There are plenty of excellent routers to bring home nowadays that support Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E. In fact, I bet you’ve done that already, which is why you’re reading this post — you want to do that on the other end of the connection.
And you’re right! It’s possible to do a Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade on many, if not most, existing computers. This post will walk you through determining the possibility and the actual work of upgrading an existing Windows-based computer to the latest Wi-Fi standard.
Before continuing, make sure you’re comfortable opening up your computer and installing/replacing a component.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on May 27, 2019, and updated it on November 28, 2020, to add relevant information, including Wi-Fi 6E.
Table of Contents
Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade: What you need
First and foremost, you need a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E adapter card to add it to your computer or replace the existing one.
There are many options but generally:
- For (almost) all desktops, you’ll likely need a full adapter card, such as this one which includes an Intel AX2xx module and a generic NGFF-to-PCIe adapter.
- For a laptop (though this might work with some desktops), you need an Intel AX2xx-based module.
Generally if it’s an Intel AX200 card then it supports Wi-Fi 6 — it’s a Dual-band, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. If it’s an Intel AX210 card then it’s a Wi-Fi 6E — it’s a Tri-band adapter with an additional 6GHz. There’s no reason why not to get the AX210 but 6GHz is only fully supported in Windows 11 — you need this special software driver to make it work with Windows 10.
All Wi-Fi 6/6E modules I’ve known also have Bluetooth 5.2 built-in, which is a bonus.
Eventually, you’ll find USB Wi-Fi 6/6E adapter cards.
In this case, make sure you use it with a USB 3.2 Gen 1 (formerly USB 3.0) or a faster port. USB 2.0, which tops at just 480 Mbps, is too slow to handle Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade: Find out if your computer qualifies
All the Wi-Fi modules mentioned above and likely all future Wi-Fi 6/6E adapters use the next-generation form factor (NGFF).
Specifically, these are 2230 M.2 cards, which are 22m wide and 33mm long, that use the A or E key to connect to a host. To qualify for the upgrade, your computer must have a compatible slot for this card design.
There are Wi-Fi cards with narrower widths, but the length remains.
Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade on a laptop: Highly possible
You can’t perform this Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade on all existing laptops, but chances are it’s possible with most laptops released in the past five or so years — most, if not all, use an NGFF Wi-Fi card and, therefore, have a 2230 M.2 slot.
To be sure, though, here’s how to check:
If your laptop currently uses an Intel Wi-Fi 5 adapter model AC-72xx, AC-82xx, AC-3160, or AC-92xx, it will likely support a Wi-Fi 6/6E module. So those that use the following Wi-Fi 5 models from Rivet Networks: Killer 1435 and Killer 15xx.
Again, even if your machine doesn’t use any of the Wi-Fi card models above, but any Wi-Fi 5 card, it likely can handle a Wi-Fi 6/6E one. The bottom line is that the computer needs a 2230 M.2 slot and compatible antenna wires.
On the other hand, if the laptop uses an older Wi-Fi standard (Wi-Fi 4 or earlier) with an older slot, it’s time to give up. Even if you manage to install the new Wi-Fi 6 module via an adapter, chances are the antennas won’t fit.
Let’s find out how to identify your computer’s current Wi-Fi card.
How to identify a laptop’s existing Wi-Fi card (on a Windows 10 machine)
Right-click the Start button (lower-left corner) and choose Device Manager to open the Device Manager window.
- On the list of devices, click on the right arrow (>) button before Network adapters to extend the list.
- Look for the wireless adapter and note down its name. If it’s one of the card models mentioned above, your laptop is ready for the upgrade.
In any case, you can always Google the existing card’s model number to find out if it’s a 2230 NGFF card. Look for a picture of the card and compare it against those on top of the post — they should look similar or share the same keys.
Also, check the antenna connectors to make sure it’s the same as those of the existing card, which is almost always the case if it shares the same M.2 standard.
Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade on a desktop: It’s all about PCIe
The chance is much higher on the desktop front. For one, some desktops have a built-in 2230 M.2 slot. Most importantly, all standard desktops released in the past decade have peripheral component interconnect express (PCIe or PCI-E) slots.
As a result, with an NGFF-to-PCIe converter card mentioned above, you can, for sure, upgrade the machine to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E.
PCIe slots come in different lengths to represent performance grades — the longer the slot, the faster an add-on device it can host. You’ll only need an x1 PCIe slot (the shortest one) for the Wi-Fi 6 upgrade, but a slot of any length will work.
How to identify PCIe slots on a desktop
PCIe slots tend to come in a few colors on a motherboard, including black, blue, yellow, or green, but they are rarely white, which is the color of older PCI slots. Also, no matter how long a PCIe slot is, its only key notch — a divider within the slot itself — is always at the same spot, less than an inch from the left end.
If you buy a separate PCIe converter card, attach the Wi-Fi 6 module to it and have a Wi-Fi 6 PCIe add-on adapter.
Note: You might need an internal USB connector for the Bluetooth feature of the Wi-Fi 6/6E card. Most motherboards have some of these near their bottom, below the PCIe slot area. If you only care about the Wi-Fi function, though, you can ignore this.
Steps to perform a Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade via adapter card installation
Now that you have done all the steps needed to make sure your computer supports the new card, here are the general steps to do the Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade.
1. Buy the hardware
As mentioned above, buy the Wi-Fi laptop module and the converter PCIe adapter card (if necessary).
Again, if your computer, mostly a laptop, has a 2230 M.2 slot, you only need the Wi-Fi module. On a desktop, chances are you will need a full adapter card, which is the Wi-Fi module, and a PCIe to M.2 adapter.
2. Get the software driver
On your to-be-upgraded computer, download the Wi-Fi 6/6E module’s driver software. Generally, use this link for the latest driver from Intel.
However, you’ll need to follow the instructions in this post if you want to unlock the 6GHz band of the AX210 chip on a Windows 10 computer right away.
Technically, you can download the driver for Intel AX200-based cards using Windows Update. But that’s only possible if the computer can connect to the Internet, which is impossible if the Wi-Fi card is its only network adapter. So, getting the driver software beforehand is a smart move.
3. Install the Wi-Fi module/adapter
Open up the computer, and install the module.
On a desktop, use any available PCIe slot. (Make sure you plug in the card’s USB cable if you want to use the card’s Bluetooth feature).
On a laptop, swap the existing Wi-Fi card with the new Wi-Fi 6 module — the two should look very similar. (Make sure you reattach the antenna wires correctly onto the replacement card’s connectors, marked as 2 and 1 on the module — replicate their positions as seen on the old card.)
Close the computer back up.
4. Install the software driver
Start the computer up and, if necessary, install the software you downloaded in step #2. In my experience, the latest revisions of Windows 10 have a built-in driver for Wi-Fi 6 cards, and yours might work right away.
And that’s it. If you’re using a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E router, your computer can now connect to it using a Wi-Fi 6 (5GHz) or Wi-Fi 6E (6GHz) connection, respectively — both caps at 2.4Gbps using your newly installed adapter card.
Note, though, that you might have to tweak the router’s setting a bit — make sure it works in the 160Mhz channel — for the card to connect at top speeds.
Some routers do not support this channel width at all; therefore, the newly installed adapter card will instead connect at 1.2Gbps in the best-case scenario.
For now, it doesn’t matter which card you use, whether Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E, you’ll get the same performance that caps at 2.4Gbps.
To experience faster speeds, we’ll have to wait till when or if higher-tier adapter cards (4×4) are available. But the upgrade process is the same for any future Wi-Fi cards of different speed tiers or vendors.