Wi-Fi is becoming more common in desktop computers, but not all desktop computers have it. Add Wi-Fi and you can connect to the Internet wirelessly and host Wi-Fi hotspots for your other devices.
This is a simple, inexpensive process. Buy the right little adapter and you can even take it with you, quickly adding Wi-Fi to any desktop you come across by plugging a tiny device into its USB port.
Why You Might Want to Do This
If you’re happy with your current Ethernet connection, there’s no need to throw away the cables and go wireless. Good old Ethernet cables are still useful, offer faster speeds, lower latency, and more reliable connections than Wi-Fi.
The benefits of Wi-Fi are tough to ignore, even in a desktop PC. With Wi-Fi, you can position your desktop computer anywhere in your home or office, as long as there’s a power outlet nearby. You can then connect it to your router without running an Ethernet cable. Adding Wi-Fi to your desktop PC can also be useful even if it already has an Ethernet connection. With Wi-Fi, you can host a Wi-Fi hotspot on your PC, allowing other devices to connect through its Internet connection.
The Easy Method: A USB-to-Wi-Fi Adapter
Just as you can add Bluetooth to an old computer simply by plugging a little Bluetooth dongle into its USB port, you can add Wi-Fi to a computer by plugging a tiny little dongle into a USB port. This is an easy and cheap option.
You can purchase a USB-to-Wi-Fi adapter for as little as $10 on Amazon. It’s a simple way to add Wi-Fi to any computer. You could leave the device in a spare USB port and forget it’s there or take it with you so you can add Wi-Fi to any desktop computer you come across. This is also a great way to add Wi-Fi to a Raspberry Pi.
Install an Internal Wi-Fi Card
You can also add a Wi-Fi card to your desktop PC. This involves opening up your PC, and then installing a dedicated internal Wi-Fi card in a PCI Express slot, PCI Express Mini slot, or something similar. Assuming your PC is designed to be opened easily and has a spare slot for an expansion card, this should work well.
The advantage of using a dedicated internal Wi-Fi card is that it will potentially have better reception than a little USB dongle—mostly because the internal version can include a larger antenna that sticks out of the back of your PC.
Expect to pay somewhere between $15 and $35 for an internal Wi-Fi card on Amazon. Before you purchase one, be sure your computer has a free slot of the appropriate type and that you’re comfortable installing it on your own. Assuming you can get your computer open easily, it should just be a matter of shutting it down, opening the case, plugging the card into the slot (and securing it with a screw, closing the case, and booting up.
When you’re done, your computer will be able to connect to Wi-Fi just like your average laptop. You may have to install the drivers that came with your Wi-Fi hardware first, though.
Not all desktop PCs come with built-in wifi, which makes total sense—why wouldn’t you just use an Ethernet connection for a system that’s going to mostly sit under (or on) your desk? It’s still good to have options, especially if your desktop PC happens to be located in an area that is difficult (or annoying) to access with a cable, and adding wifi to a system that doesn’t have it is easy.
You have a few options for connecting your desktop PC to your wireless network: you can use a USB wifi adapter, install a dedicated PCIe wifi card, or upgrade to a new motherboard with built-in wifi. (We suspect most people will go for the easiest options—numbers one and two.)
The convenient option: USB wifi adapters
A USB wifi adapter couldn’t be any simpler to use, assuming there aren’t any quirks with how your operating system recognizes or uses the device. Simply plug it into your desktop or laptop. You might have to install some drivers to get it up and running, but giving your system wireless capabilities should be an easy plug-and-play routine after that.
Since it’s a USB adapter, you can plug it into any working USB port on your system—on the front or rear of your system, and USB 2.0 or USB 3.0, too. (Though you might want to try USB 2.0 if you encounter any issues with a USB 3.0 port on an older desktop.)
The disadvantage of a USB wifi adapter is that you might find yourself bumped offline should your system go to sleep. You’ll want to play around with Window’s settings for sleep mode (sometimes, the answer might be a not-so-obvious choice ). You might even have to jump into your motherboard’s BIOS to make sure there aren’t any settings that are kicking off your USB devices when your system sleeps. You could also just disable sleep mode entirely, which isn’t the worst idea.
Additionally, USB wifi adapters can be hit and miss with their performance . Make sure whatever you buy is at least rated for speeds your router can support—don’t buy a cheap wireless-n adapter if you just purchased a brand-new AC1200 router, for example. And know that an adapter isn’t a guarantee; you might still have spotty connectivity wherever it is you’re trying to connect your system, or the adapter might not be as strong as it sounds on paper.
If you know your system is always going to need wifi access, you’re better off investing in a PCIe adapter with dedicated antennas. While these aren’t guaranteed to always beat USB adapters for performance in every situation, odds are good that you’ll encounter better speeds and lower latency (at least, compared to a tiny USB 2.0 adapter).
Best for connectivity: PCIe wifi adapters
PCIe wifi adapters offer the same kind of connectivity you’d find on motherboards with built-in wifi. They generally tend to work better than USB adapters—the tiny ones, at least—giving you more stable connections across longer distances (and better throughput). They’re also great if you know you’re going to need to use most of (or all) or your system’s USB connections. Offload your wireless adapter elsewhere so you have plenty of space for that flash drive, gaming mouse, or humping dog .
There are only three real downsides to PCIe wifi adapters, and they’re relatively minor. First, these devices can be a little more expensive than USB wifi adapters, depending on what capabilities you’re looking to get. Second, you’ll have to install them in your system. That shouldn’t be a problem for most people, but it can be daunting for newbies. Finally, depending on your motherboard’s configuration and how much other hardware you’ve stuffed inside your system, you might not have room for a dedicated PCIe wifi adapter. If so, it’s back to a USB adapter for you.
Best if you’re already upgrading your PC: A wifi-enabled motherboard
If you’re planning to upgrade your PC anyway, and you suspect you might need wireless connectivity at some point—even if it’s just to have a simple backup solution if your Ethernet connection ever gets wonky—consider shopping for a motherboard with wifi capabilities built in. Some might even come with external antennas that connect to the rear of your motherboard and allow you to position them wherever you want (like on your desk), rather than having them shoot directly out the back of your desktop PC. It’s a minor point, but one that might get you a slightly stronger signal (or work better for your desk setup).
This article was originally published in April 2014 and updated on 12/5/19 with more thorough and current information.
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A Wi-Fi adapter, or card, allows a computer to sign on to a wireless network. Desktops that lack such an adapter are of limited usefulness to a business; although the workstation can still connect to the network via a wired connection, the computer won’t be able to see or access wireless printers or other devices, like headsets or mice. Most newer desktop computers include a Wi-Fi card, but if it’s an older PC that was upgraded to Windows 7, the PC might lack up-to-date hardware. You can check the desktop’s components in Windows to see if the workstation needs a wireless network card added to it.
Click “Start” and then click “Control Panel.” Click “Network and Internet” and then click “Network and Sharing Center.” Click “Change Adapter Settings” in the left pane. If Wireless Network Connection is listed as an available connection, the desktop can connect to a wireless network.
Click the “Back” button if Wireless Network Connection isn’t listed and then click “Control Panel Home” in the left pane.
Click “Hardware and Sound” and then click “Device Manager” under Devices and Printers. Double-click “Network Adapters.” If a device that includes the term “Wireless,” “Wi-Fi” or “WLAN” appears in the list, the computer is wireless-capable; if only the Ethernet or local area network card is listed, the computer lacks wireless capabilities.