" cards, have dropped in value considerably - great for the buyer!
3. TP-Link N900 TL-WDN4800 Dual Band Adapter Card
This Dual Band adapter uses the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands to give you speeds of up to 450Mbps. While not as fast as the above two wireless cards it should still be fast enough to allow you to stream video and play online games (just don't expect the best experience - other cards are better!).
It is easy to install, comes with WPA/WPA2 for advanced security and also has three external antennas to give you a solid connection all around the house.
It is certainly not a top of the range model but nonetheless a good way to get your computer connected to wireless networks.
There is no driver for Windows 10, so be careful...
4. Rosewill RNX-AC1900PCE AC1900 Adapter Card
This wireless card from Rosewill is another high end product that uses the 800.11ac Wi-Fi standard. It therefore offers theoretical speeds of up to 1300Mbps on the 5GHz band and 600Mbps on the 2.4GHz band.
As with other high-end products on the list it offers beamforming technology and three external antennas for a consistent connection and some solid security features like WPA/WPA2 to keep your network safe.
It also is built with a heatsink to dissipate heat and stop the product from overheating when under intense use.
5. Trendnet Wireless N150 TEW-703PIL Low Profile Adapter Card
This card is less powerful than many on the list but nonetheless offers some good features that could make this a solid buy if you are on a budget or don’t need superfast internet.
It has a detachable antenna.
With theoretical top speed of 150Mbps, this is much less than all of the other cards on this list but will nonetheless get your computer connected to a wireless network. If you just need very basic wire-free connectivity, this Trendnet option could be just right for you...
6. Asus PCE-AC88 4x4 Wireless AC3100 PCIe Adapter
The PCE-AC88 is now the flagship desktop card from Asus, taking over from the still, very credible, PCE-AC68 above. We kept the AC68 at the number 1 spot, because it's still a solid wifi card, but now even greater value, due to its dropping price.
This 4x4 adapter (that's 4 receive by 4 transmit antennas) is for those that will pay whatever the cost, for the latest and greatest. The antennas are adjustable and connect via a cable, to give you more flexibility with positioning correctly for optimum signal.
This card is "MU-MIMO supported", so you can have up to 4 wifi streams concurrently (as long as your router supports it). This will help with connection reliability, and you should see an increase of data throughput. Sweet!
Just like components (and peripherals), overheating can be a problem...causing bottlenecks and potentially system crashes. In case the PCE-AC88 is "getting hammered", Asus have included a customized heatsink, to help keep cool.
And so this is how we reach the 3.1Gbps in speed. Bear in mind, it's cumulative over both bands (2.1Gbps on the 5GHz 802.11ac, and 1Gbps on 2.4GHz Wireless N). And yes, it's theoretical too....but if your desktop is positioned in an optimum position relative to your router, and you set up the external antennas correctly, you should enjoy decent wifi speeds. Bring it on!
7. Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I Wireless AC PCI-E Adapter with Bluetooth 4.2 Connectivity
The GC-WB867D-I from motherboard giant Gigabyte, is an 802.11ac offering. Ok, not quite up there with the Asus AC cards, but this is still pretty powerful, with theoretical speeds up to 867Mbps. It's a dual band (2.4GHz & 5GHz) card.
This card, like some others on our list, has detachable antennas (2x2) that are attached by a cable, letting you position the antennas in the best position for the aesthetics of your home.
Also has the option of connection via Bluetooth (4.2) for those who may want that. Desktops, that actually have a Bluetooth option, tend to have a relatively poor range. This should hopefully change things within that department.
8. Rosewill RNX-AC1300PCE 802.11ac Wi-Fi Adapter
Another dual band wireless card, and again it's from Rosewill.
This is again Wireless AC (Broadcom chipset), but with cumulative speeds of 1.3Gbps (867Mbps on the 5GHz, and a further 400Mbps on the 2.4GHz), so not as quick as the RNX-AC1900PCE AC1900 card above. It also has Beamforming technology for improved coverage.
Note that the antennas are affixed to the card, so sadly no option to position in the best possible position for your PC. The antennas are adjustable, however.
9. Asus PCE-N15 802.11N Wireless Adapter Card
Ok, so last, but not least, we have a basic Asus adapter. A little Wireless N card that will get you hooked up. Don;t expect any magic to happen - like with the other Asus cards above. The PCE-N15 is basically a no-frills card that gets you onto the network at not-so-breakneck speeds...
The antennas may be adjusted to your liking, and you can use the WPS connect option for wireless pairing....although we don't recommend this method if you're security conscious...
Although quite an old card, it is supported within Windows 10.
PCI-E Wifi Cards: In Short
To conclude, a wireless card can be a great way to connect a desktop computer to a wireless network. They offer quick speeds, good range and are relatively easy to assemble if you don’t mind doing a bit of manual work. To get more flexibility with positioning, try to get one with an extension cable. This will let you place the antennas in an optimal position, comparative to where your PC case is.
Of the cards we have looked at today, each one has positive features and reasons for you to buy that specific card. If you don't have any wireless connectivity on your desktop, and you just need basic wifi, then a Wireless N card will probably be enough for you - for example the TP-Link card. It will get you connected, and will use the 2.4GHz frequency band, which has a better coverage range.
If you are after the best possible performance for your card, then the Asus PCE-AC88 could well be the way to go. It has the top of the range features you could need such as 802.11ac, Beamforming technology and four external antennas, which extend off a cable.
Remember that you might be just fine going with a USB wifi adapter. Just bear in mind that you'll lose one of your valuable USB ports, and you may not get the same wireless range that you could potentially get with the external antenna option of PCI-E cards.
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