With the 2.4GHz radio frequency band becoming ever-more congested, dual-band is recommended for anyone after reliable, predictable and speedy wireless performance at home.
Alas, laptop manufacturers seem to have been paying little heed to this issue. Many budget and even pricier models still sport bargain-basement, single-band wireless cards, and only business machines regularly feature dual-band models. Even fewer boast the top-end three-stream variants.
The good news is that the wireless card is one of the few components in a laptop that you can upgrade. The wireless adapter cards used in laptops employ the PCI Express Mini Card standard, and as long as you have a good set of small screwdrivers and a good eye, they’re usually easy to remove and replace.
The best news, though, is that even the top-end Intel wireless cards, such as the one used in the test laptop for this Labs (an Intel WiFi Link 5300), are affordable. You can find them cheap on eBay, and others are even cheaper. You can pick up an Intel WiFi Link 5100 card – now a generation old, but still a pretty good performer – from as little as ten dollars.
To give you an idea of the sort of performance gains you might expect, we replaced the top-end Intel WiFi Link 5300 card in our test laptop with the cheaper, single-band two-stream AzureWave unit from another system. The latter card is based on the Atheros AR5B95 chipset and is found in many budget laptops.
We then ran the same wireless tests, using the award-winning Netgear DGND3700 N600 as a test bed. The results were dramatic: at close range, we found that with the AzureWave card in place performance fell by a massive 56% over 2.4GHz. At long range, we were able to connect, but the card wouldn’t transmit files at all to the target laptop, and receiving speeds were limited to a mere 0.4MB/sec.
Before you rush off to place your order, though, there are a few things you need to do. First, you need to check your wireless card is easily replaceable. With most laptops, the card can be found on the base under a plastic hatch, along with the memory slots.
The card is easy enough to identify:
This laptop has only two antennae available, limiting the upgrade path to two-stream cards
30mm wide, it will have either two or three leads plugged into a series of terminals on one edge, and an edge connector at the other end, which will be plugged into the laptop’s motherboard.
With that done, you first need to note its size. There are two types of PCI Express Mini Card: full height and half height. You need to buy the right one, otherwise you won’t be able to screw it into place securely once you’ve plugged it in.
The next thing to check is the antenna configuration. If your existing card has only two leads leading away from it, you’re limited to two-stream wireless cards, such as the Intel WiFi Link 5100 or the Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205.
PCI Express Mini Cards are available in two sizes: full height (left) and half height (right)
If you’re lucky, there may be a spare, unused antenna inside, in which case an upgrade to a three-stream card such as the Intel WiFi Link 5300 or the Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6300 is on the menu. Cards such as these also bring into play the three-stream capabilities of the higher-end routers in this test – the Cisco Linksys E4200, Netgear WNDR4000 N750 and Buffalo WZR-HP-G450H.
Once you have your new card, fitting it is easy. First, make sure you’ve downloaded the requisite drivers. Then, ensuring that your laptop has been fully shut down, simply pry the antenna leads from their terminals gently, either with a fingernail or a small screwdriver, noting the position of the wires on the card, unscrew the card and disconnect it, and replace with the new one.