USB dongles are the simplest way to add Wi-Fi to a PC or to upgrade an older laptop whose Wi-Fi is failing. They're generally affordable, though of course price is proportional to the speed and range you'll get from any given dongle.
Though Wi-Fi 6 has been around for a good few years, there's a surprisingly limited choice of USB dongles. The vast majority support the previous Wi-Fi 5 standard - also called 802.11ac.
The confusing part is that Wi-Fi 5 dongles can be at least as fast - if not quicker - than Wi-Fi 6 models. So don't expect an automatic speed boost just because you bought D-Link's Wi-Fi 6 dongle. And, of course, remember that to use Wi-Fi 6 at all, your router needs to support this standard as well.
Some PCs don't have Wi-Fi at all, and that's awkward if you don't want to use powerline network adapters or run a network cable from your router through your home to your PC in a different room. A USB Wi-Fi dongle is the answer, though you could go for a internal PCI-Express card if you wanted to. Whatever, make sure your PC is within Wi-Fi range of your router before buying a dongle or expansion card.
To help you choose a dongle, we’ve rounded up some of the best adapters to buy, covering all budgets. And if your old ISP-supplied router is getting long in the tooth and you want to upgrade that as well, here are our recommendations for the best routers and mesh Wi-Fi systems, with Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 options for each.
Best Wi-Fi USB adapters
TP-Link Archer T9UH: Best Overall Wi-Fi Dongle
- Excellent speeds
- Dock included
- Not the best 2.4GHz performance
For most people, the T9UH is the best Wi-Fi upgrade (or add-on if your PC doesn't have Wi-Fi at all). It might not support the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard but that doesn't really count against it because, in the topsy-turvy world of Wi-Fi, it actually offers faster speeds than D-Link's Wi-Fi 6 adapter.
True, those are theoretical speeds, but the point is, Wi-Fi 5 dongles can offer just as fast real-world speeds as Wi-Fi 6 in many homes. Not everyone has a Wi-Fi 6 router yet, nor enough Wi-Fi 6 devices to truly benefit from some of the clever tech that the standard offers.
On a practical note, the Archer T9UH features a fold-out design which opens to around 150mm long. Unlike the multi-appendage approach of the Asus USB-AC68, this has a hinged edge to the body that can almost fold in half.
The design is for the dual-band antennas (2.4GHz @ 600Mb/s and 5GHz @ 1300Mb/s) with 802.11ac AC1900 support.
As is standard now with higher-end adapters, TP-Link supports beamforming which delivers more consistent performance, ideal for streaming HD and 4K media content, and USB 3.0 is required because of the higher throughput, so you'll get the best speeds if you connect it to a USB 3 port, not USB 2.
The T9UH also comes with a dock that allows it to be connected further away from your PC or laptop. The dock's 3m cable means you can position the adapter in the ideal place, which is handy if existing Wi-Fi connectivity is spotty in your location.
Speeds are excellent on 5GHz when connected to a suitable Wi-Fi 5 router, but there's not much point in spending this much if your laptop already has Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) Wi-Fi, or you're going to use it so far away from your router that it only ever runs on the 2.4GHz band, where performance is much less impressive.
D-Link DWA-X1850: Best Wi-Fi 6 Dongle
- Doesn't obscure adjacent USB ports
- Latest Wi-Fi standard
- Not the fastest kind of Wi-Fi 6
- Windows only
For similar money to TP-Link's T9UH, D-Link's Wi-Fi 6 dongle offers slightly slower AX1800 speeds (as opposed to AC1900) but the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 such as MU-MIMO and OFDMA. This isn't the place to explain that jargon - you can read more about it in our Wi-Fi 6 guide - and the fact is, while they're great to have, they don't really offer much in the way of real-world benefits - yet.
Obviously, you have to have a Wi-Fi 6 router or mesh network for the DWA-X1850 to actually use Wi-Fi 6, otherwise it will fall back to Wi-Fi 5 or whatever standard your router used. And you'll need to plug is into a USB 3 port on your laptop or PC to get the fastest speeds.
None of this means D-Link's dongle is bad. It's good value at this price, offers great speeds that will be far in excess of most homes' broadband connection and is a good future-proof choice for when your home has lots of other Wi-Fi 6 devices in use.
For those in the know, AX1800 is quite a few steps down from the fastest Wi-Fi 6 speeds, but right now you can't buy a faster Wi-Fi 6 USB dongle: the DWA-X1850 is one of only a couple in existence (the other being Asus' USB-AX56, which is also AX1800 and considerably more expensive).
Do note that this works with Windows only - not macOS.
Asus USB-AC68: Best Wi-Fi 5 Dongle
Alongside the wealth of features that Asus has packed into the sleek frame of the USB-AC68 adapter, there’s also the bonus of feeling like a secret agent on some covert mission thanks to the unfolding design.
Plug the device into your PC then carefully open up the twin red-antenna arms, or sit the adapter in the included desktop cradle, and it seems like you’re about to send highly classified information back to Control.
Teenage fantasies aside, this Wi-Fi dongle that can bring your humble old laptop up to the AC1900 Wi-Fi 5 standard. It has dual-band support for 2.4GHz @ 600Mb/s and 5GHz @ 1300Mb/s, 3x4 MIMO, and Asus’ own AiRadar beamforming technology to ensure a strong and stable connection to the network.
The USB 3.0 interface means you'll not be slowed down by local data transfer rates - so make sure your laptop or PC has a free USB 3 port.
It’s a little bigger than some of its rivals, mainly when the antennas are deployed, but at 100 x 30 x 20mm the AC68 is still small enough to put in your pocket.
Foktech Wi-Fi Dongle: Best Value Wi-Fi Dongle
- Not the fastest
You might think we’ve included this one just because of its hilarious name, but that’s only partly true. If you’re looking for a small, unobtrusive way to add basic Wi-Fi to your laptop, then the Foktech dongle is an excellent candidate.
It supports 802.11ac AC600, offering speeds of 150Mb/s @ 2.4GHz and 433Mb/s @ 5GHz. Because of this, it uses USB 2.0 as there's no need to go any faster.
This means it isn't the fastest Wi-Fi dongle but as an inexpensive way to get online wirelessly, do some shopping, social media, and streaming video (or making Zoom calls) up to HD quality it will be fine.
The low price is of course the main draw, as is the compact design that makes the dongle something you can leave plugged into your laptop without worrying about breaking it.
US readers can't buy it under the Foktech brand, but can opt for the USBNovel dongle which shares the same design and features, and cost $12.99 at the time of writing.
Netgear A6100-100PES: Best Value Big-Brand Dongle
- Relatively slow speeds
Another small-form adapters, Netgear is a well-established name in Wi-Fi routers and networking. This diminutive construction houses antennas for 2.4GHz (150Mb/s) and 5GHz (433Mb/s) - that's the Wi-Fi 5 AC600 specification.
Data transfer, then, is quite a bit slower than the fastest dongles out there and that's why Netgear has gone for USB 2.0 rather than USB 3.0, but the inclusion of Beamforming+ gives the A6100 the ability to keep solid connections in challenging environments.
It's affordable, too, but not easily available in the US, sadly.