If you're having problems connecting to the internet, you might suspect the Wi-Fi in your laptop to be the cause. Whether that's a flat refusal to 'see' any wireless networks or simply a very slow connection, it is a problem, that's surprisingly simple and inexpensive to solve.
You might even be looking to upgrade so your laptop matches the Wi-Fi speed of your router or mesh system: the latest models can be significantly faster than older ones, and since most people keep their routers for a long time, that can can lead to quite a speed boost. That's certainly true if your laptop doesn't support 5GHz Wi-Fi, and upgrading it can make a huge difference if you can be relatively close to the router.
There are two ways you can upgrade a laptop's Wi-Fi: the easy way and the hard way. We're going to assume you want the easy way, but will explain how to go about doing it the hard way if you don't like the easy way.
The reason why you might not like the easy way is because that involves buying and plugging in a USB Wi-Fi dongle. The two disadvantages of this method are that it can be a bit inconvenient to have a Wi-Fi dongle sticking out of the side of your laptop and, second, it will permanently occupy a USB port. Plus, if you don't buy one of the really tiny ones, you'll have to remove it from the USB port when transporting your laptop to avoid it being broken and potentially damaging your laptop as well.
This brings us to the hard way, which is to replace the Wi-Fi card in your laptop with a new one. That typically involves dismantling your laptop, so unless you happen to own one which offers a handy hatch under which lurks the wireless adapter, then it's probably beyond the skills of most people.
But before you buy anything, it’s worth reading our guide to improving Wi-Fi as you may find you can get a better signal, better reliability or faster speeds without spending any money at all.
What's the best USB Wi-Fi card for a laptop?
As we said, upgrading by buying a USB Wi-Fi dongle is the best option for most people. Some are very small and unobtrusive, so can be left in the USB port all the time.
If you want 5GHz, then take a look at the TP-Link Archer T2U Nano. That's £13 / $18 from Amazon and supports 802.11ac with speeds up to 433Mbps over 5GHz.
When you plug in a new card, Windows should detect it and automatically install drivers. It's worth disabling your old Wi-Fi adapter to avoid conflicts: open Control Panel (search in Windows 10's search box) and go to Network & Internet > Network & Sharing Centre > Change adapter settings.
There may be more than one adapter shown: identify which is your old Wi-Fi adapter, right-click on it and choose Disable.
How do I upgrade my laptop Wi-Fi card?
If you want to replace the internal Wi-Fi card, this is possible with some laptops and not others.
Many laptops have a plug-in mini PCI-e Wi-Fi card such as the one shown below, right. Newer laptops use the M.2 standard cards (below, left), so be sure to check which style yours takes before buying anything.
You can buy the Intel Wireless-AC 8265 Wi-Fi card from Amazon where it costs around £18 / $25.
If you can access the card easily in your laptop, then replacing your existing one with a new one is actually very simple.
Look under your laptop for removable panels: they’re typically secured with a couple of screws. You might find that you can only access your laptop’s RAM, but some laptops have an access panel for Wi-Fi as well.
If you can get to it, measure the card and make sure any replacement you buy matches those dimensions. If you're unsure, check with the manufacturer.
To fit a new card, use a plastic tool – such as those which come with replacement phone screens – or even your fingernail to prise off the antenna wire(s). They're a push fit.
Then remove any screws securing the card in place and it should pop up. Now you can slide it out.
When the new one is installed, double-check the antenna wires are pressed on firmly, then replace the cover, battery and power up your laptop. Windows 10 should detect the card and install drivers automatically. If not, use a different PC to download the appropriate drivers.