How Much Does a Wireless Internet Adapter Cost?

By Keith Evans

Wireless networking has become a staple of computing in the 21st century, with laptop and desktop users alike cutting the cables between computer and router. As wireless networking proliferates, though, owners of some older machines may feel left out of the wireless revolution. With a simple and inexpensive adapter, though, virtually any computer can be wireless-networking enabled.


Wireless networking works in much the same way as secure cordless phones, radios and televisions. Using a standard (802.11) set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), wireless adapters send data between the computer and the router over radio waves. Differing versions of the standard (such as 802.11b, g, or n) use different transmission methods and compression algorithms to transmit data at higher speeds.


Wireless network adapters are widely available in several types. Desktop users, for example, may be well-suited for the PCI adapter, designed specifically to fit into an available expansion slot inside the desktop computer. These adapters generally draw power from the desktop's power supply, using a large external antenna to communicate strong signals with routers. PCMCIA adapters, by contrast, are designed solely to fit into the expansion slot of older laptop computers, sometimes using an external antenna to also produce strong radio waves (PCMCIA adapters with internal antennae achieve the same goal, but with lower radio power). By far the most popular, however, is the Universal Serial Bus (USB) adapter; designed to simply plug in to a computer's USB port, these small and easy-to-use adapters work with either laptops or desktops and generally support plug-and-play functionality on both Windows and Mac computers.


Wireless network adapters adhere to the IEEE 802.11 standard, though different versions of this standard allow for faster speeds. The version is denoted by a lowercase letter affixed to the end of the standard name; the first version of the protocol, "A," is denoted as 802.11a. Generally speaking, the later the letter falls in the alphabet, the more advanced the version of the protocol: 802.11g, for example, supports speeds of up to 54 megabits per second (54Mbps). The newer 802.11n version, however, uses multi-stream technology to double that speed to 108Mbps.


Wireless network adapters hold several benefits. Not the least of these benefits is increased mobility; by freeing a laptop of its tether to an Internet connection, a truly wireless experience is made possible. In addition, desktop computers can be located anywhere in a home without the need for complicated wiring jobs, drilling and snaking ethernet cables along baseboards. Finally, wireless adapters obliterate the physical restrictions of a wired router by allowing up to 254 simultaneous wireless connections on a single router.


Wireless network adapters vary greatly in price, often ranging from as low as $10 to more than $100 depending on the version of the 802.11 protocol supported and the adapter's design type. USB wireless adapters are generally the least expensive, with some models of 802.11g adapters selling at major retailers for $9.99. A more typical 802.11n adapter from a name-brand manufacturer may cost closer to $50. Models designed for semi-permanent installation, such as PCI adapters, are available at a higher cost, with the newest and most powerful versions topping $100.