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WiFi USB stick: how it works

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WiFi USB stick: how it works: You recently purchased a new desktop PC but, once installed at home, you realized that it is not prepared for connection to Wi-Fi networks. I bet you are already thinking of calling your trusted technician to have an “internal” wireless network card installed, but you would really like to avoid spending a lot and, above all, to already open your brand new computer (perhaps invalidating the warranty ).

Do not despair: there is a “painless” solution that not only will not make you spend a lot but, thanks to its simplicity of installation and configuration, it will avoid the intervention of the technician and above all the opening of the computer: I am talking about the  Wi-Fi USB sticks . These are used to prepare devices for connection to wireless networks that are not natively, by simply connecting to a USB port and without the need for additional power. In other words, just connect the stick to the aforementioned port, install the necessary drivers and you’re done!

How do you say? This solution is to your liking and you can’t wait to find out in detail  how a WiFi USB stick works ? Then you are in the right guide: below I will provide you with all the information you need to know about the characteristics and operation of these devices, initially listing the most important aspects, then moving on to the installation procedures. You will see, I will be much simpler than it may seem now!

Wi-Fi class

The WiFi USB sticks have many characteristics that set them apart from one another and, without a doubt, one of the most important feature to consider is the  WiFi class that can support. This feature is specified with a sequence of numbers and letters and is a way to denote the  maximum transmission speed that can be achieved within the network.

Keep in mind that, with “transmission speed”, I refer to the data transfer between devices connected to the wireless network and not to the speed of the Internet as, in addition to the Wi-Fi class, there are other parameters (latency, noise, quality of the signal, connection type, etc.) which can affect the quality of the Internet connection. This important difference made clear, here are the Wi-Fi classes available at the moment.

  • 802.11b  (class b) – allows a maximum data transfer rate of 11 Mbps .
  • 802.11g (class g) – allows a maximum data transfer rate of 54 Mbps .
  • 802.11n (class n) – allows a maximum data transfer rate that varies (depending on the device) between  300  and  450 Mbps .
  • 802.11ac  (class ac) – allows a maximum data transfer rate of 13 Gbps  or higher  (depending on the technology).

On some Wi-Fi sticks, you can find support for the “802.11 b / g / n / ac standard”: this means that the device is compatible with all the classes mentioned above. In all cases, the maximum transmission speed is also affected by the Wi-Fi class (s) supported by the router.

Transmission band

Another parameter to consider carefully, in terms of speed, is the  data transmission band on which the key is able to operate. The most common is the 2.4 GHz transmission  band , used by most Wi-Fi devices on the market but, in the last period, the 5 GHz band is widespread  : unlike the first one, this is less subject to interference and allows to reach higher communication speeds, however it has a lower coverage range than the 2.4 GHz band. The Wi-Fi ac class , for example, works exclusively on the 5 GHz band.

To take advantage of the 5 GHz WiFi key, however, the router must also be equipped with the support at the aforementioned frequency (and be placed near the key): these routers are defined in jargon  dual-band router (or  tri -band , when multiple 5GHz frequency bands are combined).

Antenna type

WiFi USB sticks can be equipped with both  internal and  external antennas . Devices equipped with internal antennas are certainly more “comfortable” (especially for transport) and less bulky, however they offer generally worse reception than external antennas. The latter solution, in particular, can be useful if the router signal, in the place where you intend to use the key, is not particularly strong. Finally, the external antennas can be  fixed or  removable  (“detachable” or not from the key), and  directional  or  omnidirectional (which receive / transmit signal with priority from one direction, or from all).

The power of the antennas is expressed in  dBi , the gain in decibels compared to an isotropic antenna  : in general the higher the dBi gain, the better the signal reception, however its quality can be influenced by many other parameters. In other words, it’s a parameter to keep in mind when choosing your stick, but not the only influential one!

Format

There are USB WiFi sticks for all tastes and needs: some have the classic shape of the sticks used to store data and are equipped with an internal antenna, others can be even smaller. There are also larger and equipped with external antennas, and still others may have “extravagant” shapes: real  boxes , spheres or even magnetic supports equipped with antennas , to be hooked to the case and connected to the PC via USB extension cable .

This type of “keys”, among other things, offers you more freedom of positioning: for example, if you have a desktop computer, you are not forced to keep the adapter connected to the USB port on the back of the case (where maybe the signal is not optimal), but you can use the extension cable to position it where it performs best.

USB standard

Being a key that communicates with the computer via USB, it is important to also consider the  USB standard with which they are able to operate. It is simple to conclude that, for best performance, it would be ideal to use a USB 3.0 compatible key  (blue band connector and data transfer rate that touches 5 Gigabit per second) instead of a key compatible with the previous  USB 2.0  ( connector with white band, which can reach “only” 480 Megabits per second).

Even in this case, it is essential to consider the computer on which you must use your stick: inserting a USB 3.0 stick into a USB 2.0 port, or vice versa, will reduce performance at the lowest supported speed.

Compatibility

When you connect a device to your computer, it can happen that it works without requiring additional drivers, as these are already included in the operating system. Many Wi-Fi USB sticks, however, require the installation of  dedicated drivers for them to function properly.

So, in order not to preclude its efficiency, one must make sure that the key in question is compatible with the operating system installed on the computer, in a “direct” way (ie without the need to install drivers), or after installing compatible drivers.

Additional features

Up to now I have listed the most “important” features that affect the functioning of a USB Wi-Fi stick, but there are also other aspects to consider in order to analyze in detail both the quality of similar devices, and the usefulness or not in the various scenarios. I’ll list the most important ones below.

  • Security standard – this is how the router generates the network key. To date, almost all Wi-Fi USB flash drives are compatible with the WPA2-AES standard  , the most used for securely encrypting passwords.
  • WPS support – some routers allow you to connect securely to a wireless device, simply by pressing a button on both. Some Wi-Fi USB sticks offer support for this feature.
  • MU-MIMO support – this technology allows a wireless device to manage requests from multiple devices simultaneously, improving performance during communication. Clearly, to take advantage of it, both the router and the WiFi USB stick must be able to support it.
  • Beamforming support – characteristic of 5 GHz band networks, Beamforming allows the signal to be intensified “automatically” on demand, in the direction where it is most needed temporarily. To get the improvement through a compatible stick, the router must also have support for this technology.

4G and Bluetooth keys

Before going into detail and explaining how to use a USB WiFi stick, I would like to make clear a fundamental aspect: there are also other devices that can enable a computer to communicate “wireless”, with purposes other than those described so far, but aesthetically very similar.

For example, 4G USB sticks  do not allow connection to Wi-Fi networks, but have a SIM slot that allows access to the Internet exclusively via cellular technology (2G, 3G or 4G). The same can be said for Bluetooth sticks , which allow “only” to add Bluetooth functionality on computers that, natively, do not have it.

How to use a WiFi USB stick

At this point, I just have to explain how to install and use a WiFi USB stick: in principle, what you need to do is  connect  the USB stick or expansion cable to the appropriate port located on your computer, install if necessary the most suitable drivers for your operating system (which you can generally find on a CD supplied, or on the manufacturer’s website) and restart your computer. Unfortunately I cannot be more detailed on the driver installation procedure, since one can differ from the other: in principle, you must proceed as you would any other “installable” program on your PC.

Once you have completed the installation procedure, you usually don’t have to do anything else: you can connect to the available wireless networks exactly as you would with a network card “included” in your computer. For example, on Windows , you can access the list of available networks by clicking on the dedicated icon (in the shape of a computer or Wi-Fi signal) located at the bottom left, while on  macOS and Linux you can find a very similar network indicator in top right. If you need to take advantage of the exclusive features of your Wi-Fi USB stick, I also recommend installing the proprietary software (often supplied by the manufacturer together with the drivers).

Once connected to the Internet, if you have a key equipped with external antennas and / or connected via a USB expansion cable, the last thing to do is to find, by trial and error, the position of the antennas or the entire device that can provide you with optimal performance. In this regard, I recommend that you carry out speed tests (I explained how to do it in my dedicated guide ) at each “movement”, and stop once you have obtained the best result.

Which stick to buy

Now that you have perfectly understood how a WiFi USB stick works and that you have realized that it is a valid solution, you have decided to buy one that can meet your needs. Good choice! I anticipate from the outset that there really exist for all tastes and, above all, for all budgets.

How do you say? The information I gave you was very useful but do you still need a little help to choose the one that best suits you? Then do not hesitate and consult my guide to buying the best WiFi stick : I am sure that, in no time you will find what you need.