By now, you can easily make a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade to your home network. There are just so many excellent options. 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/E upgrade on many, if not most, existing computers. This post will walk you through the process of determining the possibility and the actual work of upgrading an existing Windows-based computer to the latest Wi-Fi standard.
Before continuing, though, make sure you’re comfortable with opening up your computer and install/replace a component.
Most importantly, keep in mind that Wi-Fi 6E is still in a pre-certified state and will be like that until mid-2021, give or take. Before it’s officially certified, hardware from different vendors might not work (well) with one another, if at all.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on May 27, 2019, and updated it on November 28, 2020, to add additional relevant information, including that of Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6/E 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 a couple of options.
- For a laptop (though this might work with certain desktops), you need an Intel AX200-based module.
- For (almost) all desktops, you’ll likely need a full adapter card, like this Killer AX1650 or this generic one. (You can always get a module and then a generic NGFF-to-PCIe adapter and put them together.)
- If you want to go all the way to Wi-Fi 6E, of which supporting routers slated to be available in 2021, get this Intel AX210 module instead. (Or a ready-made desktop adapter.)
(You can read more about Wi-Fi 6E in this post, but an add-on card of this standard is basically a tri-band 2×2 Wi-Fi adapter that includes a 2.4GHz band, a 5GHz band, and a 6GHz band. Only one of these bands is used at any given time.)
All Wi-Fi 6/E modules I’ve known also have Bluetooth 5.2 built-in, which is always a bonus.
Note: In the future, chances are there will be USB Wi-Fi 6/E adapter cards. In this case, make sure you use it with a USB 3.2 Gen 1 (formerly USB 3.0) or faster port. USB 2.0 caps at just 480 Mbps, which is too slow to handle Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6/E upgrade: Find out if your computer qualifies
All of the Wi-Fi module mentioned above and likely all future Wi-Fi 6/E adapters use the next generation form factor (NGFF). Specifically, they are 2230 M.2 cards — 22m wide and 33mm long — that use the A or E key to connect to a host.
That said, to qualify for the upgrade, your computer must have a compatible slot for this card design.
Wi-Fi 6/E upgrade on a laptop: Highly possible
You can’t perform this Wi-Fi 6/E 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/E 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/E one. The bottom line is the computer needs to have a 2230 M.2 slot and compatible antenna wires.
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 on 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 model mentioned above, your laptop is for sure ready for the upgrade.
(You can also Google its model number to find out if it’s a 2230 NGFF card. Check for a picture of the card. It should look similar to the ones at the top of this post. Check the antenna connectors to make sure it’s the same as those of the existing card.)
Wi-Fi 6/E 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
On a motherboard, PCIe slots tend to come in a few colors, 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, about less than an inch from the left end.
If you buy a separate PCIe converter card, attach the Wi-Fi 6 module onto it, and you have yourself 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/E 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/E 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/E upgrade.
1. Buy the hardware
Buy the Wi-Fi laptop module and the converter PCIe adapter card (if necessary) as mentioned above.
Again, if your computer, mostly a laptop, has a 2230 M.2 slot, you just need the actual 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/E module’s driver software. Generally, use this link for the latest driver from Intel. However, if you want to unlock the 6GHz band of the AX210 chip before the end of 2021, you’ll need to follow the instructions in this post.
Technically, you can download the driver for Intel AX200-based cards using Windows Update. However, that’s only possible if the computer can connect to the Internet, which is not possible 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.
However, if you use a Wi-Fi 6E card, chances are driver installation is required.
And that’s it. If you’re using a Wi-Fi 6 router, your computer can now connect to it using a Wi-Fi 6 connection. There’s no Wi-Fi 6E on the market yet, so we’ll have to wait and see how a 6GHz connection pans out.
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.
For now, it doesn’t matter which card you use, be it Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E, you’ll get the same performance which is that of Wi-Fi 6. That was my experience with my new Intel AX210NGW card, anyway.
To experience Wi-Fi 6E speed, we’ll have to wait till routers of this standard are available, and the standard is certified. And chances are you’ll find out about that here (hopefully) soon.
By the way, the upgrade process is the same for any future Wi-Fi cards of different speed tiers or vendors.