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.
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 AX200 (Wi-Fi 6) card and this AX210 (Wi-Fi 6E) card. Both include 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 AX200 or Intel AX210 module. Most importantly, your computer must have an NGFF M.2 slot.
Intel AX200 vs AX210 vs AX201 vs AX211 vs AX411
The Intel AX200 chip supports Wi-Fi 6 -- it's a Dual-band adapter (2.4GHz and 5GHz). On the other hand, the Intel AX210 chip features Wi-Fi 6E -- it's a Tri-band adapter with an additional 6GHz band.
These two are generic and will work on any computer that has the supporting slot and correct software driver.
- The AX201 is a Wi-Fi 6 chip that only works on a computer running an Intel 10th Gen CPU (or later).
- The AX211 and AX411 both are Wi-Fi 6E chips. They respectively require a computer running at least an Intel 10th Gen or 12th Gen.
Of these options, the AX210 is the most versatile. Still, its 6GHz band is only officially supported in Windows 11. A special software driver is necessary to make it work with Windows 10. That's also the case with the AX211 and AX411.
All Wi-Fi 6/6E modules I've known also have Bluetooth 5.2 built-in, which is a bonus.
Alternatively, you'll find Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade options via USB adapters.
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 not perform this Wi-Fi 6/6E upgrade on all existing laptops, but the chance is high with most released in the past decade or so. The requirement is that the machine must use an NGFF 2230 M.2 slot to host its current Wi-Fi adapter.
To be sure, though, here's how to check:
If your laptop currently uses a Wi-Fi 5 adapter -- such as an Intel AC-72xx, AC-82xx, AC-3160, or AC-92xx; or Rivet Networks Killer model 14xx or 15xx -- it will likely support a Wi-Fi 6/6E module.
The bottom line is that the computer needs a 2230 M.2 slot and compatible antenna wires.
On the other hand, if the laptop has its Wi-Fi adapter soldered onto the motherboard or if it uses a Wi-Fi 4 or older adapter, it's time to give up.
Let's find out how to identify your computer's current Wi-Fi card without opening its chassis.
How to identify a laptop’s existing Wi-Fi card (on a Windows 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 mentioned here -- they should look similar or share the same connector 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.
Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E Chip's Rating
Adds Wi-Fi 6 and 6E to a computer; support 160MHz; affordable
Flexible application via NGFF form factor (2230 M.2 slot) or PCIe adapter
Reliable and fast Gig+ performance
No official driver for Windows 10
No USB option
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 (4x4) are available. But the upgrade process is the same for any future Wi-Fi cards of different speed tiers or vendors.