First Look: Gigabit Wi-Fi adapters

Low-cost 802.11ac USB adapters deliver an early taste of super-fast Wi-Fi

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At some point, desktops and laptops will come with the new Gigabit Wi-Fi standard 802.11ac built in. But if you can't wait and want to speed up the wireless links on your existing devices, you can buy an 802.11ac adapter today.

We tested USB adapters from Netgear (two different models), Edimax, ZyXEL, and TRENDnet, plus a PCI Express card from ASUS. The USB adapters range in price from $40 to $70, while the ASUS card sells for $100 or more. (See a slideshow version of this story.)

In terms of performance, when tested at a distance of 25 feet from our access point, with one wall in between, our top performer was the ASUS card, with a maximum throughput of 280Mbps and an average of 169Mbps. That’s pretty fast, but not close to the Gigabit speeds promised by the 802.11ac standard. However, when we moved the laptop to within a foot of the access point, performance skyrocketed to 800Mbps. So, your mileage will vary, depending on several variables, distance being one. Also, the ASUS product is a three-stream card, while the USB adapters we tested supported only two streams (and in the case of the second Netgear adapter, only one stream.)

As for the USB adapters, in our 25-foot test, the two-stream Netgear averaged 147Mbps, followed by Zyxel at 118Mbps, Edimax at 114Mbps. The single-stream Netgear adapter only averaged 68Mbps.

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