Wireless Network Cards Buyers Guide
A wireless network card or network Interface card (NIC) is an add-in card for a desktop PC or workstation to enable it to connect to the wider network and outside world. Although most computers will come with a basic wired network card installed as standard, the choice to connect wirelessly will often be driven by wishing to keep cabling to a minimum - either at home or in a small office. Connecting a device wirelessly is straight forward but does come with various considerations around speed of connection, range of wireless coverage and number of concurrent users. We’ll look at all of this in this guide.
It is worth noting that laptops usually have wireless cards built in so no additional card is required, unless an upgrade is desired. When it comes to servers, wired network connectivity is the preferred choice due to his volumes of traffic, large data sizes and desired resiliency.
What is Wireless?
Before we get into the various types of wireless NIC available, we’ll spend some time looking at wireless networking itself. Wireless networking or WiFi refers to the transfer of data over radio waves rather than a cable. The speed of data transfer is measured in bits-per-second - Mbps for a thousand and Gbps for a million. The early speeds of wireless were less than could be achieved by basic wired connections (100Mbps), but later versions are now equalling the common 1Gbps speeds seen in many home network scenarios.
Wireless technology has been around for many years, and has been given the IEEE name of 802.11. This isn’t particularly important other than that it has developed through various standards usually increasing speed of transmission and range with each new version. These versions are defined by using the 802.11 nomenclature and then a letter suffix to differentiate them form each other. Let’s take a look at the common standards.
|IEEE Standard||Year Adopted||Frequency||Max. Data Rate||Max. Range|
|802.11n||2009||2.4 / 5GHz||600Mbps||825ft|
|802.11ah||2016||2.4 / 5GHz||347Mbps||3000ft|
|802.11ax||2019||2.4 / 5GHz||10Gbps||1000ft|
Although each new version does promise greater theoretical speeds and distances of coverage, it is worth pointing out that the performance seen in the real world will be affected by obstacles, thickness of walls, building materials and other potential interference but we’ll look at these more later on.
To have the best chance of seeing the largest speeds and range seen in the table above, you will need to ensure that the wireless NIC in your device is connecting to a compatible access point or router (the device that then connects to the outside world). For example if your desktop has the latest 802.11ax wireless NIC, but is connecting to a 802.11n access point, it will work but your performance will limited to the slower n standard figures. The data rate seen will also be affected if others are also connecting wirelessly in the same area.
2.4GHz or 5GHz
The primary differences between the two frequencies are the range (coverage) and bandwidth (speed) that the bands provide. The 2.4GHz band provides coverage at a longer range but transmits data at slower speeds, whereas the 5GHz band provides less coverage but transmits data at faster speeds. The range is lower in the 5GHz band because higher frequencies cannot penetrate solid objects, such as walls and floors. However, higher frequencies allow data to be transmitted faster than lower frequencies, so the 5GHz band allows you to upload and download files faster.
The wireless connection on a particular frequency band can also be faster or slower because of interference from other devices. Many WiFi-enabled technologies and other household devices use the 2.4GHz band, including microwaves and garage door openers. When multiple devices attempt to use the same radio space, overcrowding occurs. The 5GHz band tends to have less overcrowding than the 2.4GHz band because fewer devices use it and because it has 23 channels for devices to use, while the 2.4GHz band has only 11 channels. If you’re experiencing a lot of interference from other devices, consider using the 5GHz band.
Types of Wireless NIC
Wireless NICs can either connect to PCIe slot or M.2 slot on the motherboard, or use an external USB port. The result will be the same, it just depends on whether you have compatible or available slots on your motherboard, or whether external ports would work better.
A PCI Express (PCIe) add-in card fits into a slot on the motherboard and has one or several antenna that protrude outside the computer case to transit the signal. Some PCIe cards feature an antenna on a cable so it can be better placed as often the real of a desktop PC may be under a desk or close to a wall.
An M.2 card is a smaller form factor card that also connects to the motherboard, but usually found in laptops. As mentioned previously laptops will already feature built in wireless connectivity, but an M.2 card offers the chance to upgrade to a newer wireless standard if so desired, either for faster connectivity or greater range.
It is also possible to use an external USB port to connect a wireless ‘dongle’ or antenna. This is often the simplest way of adding wireless to a computer as no opening of the case is required.
Again, as with PCIe cards the antenna may be internal to the dongle, connected out the back of it or be able to be used on a cable attachment for better positioning.
Although this guide is concerned with wireless networking cards there are a few related aspects to consider when looking at configuring systems and connecting them a wider network.
Access Points and Routers
At some point a wireless network connection has to become wired to make the link to the wider world and Internet. The device that connects to a network switch is called a Wireless Access Point (WAP). The network switch may connect multiple WAPs and wired users too, that ultimately connect to a router to allow data to leave and be received from outside a local area network (LAN). In home scenarios, the access point and router are usually combined into a single device called a wireless router. When connecting to a WAP or router bandwidth is used up so the more users you have connecting to a single access point will have an impact on the performance each of them will see.
In a home scenario many routers offer both 2.4 and 5GHz bandwidths, so it may be possible to split devices connecting to each band for better performance. For example laptops could be placed on the 5GHz band and smartphones on the 2.4GHz. If there are many users it may be better to segregate types of traffic and prioritise it - video streaming and gaming, or select particular users and prioritise them. An office laptop could be given guaranteed bandwidth so no matter how many other users in the household are on their phones, the laptop connectivity will not suffer.
In a business scenario, multiple WAPs may be employed to reduce the burden on any given one access point. Using multiple access points does require extra configuration so that users don’t lose signal as they move about an area. This can be minimised by using mesh access points that are centrally controlled from one WAP designated a master unit. This mesh approach ensures even load across all access points thus guaranteeing consistent speeds and performance, as they act like one unit rather than individual access points.
Any wireless network is likely to have areas that don’t get good enough signal to allow a connection, just like some areas of the country have little or no mobile phone signal. This can be caused by simply too much distance, thickness of walls or room layout, but can be addressed and hopefully eliminated in a number of ways. A wireless extender or repeater can be used to boost the signal from the original access point or router to reach an area further away, however it should be noted with each range doubling you will lose half the bandwidth performance.
Alternatively a second access point could be used to cover the desired area independently of the first so no bandwidth is lost. This second access point does need to be physically connected to the router so extra cabling will be needed. Mains cabling can also be used to extend wireless coverage by use of Homeplug or Powerline adapters - these too essentially act as an extra access point but require no additional cabling.
Within a business setting dead spots are best tackled by employing a mesh network of access points.
Wired vs Wireless
Although wireless connectivity is desirable for having minimal cable clutter in any home or even office environment and is the norm for smartphones, tablets and laptops, it should be remembered that wired connectivity should be the choice for some types of device. Gaming consoles or PCs where systems have been optimised for latency free, high definition graphics may suffer from being connected to an inconsistent or potentially busy wireless connection. A had wired link will offer stability and be free from interference.
Similarly in an office environment, workers are free of restrictions to roam around the building with laptops, but heavy workloads on workstations such as CAD, video editing will always benefit from a wired connection. The same applies to any server connections, storage arrays and back-up resources where fast file transfers are required no matter how large they may be. You can learn more about wired NICs and connectivity here.
Time to Choose
We hope you’re found this guide to wireless networking cards useful in informing your choice of connectivity for your systems - whether you’re looking at a new machine or upgrading an existing one. Click below to see our range of wireless networking cards.
However if you would like further advice on the best connectivity solution for your system, don’t hesitate to contact our friendly team on 01204 474747.