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When I set up my own gaming PC I was in the fortunate position where I could use ethernet and didn’t have to rely on a wireless alternative, but there are several reasons as to why I bought one anyway.
A Wi-Fi card is not essential for a gaming PC to function and access a Wi-Fi network, but it is recommended as they generally offer better performance and lower latency than other wireless alternatives and make an excellent backup to a wired Ethernet connection.
A Wi-Fi card provides your gaming PC with wireless capabilities that it previously may not have had. If you are unable to connect your PC to your router using Ethernet, a Wi-Fi card is the next best option.
What Is a Wi-Fi Card?
A Wi-Fi card, not to be confused with a USB Wi-Fi dongle, is a small piece of networking hardware that connects directly to your PC’s motherboard via a PCIe slot.
When the necessary drivers are installed, it provides your PC with the wireless capability you find is built into laptops, but typically left out of desktop PCs due to them not being portable devices.
Wi-Fi cards utilize a PCIe connection and therefore connect directly to your motherboard; they offer a similar kind of connectivity you would find with devices that already have built-in Wi-Fi.
They generally work better than the tiny USB Wi-Fi dongles and provide a more stable Wi-Fi signal across greater distances, in addition to better overall throughput and lower latency.
Additionally, as they connect directly to the motherboard, they don’t take up valuable USB ports on your gaming PC, leaving them free for your gaming keyboard, gaming mouse, or other peripherals.
The downsides to using a Wi-Fi card are quite minor, and shouldn’t be a concern for most people:
PCIe Wi-Fi cards are typically more expensive than the very cheap USB dongles, depending on what capabilities the card can provide. Still, they are very affordable and worth that bit extra for better performance, in my opinion.
USB Wi-Fi dongles are as simple as plugging them in and letting your operating system automatically install the necessary drivers.
Wi-Fi cards are a bit more involved as the installation requires you to access your motherboard. If you have built a gaming PC or worked with PC parts before, this will be an absolute breeze, but opening up a PC can be a bit daunting for those that haven’t done it before.
Depending on the motherboard you have in your gaming PC and all of the other hardware that you have inside your case, there physically may not be enough room for the dedicated PCIe Wi-Fi card. If this is the case for you, you’ll need to use one of the alternatives mentioned later in this article.
Does Your Gaming PC Need a Wi-Fi Card?
Many desktop PC’s will not come with built-in Wi-Fi, which does make sense when you consider that it will remain sitting on your desktop and isn’t exactly a portable device.
In an ideal world, you would run an ethernet cable from your switch or router to your gaming PC for better connectivity and performance compared to Wi-Fi, but this may not always be possible.
Adding Wi-Fi capabilities to a gaming PC is the next best option for when you don’t have the ability to use ethernet for whatever reason.
But does it have to be a Wi-Fi card, or are there other alternatives that may be a better fit?
If you are having to rely on a wireless connection, I would recommend going ahead and purchasing a PCIe Wi-Fi card and installing it into your PC.
Yes, they are slightly more expensive and some very minor installation work is needed, but they do typically offer better performance over using a USB Wi-Fi dongle, and is the best option if you are unable to use an ethernet connection, in my opinion.
If you are unable to run an ethernet cable to your gaming PC and don’t take any action to add Wi-Fi capabilities, you will find your PC just sits there with no way of being able to access your network, leaving it unable to access the internet.
How Does a Wi-Fi Card Work?
You’ll often see antennas sticking out the side of your PC when you have a PCIe Wi-Fi card installed, but some cards have the antennas built into the card itself and are not visible.
Either way, these antennas allow data to be sent and received to nearby Wi-Fi networks in the form of radio waves.
The radio waves used by the Wi-Fi card must meet one of the 802.11 standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
These standards have changed over the years, allowing for faster data transfer speeds.
The Wi-Fi card acts as a messenger between your gaming PC and the Wi-Fi network, sending signals and instructions between the two devices.
When both the PC and Wi-Fi network agree to a connection being established, you should find your gaming PC is able to connect to your Wi-Fi network, and from there, the Internet.
How to Install a Wi-Fi Card
Installing a Wi-Fi card is straightforward, especially compared to the installation of other components found inside a gaming PC. You can expect this process to take no more than 10 to 15 minutes.
1. Turn off Your Gaming PC
You should never add or remove components within your PC while it is powered on as there is a risk you can seriously damage something inside, or even harm yourself yourself. Make sure the PC is powered off and the power cable disconnected just to be completely safe.
2. Open the Case
How you open the case will differ from one gaming PC to the next, but most will have a removable panel on the side.
You may need to remove a couple of thumbscrews that are keeping the panel in place, so make sure you keep them safe whilst doing this work.
If there aren’t any screws, look for a lever that can be used to release the side of the case.
Still struggling to find how to open your case? Don’t try and force it and risk damaging something; consult the manual or the manufacturer’s website instead for the exact instructions.
3. Find an Empty PCIe Slot
Being a gaming PC, you probably have a dedicated graphics card which also uses a PCIe connection. Therefore, look around the graphics card and you should find an empty PCIe slot on the motherboard nearby.
4. Remove the Metal Plate
Before you can add a Wi-Fi card, you first need to make space for it.
Look at the back of your PC and you’ll probably find some metal plates which can be easily removed with a screwdriver. Just make sure to unscrew the correct plate by making sure it lines up with the PCIe slot you are looking to use.
If you don’t see any screws keeping them in place, there may be some plastic clips instead for you to pull back.
Again, consult your manual if you are unsure.
Remember to keep the metal plate safe even after you have installed your Wi-Fi card, just in case you need to put it back in place in the future.
5. Install the Wi-Fi Card
Now that you have made space for the card, it’s time to actually install it.
Hold the card by its faceplate and make sure the chips are facing down towards the PCIe slot. Once the card is aligned, push it straight down with a small amount of force until it is fully seated and the faceplate is up against the back of the PC where the metal plate previously was.
Finally, secure the Wi-Fi card in place by using the screw that was unscrewed when you removed the metal place.
6. Attach the Antennas
To keep the packaging small and compact, most Wi-Fi cards will come with the antennas disconnected, so now it is time to attach them to the card.
Remove the caps that are protecting the connector and screw on the antennas.
7. Close and Case and Power on the PC
Now that the Wi-Fi card is fully installed, you can close the case back up and power on the PC.
Your operating system should automatically identify the new hardware and install the drivers required for it to function automatically.
Congratulations, you have successfully installed a Wi-Fi card and given your gaming PC Wi-Fi capabilities.
Are There Alternatives to a Wi-Fi Card?
There are alternatives to Wi-Fi cards with some being more suitable than others depending on your situation.
Ethernet is always the preferred option over Wi-Fi as it offers a more stable connection and generally provides better performance than the other methods of connecting to your home network.
This involves running an ethernet cable from your router or network switch into the ethernet port found on your PC’s motherboard.
Despite sounding straight forward enough, sometimes it is very inconvenient, or even impossible, to run the cable, particularly when you may have multiple floors and walls in the way.
If you are unable to connect your gaming PC over Ethernet, you’ll have to use a wireless alternative.
- USB Wi-Fi dongle
USB Wi-Fi dongles are incredibly simple to use. All you need to do is plug it into an available USB port on your PC and the operating system will take care of the drivers.
Despite being incredibly cheap to purchase, USB dongles can be bit and miss in regards to performance. You’ll need to make sure the dongle you buy is rated for speeds that your router can support.
Don’t go buying the cheapest dongle you can find and pair it with a high-end router; match the two as best as you can.
In my opinion, USB Wi-Fi dongles are suitable for temporary use, but if longer-term Wi-Fi access is needed on your gaming PC, I would recommend investing in a PCIe Wi-Fi card instead.
Generally speaking, they offer better performance and lower latency compared to a USB dongle.
- Motherboard with built-in Wi-Fi
If you are planning on upgrading your gaming PC anyway, you may want to consider a motherboard that has built-in Wi-Fi.
Some may come with external antennas that connect to the back of the motherboard and allow you to adjust the position of them, whereas others will be static and can’t be moved.
Having adjustable antennas is the preferred option as they allow you to point them in the direction of your router, and may be more suitable if the space behind your PC is limited; you can point the antenna upwards or downwards to allow the PC to sit closer to a wall, for example.
If you aren’t planning on upgrading your PC, don’t bother with replacing the motherboard just to add Wi-Fi capabilities to your gaming PC. Using a Wi-Fi card or USB dongle is much easier and cheaper whilst still delivering a very similar result.
Is a Wi-Fi card absolutely necessary for a gaming PC? No. But would I recommend one? Yes.
Even if you are connecting your gaming PC over ethernet, having a dedicated Wi-Fi card as part of your system can make an excellent backup method that offers better performance and lower latency compared to the basic USB Wi-Fi dongles.
If you are looking for a Wi-Fi card for your own PC, here are some recommendations.