We all know that wireless Ethernet connectivity, or Wi-Fi, is standard on modern notebooks, smartphones and tablets – but what do you do when you want to add a desktop PC to an existing Wi-Fi network? Few desktops ship with Wi-Fi onboard, and adding the technology can be confusing for the uninitiated.
But making your desktop Wi-Fi capable is actually pretty simple, with two primary hardware solutions: USB and expansion card.
External USB Wi-Fi Adapters
USB Wi-Fi adapters are widely available, relatively inexpensive and very easy to install. Unfortunately, there are downsides to this solution, including less reliable performance, less dependable reception, and USB power issues on some systems.
Essentially, USB wireless adapters work like any other USB device. You install the accompanying software, plug it in, configure it, and rock and roll. It’s best to know what type of Wi-Fi network you have in your home or office before selecting an adapter; for example, if you’re on a fast 802.11n Wi-Fi network, you’ll want an 802.11n adapter to take advantage of the maximum speed your network can provide – slower 802.11b and 802.11g adapters won’t give you the same wireless performance.
If you’re going the USB route, opt for an adapter that includes an extension wire and cradle (like the Belkin Wireless N+ 802.11n USB Adapter shown above). This will allow you to position the adapter for optimum signal reception, and/or to tuck it away out of sight.
Other recommended USB wireless adapters:
Internal PCI & PCI Express Wi-Fi Adapters
My preferred method for adding Wi-Fi to a desktop is by way of an internal add-on card. Reasons for this preference are many, but primarily I have found internal cards to be much more reliable and to get better signal strength.
But using this method will require that you A) open your desktop, B) are comfortable making minor hardware changes and C) can use a Philips screwdriver (that last one is pretty universal). Opening your computer and making hardware changes may seem like a real can of worms if you’re not familiar with computer innards, but it’s actually a pretty simple affair.
There are two main types of internal Wi-Fi cards: PCI and PCI Express. PCI has been around for many years and these slots are found in most older and modern desktops, though newer systems tend to have fewer PCI slots. PCI Express, or PCIe, is a newer, smaller expansion card slot that’s been in widespread use for five or six years. You can see both card slot types on a typical motherboard in the image above.
Take a look at the PCI and PCI Express adapters above. Notice how much smaller the connectors are on the PCI Express adapter (right) when compared to the PCI adapter. PCI adapters usually have three prongs of data and power connectors; PCIe adapters have two.
If you decide to go this route, you’ll need to determine 1) which type of slot you have in your PC and 2) if you have any free slots.
Adding either type of card involves the same five minute process: A) powering off your PC using the hard switch on the back, B) opening your PC, C) plugging the card into a free slot and D) securing the card in place with a standard 6-32 screw (often included with the adapter). That’s pretty much it. As always when handling sensitive electronics, you’ll need to ground yourself to discharge static electricity – a grounding strap is not a bad idea. Also, if your card has antennas on the back, you’ll probably need to unscrew and remove them before installing.
Once the card is installed, power your PC back on and install the drivers that came with your adapter.
(For a more detailed step-by-step walkthrough of installing an expansion card, check out this article at About.com.)
The same rules apply when choosing an internal Wi-Fi card. You should match or exceed the capabilities of your wireless router.
Recommended PCI Wi-Fi Adapters:
- Cisco-Linksys Wireless-N PCI Adapter with Dual-Band (WMP600N)
- D-Link Xtreme N PCI Express Desktop Adapter (DWA-556)
Recommended PCIe Wi-Fi Adapters:
- ASUS 802.11n PCI Express Wireless Adapter (PCE-N13)
- Rosewill 802.11n PCI Express Wireless Adapter (RNX-N180PCe)
Before picking a Wi-Fi adapter, be sure to check that its drivers are compatible with your operating system (Windows XP, Windows 7, etc.).
The drivers (the software that tells your computer how to use a piece of hardware) that come on the disc included with the adapter may be out of date. As with all hardware, I suggest checking the manufacturer’s web site for the most up-to-date drivers and/or software.
If you go with an internal Wi-Fi card, consider upgrading the antenna. Antennas on the back of wireless PCI and PCIe cards usually unscrew, and if they do you can add different antennas for different needs. For example, my office PC is inside a desk compartment with a door, so I use an antenna with an extension cable so that it is outside the desk for maximum signal reception.
Also, if your wireless network is getting a little long in the tooth, consider taking a few simple steps to make it work better for you.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding this post, please email me or post in the comments section below.