Desktop computers that come with onboard or built-in WiFi are rare. This leaves many users who wish to connect wirelessly with two popular options, either get a USB WiFi dongle or get a PCIe card.
But the question is, when it comes to PCIe vs USB WiFi, which one is better?
Basically, as far as the performance goes, PCIe WiFi delivers better speeds. USB WiFi, on the other hand, is cheaper, portable and easier to install.
Therefore, both options are great for the average user and each will come with its set of pros and cons which we will explore in the text below.
PCIe WiFi Card
A PCIe WiFi card is a rather affordable expansion card that is often installed in desktop PCs to add WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity options.
Again, it is important to note here that the WiFi card DOES come with Bluetooth functionality as well.
The cards typically come with one or more antennas as well that can improve network reception. This basically increases the network range and stability.
Just like a graphics card, a WiFi card also plugs into a PCIe slot on a motherboard. However, the lane requirement for a WiFi card is far lower than a graphics card.
Slot and PCIe Lane Requirements for WiFi Card
A PCIe WiFi card requires only a single PCIe lane and thus only requires the smallest x1 slot to connect to.
In order to understand why a PCIe WiFi only requires an x1 slot, you will need to understand what PCIe lanes, throughput rate and PCIe version are.
For this we recommend reading: Which PCIe Slot of Wireless Card
Basically, a typical WiFi 6 (802.11AX) card has a max transfer rate of 2.4 Gbps on 5 GHz frequency. This is about 300 MB/s.
A single PCIe lane conforming to PCIe version 3.0 has a transfer speed of 985 MB/s. This is more than three time the max transfer rate of the WiFi 6 card and hence, a single x1 slot is more than enough.
Note there is a whole lot of difference between Gbps and GB/s, the former is Gigabits per second, the later is Giga BYTE per second.
To use a PCIe WiFi card, you’d have to install the card into a free PCIe slot on your motherboard. As mentioned earlier, an x1 slot should be enough to supply the needed bandwidth.
However, in case if you do not have a free x1 slot, you can plug the card into any other larger PCIe slots. However, know that putting the card in a larger slot like an x4 slot with 4 PCIe lanes will not improve the performance of the card.
Installing a PCIe wireless card is a bit tedious compared to a USB WiFi card. Here, you will need to open up your PC case. Then you will need to find an empty PCIe slot you can use and plug in the card correctly.
You will also need to tighten the retainer screw to the case so that the card does not fall off when the case is put upright.
Before attempting this, be sure to earth yourself to discharge any electrostatic charges that can damage your system.
Most, if not all, of the newer cards are plug and play. In case, if they are not, the card will often come with a Driver CD or a manual with a link to the website where you can download the drivers.
Also Read: Onboard Wi-Fi vs Wi-Fi Card vs Wi-Fi USB
Actual speeds you get and rated speeds usually vary depending on the card model as well as the physical setting of your system.
For instance, the actual speed you get depends upon the distance, obstructions, as well as the signal strength of the device.
The throughput rate (max transfer rate of the device), or rated speed, is different from the actual speed and you can use this to compare WiFi modems.
As mentioned earlier, the latest PCIe WiFi 6 cards have an average of 2.4 Gbps (300 MB/s) max transfer speed at 5 GHz frequency and 574 Mbps (71.75 MB/s) on 2.4 GHz Frequency.
Rest assured that most of the newer devices operate at 5 GHz frequency and can leverage the faster 2.4 Gbps speeds.
Also Read: Do Motherboards Come with WiFi?
USB WiFi Card
Sacrificing performance for a more compact size and easy installation, USB WiFi adapters are best for people who just want a WiFi connection without the need for high performance.
Just as the name suggests, USB WiFi adapters get fitted into USB ports and from there can connect to a WiFi network.
With their ease of setup, they can prove very useful for both novice and expert users alike.
Unlike with PCIe WiFi cards, USB WiFi is very simple to set up. You will hardly need any equipment. With a free USB port on a computer, you can go ahead and plug the device in. Once the drivers are correctly installed, you will be ready to go.
The performance of a USB WiFi adapter depends on a lot of factors including the USB port that it is plugged into. Nevertheless, most of the USB WiFi card still conform to older WiFi 5 or the 802.11ac protocol.
With this, you can expect speeds of up to 867 Mbps (108 MB/s) for 5GHz band and 400 Mbps (50 MB/s) for 2.4 GHz band.
Comparison Between PCIe vs USB WiFi
WiFi PCIe cards are usually preferred by demanding internet users who want fast speeds, high stability, and more bandwidth. It’s also ideal because the card sits inside the case on the motherboard’s PCIe slot, hence providing more stability.
As mentioned earlier, the performance of the PCIe WiFi card is much better due to the fact that most of the newer cards conform to the WiFi 6 protocol. They have a max transfer speed of 2.4 Gbps.
USB WiFi cards, on the other hand, still operate at the speed of WiFi 5. They have a max transfer speed of 867 Mbps.
The USB version also has a lot of impact on the performance of the USB WiFi card. Make sure that you get a USB 3.0 WiFi Card and not a 2.0 card.
The following video shows how a WiFi 6 card compares to a WiFi dongle in terms of performance.
Ease of Use and Installation
USB WiFi cards are easy to install. They do not require an understanding of PCIe slots, lanes etc and they do not require any skill at opening up the PC case.
USB WiFi cards are also portable and can be used on both laptops and desktops.
To install a PCIe WiFi cards, you need to have a free expansion slot and a free PCIe lane.
Say for instance your PC has 16 PCIe lanes and you already have a graphics card installed which are designed to take up all 16 PCIe lanes, then your PCIe WiFi card will not work. A typical basic computer has 20 PCIe lanes fortunately.
Moreover, you will need to make sure that the intended PCIe slot is exposed and not blocked by other expansion cards. Sometimes, a large graphics card can block the smaller PCIe expansion slots nearby.
With a USB card, that is usually not the issue. Most of the computers have plenty of USB slots. If you do not have a free USB slot, you can simply get a very cheap USB hub to extend the amount of free USB slots you. Although doing so may hinder the performance in terms of speed and ping rate.
Ping Time/ Latency
As far as the ping time goes, a USB 3.0 network card performs as good as a PCIe network card.
The ping depends upon a lot of factor such as the distance from the WiFi router, USB version and whether you are using a laptop or a desktop.
The best ping rate you get is on an Ethernet cable connection.
While you can get some bargains, PCIe WiFi cards are typically more expensive than USB adapters.
What Other Option Do You Have?
If you do not like PCIe Card or USB WiFi options, what other option do you have for a high speed connection without the ugly Ethernet connection?
Well, you have the Powerline adapters.
A powerline adapter is a device that can allow internet connectivity over your existing electrical connection!
The benefit here is that you can literally achieve speeds as fast and as stable as an Ethernet connection using two powerline adapters.
To do this, you would basically put one adapter near the modem and the other near your computer. The setup would literally give you a lag free experience.
Powerline adapters are generally used by those who want the best latency, such as gamers, and in scenarios where the modem is located at a significant distance such as in a multistory home.
If your modem is already placed quite close to the computer, then you won’t find much use of the powerline adapter.
Also Read: Do Motherboards Have Bluetooth?
For two kinds of devices that do the same thing, PCIe WiFi cards and USB WiFi adapters are very different. They are installed differently and also perform quite differently.
One is ideal for power users (PCIe WiFi) who want faster and more stable networks and the other (USB WiFi) which can still provide above-average speeds, is more prominent among regular computer users.
When it comes down to PCIe vs USB WiFi, a user will be required to answer some questions, most important of which are what performance levels they’re looking for.
At the moment, the PCIe WiFi cards have better performance mostly because they conform to the latest WiFi 6 protocol while USB WiFi cards still conform to the older WiFi 5 protocol. This can change in the future and the performance difference between the two may start to blur.