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Wireless Adapters Buying Guide

Table of contents

What is a Wireless Network Adapter?

A wireless network adapter and wireless AP (access point)/routers are devices used in the building of wireless networks. In this guide we will focus on the wireless network adapter.

The wireless network adapter is a client device inside a wireless network and is installed in a client computer. What it does in practice is to send and receive data via the wireless network. With a wireless network adapter installed, the end-user is able to gain access to the wireless network without the hassle of installing and living with network cables that stifle freedom of movement. This convenience is doubly important for notebook computers, which can, with a wireless network adapter, be carried freely within the wireless network's coverage area and still be able to enjoy network connectivity.

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Wireless Network Adapter Types

There are many different types of wireless network adapter and each is made for use with a certain type of computer interface. When considering a wireless network adapter, please select a product that is compatible with your computer interface type. Below are the different network adapter types categorized by computer interface for your convenience:


PCI interface wireless network adapters are mainly intended for desktop computers. It is very important for you to ensure that your computer has a free PCI slot on the motherboard before purchasing a PCI interface wireless network adapter, but otherwise the installation process is very simple and straightforward.

An example of a PCI interface wireless network adapter

PCMCIA (Card Bus)

PCMCIA wireless network adapters are intended for use by notebook computers with at least one PCMCIA slot available. Most PCMCIA network adapters come with an internal wireless antenna. These adapters can be plugged into the PCMCIA slot in your notebook computer with the opposite, thicker end containing the internal wireless antenna protruding slightly from the body of the notebook.

An example of a PCMCIA interface wireless network adapter

Mini PCI

Intended for use in notebook computers as well, the Mini PCI interface wireless network adapter requires the notebook computer to have one Mini PCI slot and a built-in wireless antenna. The adapter is installed inside the notebook computer with nothing protruding from the computer body and provides the same wireless network functionality as built-in wireless network adapters. Please note that the Mini PCI card requires installation, so previous installation experience may come in handy.

An example of a Mini PCI wireless network adapter


The USB wireless network adapter is extremely simple to use and all it requires is one available USB port. The benefits of the USB network adapter are plug-and-play operability and ultra-convenient portability inherent in their tiny designs allowing them to be used anywhere, anytime. Most USB wireless network adapters are designed just like flash memory drives.

Most USB network adapters corresponding to USB 1.1 standard support 802.11b wireless network standard with an up to 11Mbps data transfer rate; while others corresponding to USB 2.0 standard support 802.11g with an up to 54Mpbs data transfer rate.

An example of a USB wireless network adapter

Ethernet Port

Unlike the other adapter types mentioned above this type of wireless adapter is connected to the computer's Ethernet port via an Ethernet cable. These wireless adapters can also be used with game consoles (such as Sony Playstation 2 or XBOX featuring Ethernet ports). Once the game console is connected to the Ethernet port wireless adapter, it is capable of access to the wireless network or the Internet via the wireless network.

An example of an Ethernet Port wireless network adapter

Compact Flash

Extremely small and compact, the Compact Flash (CF) card wireless network adapters are intended for use mainly by handheld computers (such as Pocket PCs or Palm) that come with CF slots. When used with a PCMCIA adapter, the CF card wireless network adapter will also provide wireless network connectivity for notebook computers.

An example of a Compact Flash Card wireless network adapter


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Specifications to Pay Attention to

Data transfer rates

Most of us prefer faster everything for the most efficient work and play possible. Higher data transfer rates mean that data is transferred faster and work done quicker. Currently the three most popular wireless networking standards are as follows:


802.11a is an IEEE wireless networking standard that specifies a maximum data transfer rate of 54Mbps and an operating frequency of 5GHz.


802.11b is an IEEE wireless networking standard that specifies a maximum data transfer rate of 11Mbps and an operating frequency of 2.4GHz.


802.11g is an IEEE wireless networking standard that specifies a maximum data transfer rate of 54Mbps and an operating frequency of 2.4GHz. And it is backward compatible with 802.11b.

Important note: In a wireless network the data transfer rate between the wireless AP/router and adapter is the lower rate of the two wireless network devices. For instance, if the wireless adapter supports a higher data transfer rate than the wireless AP/router, the transfer rate will be the lower of the two devices as the router cannot operate above the wireless standard it supports, but the adapter (or any wireless equipment) will be backwards compatible. The wireless network adapter and the wireless AP/router must both support the same transfer standard to work at the transfer rate specified.

Currently some manufacturers also provide products supporting higher data transfer rates, such as 108Mbps, 125Mbps, 140Mpbs or even higher. To ensure the high transfer rates are realized please make sure that both the wireless AP/router and adapters support it.

Security protocols

Security is a vital important consideration for wireless networks. Wireless network security protocols may be capable of safeguarding data against during transfers across a wireless network. Here are the most commonly security protocols:


WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is a security mechanism for wireless networks. It aims to protect data via encryption over radio waves with point-to-point transmission. A shared key (similar to a password) is used to allow communication between the wireless adapter and the wireless AP/router.


WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is built on the foundation of WEP. WPA also protects wireless data transmission via a key similar to WEP, but the added strength of WPA is in its automatic encryption key changes making it much more difficult for a hacker to invade a wireless network.


As the successor to WPA, WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) is offered to users requiring the highest level of wireless security and is capable of offering a stronger encryption mechanism over WPA via AES (Advanced Encryption Standard).

Like data transfer rates, wireless security protocols require the support of both the wireless network adapter and the wireless network AP/router, meaning that protection via the wireless security protocol will not take effect if either of the two does not support it.


Like any wireless device, the wireless network adapter requires the help of an antenna to communicate with a wireless network. Most PCMCIA, CF card and USB wireless network adapters come with internal antennas (not visible); while most PCI and some USB adapters will come with visible external antennas. Of note, most Mini PCI wireless network adapters only come with a built-in antenna connector that must be connected to the built-in antenna of a notebook computer.

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Other Information also provides another type of wireless adapter that utilizes infrared technology. Infrared adapters generally take the shape of a USB memory stick and provide plug-and-play capabilities. Currently the infrared adapter is mainly used for data exchanges between computers, handhelds and mobile phones. For instance, pictures on your computer can be sent to the mobile phone with an infrared port via the infrared adapter.

An example of a USB Infrared adapter

Infrared technology enables three data transfer modes and rates: SIR mode, MIR mode and FIR mode for 2.4Kbps-115.2Kbps, 576Kbps-1.152Mbps and 4Mbps respective transfer rates. Infrared adapters support one or more of these modes and are typically backwards compatible with slower transfer modes.

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