Onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi Card vs Wi-Fi USB

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When it comes to WiFi on computers, you have three very common options: Onboard Wi-Fi, PCIe WiFi Card and a USB WiFi dongle. They all have their respective pros and cons.

For instance, the obvious benefit of onboard WiFi is that it saves an extra PCIe slot on your motherboard. Similarly, PCIe WiFi Cards are great as they give you the option to replace or uninstall them in the future, and USB WiFi card are just cheap and accessible for an average user.

But the real question is, how do they differ in terms of their performance? Here we will compare Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi Card vs Wi-Fi USB both in their characteristics and performance.

Onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi Card vs Wi-Fi USB

What is Onboard Wi-Fi?

ASRock A520M/AC
ASRock A520M/AC is a budget motherboard with Built in WiFi

An onboard WiFi basically means that the motherboard has a WiFi modem built in.

This is perhaps simplest way to build a desktop where you absolutely need a WiFi connection. However, onboard WiFi is supported only in certain motherboards.

Desktop motherboards with inbuilt motherboards are not quite common particularly in the budget and in the mid range – to an extent.

Also Read: Do Motherboards Come with WiFi?

Pros of Onboard Wi-Fi

Eliminates The Cost of Purchasing Extra Components

For users who absolutely need WiFi, a motherboard with onboard Wi-Fi capability pre-installed will eliminate the cost of purchasing an extra component.

Great for Certain Builds and Motherboard Form Factors

With onboard Wi-Fi, people without access to cable networks can access their networks immediately after finishing their builds.

They are more, in a sense, streamlined and optimized.

Another important benefit is that an on-board WiFi saves you from utilizing your precious PCIe slots. This is particularly important on motherboard that have limited PCIe slots such as on a Mini ITX motherboard.

Cons of Onboard Wi-Fi

No Performance Difference to be Expected

Compared to a PCIe WiFi Card, there isn’t any visible performance difference between onboard or a PCIe WiFi Card.

The actual difference is made by the version of the WiFi, its frequency range, channel bandwidth, access scheme etc. (We cover this in the FAQ section below) 

Hinders Upgradability

One significant disadvantage of having an onboard WiFi is that it hinders upgradability of the WiFi network.

There may be faster options for accessing Wi-Fi in the future with greater range, higher speeds and lower latency.

With onboard Wi-Fi, upgrading the built in WiFi is not a possible option and you will end up having to settle for the speeds that are provided by your board’s onboard Wi-Fi adapter.

For example, if your motherboard comes with WiFi 5 card, you will not be able to upgrade it to the newer WiFi 6.

Marginally More Expensive than Non-WiFi Version

Additionally, all things considered, a motherboard with onboard Wi-Fi is more expensive compared to one without it. There are exceptions though.

This might be something that users who don’t really need WiFi on their desktop would have to consider.

May Have to Sacrifice on a Certain Feature

If a motherboard features an onbaord WiFi, it may come at a cost of another subcomponent. This is because, the amount of PCIe lanes a system has are limited.

For instance, the ASRock A520M/AC (WiFi) does not feature the VGA port whereas the ASRock A520M-HDV (Non WiFi) does.

Asrock A520M HDV
Non WiFi version has VGA Port

What is a Wi-Fi Card?

PCIe wifi card featured
PCIe WiFI Cards slot into PCIe X1 slots

A Wi-Fi card is a high-speed PCIe device that adds Wi-Fi support for a motherboard by connecting to one of its PCIe slots.

Wi-Fi cards themselves are relatively affordable, but compared to USB WiFi, they can be a little more expensive. However, for users with a PCIe slot to spare, this maybe the best option for fast wireless connections.

Also Read: Which PCIe Slot for Wireless Card?

Pros of Wi-Fi Card

High Speed Connecitivty

It offers high speed stable wireless connections. This is great for activities like online gaming.

The latest PCIe WiFi 6 cards have an average of 2.4 Gbps max transfer speed at 5 GHz frequency and 574 Mbps on 2.4 GHz Frequency. This translates to about 300 MB/s.

Since most of the newer devices do operate at 5 GHz frequency you can leverage the faster 2.4 Gbps speeds.

Replaceable

One of the biggest advantage here is that you can replace them with a newer card. So if in the future WiFi 7 is introduced, you will be able to replace it easily.

You can also switch them over to another PC when need be.

Stable Connection

Most PCIe WiFi cards make use of the multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) method using multiple antennas which basically allows the card to transmit and receive multiple data signals at a time. This further allows for higher and stable transfer speeds.

Cons of Wi-Fi Card

Challenging to Install for Non Techies

Wi-Fi PCIe cards can be challenging to install for the novice user. They are also more expensive than USB Wi-Fi adapters so most users on a budget would opt for the latter instead.

Occupy Precious PCIe Slots

Another big disadvantage with WiFi card is that they occupy PCIe lanes and slots. If you do not have a PCIe slot available, they are of no good. Therefore, you need to make sure that you have both a free PCIe slot as well as a free PCIe lanes.

Can Cramp Up Space in the Chassis

Finally, a WiFi PCIe Card can be an issue when you have cramped up space inside in the PC. In some instances, they can even block larger components like graphics card from being installed.

Not a Huge Difference in Latency Compared To a USB Dongle

Contrary to the popular notion, a USB 3.0 WiFi performs as good as a PCIe network card in terms of latency. You can see the results for this in this video.

The latency depends upon many other factors including the distance from the WiFi router and if there are any obstacles.

Pingtime USB vs WiFi
Results Source: Hoosier Hardware Video

Hence, you can see here that the difference in latency between PCIe WiFi Card and the USB 3.0 WiFi Card isn’t too drastic.

Of course, the best latency would be provided by the hard wire ethernet cable.

What is Wi-Fi USB Adapter?

USB WiFi Card 2

Unlike PCIe cards, these do not go inside the case. They are plugged into a USB port.

These adapters are usually very affordable meaning that most users who want a decent or basic WiFican go for them.

Pros of Wi-Fi USB Adapter

Easy to Install

They are very easy to install. All you do is plug the device into an available USB slot and Voila! Drivers are installed and you’re good to go.

You can get one with a USB extender that can help you beat WiFi dead spots in your workspace, allowing you to get the best signal coverage.

You don’t need to open up your case, learn about PCIe lanes or about PCIe slots with these. They are small and compact devices that do not occupy much space.

Since they are small you can literally carry them around with you.

Affordable

As mentioned earlier, compared to USB WiFi Cards, they can be much more affordable.

Cons of Wi-Fi USB Adapter

Weak Performance

One of the biggest advantage here is that they are weak in performance. They have weaker reception. Their transfer rate is much slower as compared to a built in card and they are not as stable.

As of yet, USB WiFi dongles still operate at WiFi 5 protocol. Meaning they have max transfer speed of 867 Mbps as supposed to 2.4 Gbps on WiFi 6.

The following compares a WiFi 6 PCIe Card (TP-Link AX3000) vs WiFi 5 USB Dongle (Foktech AC600).

TL;DR

  • The WiFi 5 USB Dongles maintains download speed of 29 Mbps
  • The WiFi 6 PCIe Card maintains download speed of 100 Mbps
  • The Ping (latency) is the same on both

The USB version also has a lot of impact on the performance of the WiFi dongle. USB 3.0 WiFi cards have a better performance compared to USB 2.0 Cards.

USB 2.0 has transfer speed of 480 Mbps. However, this is just the theoretical max and the protocol never reaches this transfer speed. USB 3.0, on the other hand, has a speed of about 4.8 Gbps!

Therefore, a USB 3.0 would never bottleneck your USB WiFi transfer speeds (at least with the current generation of USB WiFi)

Prone to Damage and Unseating

Also, since they’re exposed, you could end up unseating the adapter in the USB slot by accident, therefore, interrupting your network connection.

Also Read: How to Connect Extra Fans to Motherboard?

Other FAQ

What is the Latest WiFi Protocol?

The latest WiFi iteration is the WiFi 6 or the 11AX. As is the case with each iteration, WiFi 6 improves on many aspects including the data transfer rate compared to the previous version.

The following is the primary difference in terms of specs:

[table “Wifi6comparison” not found /]
WiFi 4
802.11n
WiFi 5
802.11ac
WiFi 6
802.11ax
Date
Introduced
2009 2013 2019
Frequency Range 2.4 and 5 GHz 5 GHz 2.4 and 5 GHz
Channel Bandwidth (MHz) 20, 40 20, 40, 80,
80+80, 160
20, 40, 80,
80+80, 160
Quadrature Amplitude
Modulation
64-QAM 256-QAM 1024-QAM
Spatial Streams 4 4 to 8 8
MU-MIMO No Downlink Uplink and Downlink
Access Scheme OFDM OFDM OFDM and OFDMA

Table above extracted from the following video. Recommended watch.

What is WiFi Frequency Range?

Frequency Range, aka Frequency Bands, are radio wave frequencies responsible for transmitting WiFi data.

There are two ranges: 2.4 and 5.0 GHz. Both have pros and cons. 2.4 GHz has an excellent coverage as it can penetrate through walls.

5.0 GHz, on the other hand promises higher speeds.

What is WiFi Channel Bandwidth?

This determines the connections transfer speed or the data rate. The higher the channel bandwidth, the higher the transfer speed.

What is is WiFi Quadrature Amplitude Modulation?

While this is a very technical subject, the higher the QAM, the faster is the data transfer rate.

The QAM-1024 on WiFi 6 can enable a 25% higher data rate as compared to WiFi 5.

Recommended read regarding QAM: Wi-Fi 6 fundamentals: What is 1024-QAM?

What is MU-MIMO?

MU-MIMO stands for Multi-user, multiple-input, multiple-output technology. It essentially allows the “Wi-Fi router to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously” (Read: Linksys.com).

Hence, the devices do not have to wait for their turn, thus improving the efficiency of the WiFi connection.

The more devices you have, the more benefit you will experience from a MU-MIMO supported WiFi router.

Conclusion

Here we compared onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi card vs Wi-Fi USB. While the final say remains with you, each of these implementations has its own perfect applications.

An onboard adapter is great for those who want to save themselves from the hassle of procuring separate WiFi cards.

A PCIe Wi-Fi card is excellent for users who want very stable connection and future upgradability.

A USB dongle can be a great way to provide basic Wi-Fi to a motherboard that doesn’t have onboard Wi-Fi. It’s also ideal for moderate Wi-Fi users on a budget as well as for those who want the portable aspect of this method.

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Author:

Atif Qazi
Atif Qazi is the founder of PCGuide101. He is a digital nomad who loves everything PC. He is a PC builder, tech enthusiast, engineer, and a lover of single player lore-rich RPG games.

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