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One of the many features laptops lost as they became thinner and lighter was ports. This is much more apparent when looking at Apple’s MacBook line, which only has Thunderbolt 3 ports on them, but the trend has hit Windows-based PCs, too.
Ethernet ports, which allow you to connect your laptop directly to a WiFi router or cable modem was one of the first to go. Yes, laptops have WiFi, but you’ll get a faster and more reliable connection by using a cable. Computer companies aren’t going to start adding ports back to their machines, so the best solution is to get a USB network adapter.
These adapters generally have a USB plug on one end, and an Ethernet port on the other, so you regain the ability to connect your laptop to a wired network. Another type of USB network adapter is a WiFi antenna, which connects to your computer’s USB port and allows it to connect to a wireless network. Those adapters are good for desktop PCs, which may not have a WiFi card built in, or a laptop with a flaky wireless connection.
Whatever you needs may be, we collected the best USB network adapters that allow you to use the internet more quickly and effectively.
What You Need to Know Before Buying a USB Network Adapter
There are many factors to think about when choosing the right usb network adapter for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Wired and Wireless: As we mentioned earlier, USB network adapters come in two variations: one terminates into an Ethernet port, so you can plug your computer into a cable modem or WiFi routers; the other terminates into an antenna that sends and receives WiFi signals.
Extra ports: USB network adapters are sometimes bundled into an accessory called a “hub,” which features many different types of ports. Hubs bring back additional functionality lost as computers got thinner and lighter, and allow you to connect more external accessories — think flash drives and SD cards — to your computer at once.
Size: You may need to take your USB network adapter with you all the time, so we made sure most of the ones in this guide are pocket-friendly. If you’re only using it in one place, you can use a larger hub, which will have more ports.
Compatibility: All of the USB network adapters in our guide work with both PCs and Macs. If you’re connecting it to a MacBook released after 2016, you may need a USB-A to USB-C adapter to plug it in.
Speed: The biggest reason you’ll will want a USB network adapter is to increase your computer’s internet speed. Our wired picks all have Gigabit Ethernet ports on them, which have a maximum speed of 5Gbps (gigabits per second). Our wireless pick has a maximum speed of up to 433Mbps (megabits per second). Both of those speeds are fast enough to stream 4K video, download modern video games, video chat with your friends, and surf the web without worry.
1. Cable Matters USB to Ethernet Adapter
If you need a solid, single-use USB network adapter, Cable Matters has you covered. The pocket-sized adapter weighs one ounce, and has a three-inch USB cable that terminates into a gigabit Ethernet port. A small LED on the top of the adapter lights up when it’s plugged in, and two LEDs on top of the Ethernet port signal when a network is detected and data is being transferred.
The only downside is that this USB network adapter doesn’t have any extra ports, so if you’re looking for a multi-use accessory, this isn’t a great pick.
Pros: This small, lightweight adapter can turn one of your USB ports into an ultrafast Ethernet port.
Cons: It doesn’t have any extra ports.
2. Anker 3-Port USB HUB With Gigabit Ethernet Converter
Anker’s USB network adapter does more than just help connect your computer to the internet. It has a gigabit Ethernet port on one end, and three USB-A ports on the top. You can use the USB ports to connect additional accessories — a flash drive, camera, and your phone, for instance — while maintaining that fast, wired connection.
This adapter has an LED light on top that lets you know when it’s working, and surge protection to keep your accessories safe in case of a power spike. It doesn’t have separate LEDs that flash when it’s connected to a network or transferring data though.
One big way this USB network adapter stands out is that it doesn’t have a USB cable attached to it. Anker includes a 1.6ft USB-B to USB-A cable in the box, but you’re free to use another one if you’d like. This means you can get a USB-B to USB-C cable to connect the adapter to a more modern computer, or get a cord that’s longer or shorter based on your needs.
The flexibility lets you customize how this adapter fits in with your computing setup, which is great, but it also means you can leave your cable behind and be stuck. This feature will either be a major plus, or potential downside depending on the situation.
Pros: Anker’s USB Network adapter has three USB-A ports on top, so you can connect multiple accessories to your computer at once. Its USB cable can be swapped out to better fit your machine or computing setup.
Cons: It doesn’t have LEDs to let you know when it’s connected to your network, and its external USB cable can get lost if you’re not careful.
3. TP-Link USB WiFi Adapter
If you want to add WiFi to an older machine or a computer with a flaky wireless connection, TP Link’s WiFi Adapter is a great choice.
The antenna plugs into one of your computer’s USB ports, and allows it to connect to any wireless network. This adapter’s greatest strength is that it supports 802.11AC, which is one of the latest versions of WiFi technology. It allows the antenna to reach speeds of up to 433Mbps — over five times the maximum of the previous version of Wi-Fi, 802.11N. Beyond faster speeds, this newer version of the WiFi standard also has significantly better range than the older one.
TP-Link’s network adapter can connect to WiFi networks using the 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz frequencies, which makes it compatible with any Wi-=Fi router. For the best results, choose a 5.0Ghz connection if your router supports it; there’s less interference from wireless phones and other gadgets on that frequency.
The only real downside to using TP-Link’s adapter is that it does add a fair amount of bulk to your computer. The antenna may get caught in your peripheral vision, or need to stick out at an awkward angle to work effectively. That said, if your computer has an older WiFi chip in it, or no WiFi at all, it’s totally worth that small annoyance.
Pros: This USB network adapter supports a new version of WiFi, and can work on 2.4Ghz and 5.0Ghz frequencies.
Cons: The antenna does jut out from the side of your computer.
4. Twelve South StayGo
The ultimate USB network adapter in our guide is Twelve South’s StayGo, a multi-port hub that can connect a modern computer to just about any accessory.
This hub has a Gigabit Ethernet port, three USB-A ports, an HDMI port capable of outputting video at 4K, an SD card slot for reading memory cards, and a pair of USB-C ports. One of those USB-C ports needs to be connected to your computer, but you can connect the other one to your computer’s power adapter, and charge its battery while this hub is connected.
Although this hub connects to your computer via an external cable, it has a hollowed out section where the cord can stay when you’re traveling, so you don’t lose it. The HDMI and SD Card reader are ports sorely missed on ultra-slim computers, and the ability to connect your computer to a high-resolution TV, memory card, several accessories, and a cable modem at the same time is huge.
But speaking of huge, this hub is larger than the single-use USB network adapter in our guide. It’s only 7.2 ounces, and under five inches long, which is compact given its features, but this is an accessory you’ll keep in a backpack, not in your back pocket. Still, if you want to connect a modern laptop to a wired network, but want an adapter with a lot of headroom, this is your best bet.
Pros: This hub allows you to connect to a wired network, SD card, 4K TV, and three USB accessories at the same time.
Cons: It is larger and bulkier than the single-use USB network adapters in our guide.