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What Is A USB WiFi Adapter? How Does It Work?

usb wifi adapter iconUSB has become very popular over the years and it is now possible to get just about any add on to your computer in USB form. So it should be no surprise to you that you can get a USB WiFi adapter that will enable you to connect to the Internet via a wireless router.

You should have a number of USB ports with your computer whether it is a desktop or a laptop. As long as you have one of these free you can plug in a USB WiFi adapter and then this will communicate with a WiFi router that will provide you with access to the Internet.

In this article, I will explain how a USB WiFi adapter works, how you can use one with a computer and how to set them up for use. I will use layman’s terms throughout as I have a lot of expertise with computers but I do not want to confuse you with a lot of technical terms that will just make your head spin!

What does a USB WiFi Adapter do?

The first question I want to answer is what a USB WiFi adapter actually does. In the simplest terms, it is a device that enables a computer to communicate with a wireless router. With this communication in place, the computer user can access the external Internet.

Before wireless routers became popular, you used to have a physical cable to connect your computer or laptop to an Internet router using the Ethernet system. Everything is going wireless now and with the WiFi standards, it is really easy to access the Internet via a wireless router using a USB WiFi adapter plugged into your desktop computer.

How does a USB WiFi Adapter work?

If your laptop or desktop computer does not have any wireless connectivity functionality built-in then you will need to provide this if you want to communicate with a wireless router to access the Internet.

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There are cards available that include all of the necessary electronics that you need to work with WiFi standards and create a connection with a wireless router. In the case of a USB WiFi adapter, all of the required electronics are provided on a smaller scale inside a USB stick that you simply plug into a free USB port.

How-USB-Wifi-Adapter-works.jpg

With most USB WiFi adapters you will have an antenna built into the stick itself. This is used to pick up the signals from your wireless router. These tend to work reasonably well if your computer is fairly close to the wireless router.

You can also purchase a USB WiFi adapter that includes an external antenna which helps to pick up WiFi signals from your router if your computer is some distance away. These are more expensive than the USB WiFi adapters that have the antenna built-in but they can be very useful if you tend to move around a lot.

When you plug your USB WiFi adapter into a USB port on your computer it will be able to directly communicate with your processor and other important parts of your system. It is a lot easier to install a USB WiFi adapter than it is to install a PCI-E WiFi adapter in your computer.

How to Use a USB WiFi Adapter on a Windows PC?

If your Windows PC has never used a wireless network before then there will probably be a number of steps that you need to go through to use your USB WiFi adapter for Internet connectivity.

If your ISP is installing your wireless router for you then tell them where your computers and other devices are located in your home or office so that they can set it up in the best position. Once your wireless router is working and you have tested it using a device that already has wireless connectivity (e.g. a laptop or mobile device) then insert your USB WiFi adapter into a free USB slot on your computer.

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I will cover the installation of drivers and other setup requirements in another section so I am assuming here that your USB WiFi adapter is ready to go at this point. Open the Control Panel in Windows and open the “Network and Sharing Center” (it may be called something different such as “Networks” depending on the version of Windows that you are using).

Windows 10 Control Panel

If you do not see a wireless network there then you will need to create one. This is easily done by clicking on “set up a new connection or network” and then following the instructions that Windows provides to you.

Windows 10 Network and sharing center

Once the wireless network is up and running your USB WiFi adapter will go to work looking for available wireless routers. Yours should have a unique name so that you can easily find it. If you live in an apartment building there might be many different wireless networks (routers) detected by your USB adapter so be sure to know what the name of yours is.

The last step will be to select your wireless network from the list and then you will be asked to enter an “SSID”. This is just a fancy name for a password that was used to set up your wireless router. If your ISP did this for you then they will supply you with this password. Enter this correctly and you will establish a connection with your wireless router.

If you are not prompted to enter an SSID or password then this probably means that your wireless network is not secure. This is something that you need to fix because if you don’t then anyone with a wireless adapter can connect to your wireless network. Ask your ISP for help with this if you need it.

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How to Setup/Install a USB WiFi Adapter?

All wireless adapters require additional software to make them work properly. These are called “drivers”. When you are choosing a USB WiFi adapter for your computer be sure to check what versions of Windows it will work with so that you can avoid any setup problems.

If your USB WiFi adapter came with a driver CD then have this ready as you will need to use it to install the device properly. In the case where you do not have a driver CD then I strongly recommend that you look for the right drivers online and then download them using another computer. Copy these to your desktop before you plug in your USB WiFi adapter.

As soon as you plug in your USB WiFi adapter Windows should detect it and then try to automatically install the right drivers for the device. Windows is pretty good at recognizing wireless adapters and installing the proper drivers but this does not always work 100% of the time.

Even if Windows does do this properly I would always recommend installing the drivers from the CD or those you downloaded. This is because the Windows drivers will be very basic and you will probably find that your USB WiFi adapter works more efficiently if you install the correct drivers.

Once you have gone through this process, your USB WiFi adapter will be ready for use (assuming that there are no errors or other problems). You should not have to install the drivers again. If you do experience problems then get a cup of coffee on as it could be a long night trying to resolve these!

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