10 Best WLAN Sticks: Reviews and Buying Guide

Wirelessly on the Internet, thanks to Smartphone, Tablet & Co, we are already used to this standard today. But what if an older computer can only be connected to the Internet via cable? In these cases, a WLAN stick helps. The WLAN Stick also equips devices that are not WLAN-capable with an appropriate receiver and makes it very easy to integrate them into the wireless radio network. So even when using older PCs are no annoying cables in the way and devices that already have a WLAN module with outdated standard, can gain significantly through a WLAN stick speed.

In our detailed guide, you will learn everything you need to know about the Wi-Fi stick. What about the WLAN standards, which encryption is up-to-date, how fast should the WLAN stick be and what is the difference between a USB stick, a WLAN stick and a Surf Stick? Read this and more here and we also take a look at the WLAN stick test of the Stiftung Warentest.

Top 10 WLAN Sticks

What is a WLAN stick?

Externally, the WLAN stick initially reminds of a USB stick. Instead of the data memory, which is located inside a USB stick, however, the WLAN Stick contains an adapter that makes it possible to connect the PC or another end device via a wireless connection to the Internet. This is usually a wireless router necessary or there must be a WLAN hotspot within reach so that the stick can capture a WLAN signal. Wireless networking with other devices in the local network is also possible. The WLAN stick thus replaces the missing WLAN receiver, which is already permanently installed in mobile devices such as laptops or tablets but is not available in every desktop PC, for example. With the help of the WLAN stick or WLAN adapter, devices are also WLAN-capable, which do not have a WLAN receiver with them. Since the WLAN sticks are very easy to handle and no computer knowledge must be present, as they are required for example when installing a WLAN card, they are a popular means to make older devices quickly and easily WLAN-enabled.

This is how the WLAN Stick works

Nowadays we are used to being able to access the internet from different mobile devices at any time and without any annoying and annoying cables. In many cases, this access is via Wi-Fi, so most of us use it every day. But how does the WLAN and thus also the WLAN stick work? The term WLAN stands for Wireless Local Area Network. This refers to a wireless or wireless local area network. For example, the local area network may be two or more devices that are interconnected, such as a computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, or a wireless router connected to one or more devices.

As PCs became households, it was common to connect devices on a local network by cable. Whether modem, router or multiple computers with each other, the connection was usually an Ethernet cable used to establish a local area network.

However, over the years, the need for digital mobility and flexibility has increased, and at the same time, the broadband network has been expanded. Bulky and inflexible desktops were replaced by mobile laptops, and in 2005, more laptops and notebooks were sold in the EU than desktops. Almost all of these laptops and notebooks included a WLAN chip that could be used to establish a wireless connection within a local area network.

Unlike the wired Local Area Network (LAN), Wi-Fi is based on a wireless connection. It requires at least two devices, a transmitter, and a receiver. In homes, the wireless local area network is often used to connect devices to the Internet. As a transmitter, a router is usually used, as a receiver smartphone, tablet, laptop or even a desktop PC are used. Between transmitter and receiver now an electromagnetic radio signal is established. This radio signal is transmitted on different channels in different frequencies. For a connection to be established, the transmitter and receiver must be on one wavelength, ie use the same frequency. These frequencies are awarded at European level and fall into two distinct areas:

  • the 2.4 GHz range
  • the 5 GHz range

In this frequency, ranges channels are released in which the radio signals may be transmitted. These are channels 1 to 13 in the 2.4 GHz range, and 36 to 64 and 100 to 140 in the 5 GHz range.

Of course, the transmitter and receiver must be equipped with a corresponding WLAN module so that the wireless transmission works via WLAN. Mobile modern devices such as smartphones or tablets and laptops are usually equipped with such a module in the form of WLAN chips. However, if a device such as an older desktop PC does not have a wireless receiver, the Wi-Fi stick comes into play. It is connected to the device via USB and takes over the role of the WLAN receiver and makes it possible to integrate the device in the wireless local network.

These requirements are necessary for the use of the WLAN stick

In order to use a WLAN stick, the device only has to meet a few requirements. The most important thing is a USB port into which the WLAN stick can be plugged. Depending on the type of WLAN stick, it should be a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 port.

Installation of the WLAN stick

The Wi-Fi stick is very easy to use and that’s why it’s very popular. It is not necessary to unscrew the computer, for example, to insert a WLAN card, but the WLAN stick is simply connected via a free USB port to the computer or another device.

The installation of the WLAN stick is usually very simple, but in the exact implementation can be significant differences. How the WLAN stick is installed depends, among other things

  • the WLAN stick
  • the router
  • the operating system

Depending on the factors mentioned above, one of the following three installation methods usually applies:

  1. Plug & Play, in this case, called Plug and Surf
  2. Installation via a driver CD
  3. Installation via WPS button

The easiest way is the Plug & Play version. The WLAN stick is simply plugged into a free USB port and no installation via driver CD has to be performed. This variant is very often possible with the Windows 10 operating system.

Older Windows operating systems often require the driver CD to install the WLAN stick. The supplied CD is inserted into the corresponding drive and you only have to follow the instructions. Another very easy option is the installation via the WPS button. The abbreviation WPS stands for Wi-Fi Protected Setup and it allows a simplified connection between the devices in the local network. Installation via the WPS button also has the advantage that the WLAN security key is automatically transmitted and does not have to be entered manually.

So the WLAN stick is used

First and foremost, the Wi-Fi stick is used to connect a device that is not WLAN-capable alone to a wireless network. In this case, the WLAN Stick serves as a WLAN receiver and allows the device to receive the wireless signals from the router or other devices. Some WLAN sticks also have an AP mode in which they not only act as receivers but can also be set up as a hotspot or router, which in turn can connect to other receivers.

Important questions and terms around the WLAN stick

If you choose to purchase a Wi-Fi stick, you’ll quickly come across shortcuts and terms that you might not be familiar with. For this reason, we want to introduce and explain the most important abbreviations and terms around the WLAN stick in our guide and answer the most important questions that may arise around the WLAN stick.

The WLAN standard

An indication that you will encounter again and again when selecting a suitable WLAN stick is the so-called WLAN standard or WLAN type. For devices to be compatible with each other, the WLAN signal must conform to a standard. This standard is called IEEE 802.11 and it is divided into different types in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, which differ in terms of the transmission rate.

In the 2.4 GHz frequency range, there are the following standards:

  • 802.11 with a transfer rate of 1-2 Mbit / s
  • 802.11 b with a transmission rate of 6 Mbit / s
  • 802.11 g with a transmission rate of 20 Mbit / s
  • 802.11 n with a transmission rate of 170 Mbit / s

In the 5 GHz frequency range, the following standards are available:

  • 802.11 a and h with a transmission rate of 20 Mbit / s
  • 802.11 n with a transmission rate of 170 Mbit / s
  • 802.11 ac with a transfer rate of 1300 Mbit / s

The WLAN standard as is currently the fastest standard and a WLAN stick of type ac, for example, can significantly upgrade an old device that is equipped with a lower standard. For this reason, it may well be useful to use a WLAN stick even with a device that already has a WLAN receiver.

The WLAN standard of the future, which is to be broadcast in the frequency range of 60 GHz, is called 802.11 ads and should have a transmission rate of more than 6 Gbit / s.

The wireless speed

So we are synonymous with the WLAN speeds. With the WLAN stick, you depend on the WLAN standard, but what speeds are needed for what? First of all, you should inform yourself, with which transmission rate your WLAN connection works at home. A transfer rate of 1300 Mbps does not help you if this speed is not already present when you connect, because the WLAN stick can only capture and forward the WLAN signal, but it can not increase the existing data transfer rate. For household use, speeds of about 150 to 300 Mbit / s are usually sufficient. This allows you to stream videos in HD quality, which means you can use services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video and even play YouTube videos smoothly.

The frequency range

The WLAN radio signals are transmitted in the frequency range of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. WLAN stick and routers must fit in this regard, because a WLAN stick, which works in the frequency range 5 GHz, cannot be connected to a router, which transmits in the frequency range 2,4 GHz. In most cases, the WLAN sticks work in dual-band, which means they can be used in both frequency ranges.

The USB interface

To connect the WLAN Stick with the device, a USB port is required. Your device must, therefore, have a free USB port so that you can connect a WLAN stick. Most of the WLAN sticks are equipped with a USB 2.0 interface. They can be used on a device with USB 2.0 as well as USB 3.0 or higher. If your device to which you want to connect the Wi-Fi stick has USB 3.0, you can only take advantage of the benefits of faster transfer rates by using a Wi-Fi Stick with USB 3.0.

WLAN security and encryption

A home network should always be encrypted so that no one can access it from the outside and in this way access your data. To protect and encrypt the home network, there are different ways, but wrong encryption can not only make the network unsafe, but it can also drastically reduce the speed of your wireless network. When it comes to encryption, abbreviations such as WEP, WPA, WPA2, WPA + WPA2, TKIP, AES, or CCMP appear, but many Internet users do not like these shortcuts too much. We, therefore, take a closer look at it:

WEP, WPA, and WPA2 are security standards

The oldest and today outdated standard is WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). It has been superseded by WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access), but even this security standard has been more than 15 years old and is no longer up-to-date. Current security standard is WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) and although it was developed in 2006, this security standard is still valid today.

The abbreviations TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol), AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) or CCMP (Counter Mode with Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol) describe encryption methods that are used by the security standards. For example, WPA uses TKIP. This makes it much safer than the outdated WEP standard, but TKIP limits the connection speed to 54 Mbps, making it slower under certain circumstances. The modern WPA2 standard, therefore, uses the encryption CCMP, which allows a speed of over 150 Mbit / s and also AES allows higher speeds. The best, fastest and most up-to-date encryption is, therefore, WPA2 (AES or CCMP).

WLAN stick or WLAN adapter?

To confusion, it sometimes comes with the terms WLAN Stick and WLAN adapter. They are sometimes used interchangeably, but strictly speaking, there is a decisive difference: The WLAN stick consists only of the stick itself, while the WLAN adapter has one or more, often removable antennas. Using these antennas, the WLAN adapter can also capture weak WLAN signals. If you want to express it less technically, you can call a WLAN adapter as a WLAN stick with the antenna. Which device is better suited, depends on the individual case. If only a weak WLAN signal is available at the place of use, a WLAN adapter with corresponding antennas may be better suited.

Please do not confuse: WLAN Stick, USB Stick, Surf Stick, and WLAN Repeater

Already optically USB flash drive and WLAN stick almost to a confusion. But even if they look very similar, the inner life is completely different. While the USB stick provides storage space and does not affect Wi-Fi reception, you can not store anything on the Wi-Fi stick, but it does upgrade a device so it can be connected and used in the wireless network.

Another likelihood of confusion exists with the Surf Stick. The WLAN stick acts as a WLAN receiver and makes older devices that do not have a WLAN module available from home, WLAN-capable. However, the stick only receives the WLAN signal that is already being sent by a router or a hotspot. The Surf Stick works quite differently. He acts as a router and does not access the Internet as the router from the telephone socket, but via a mobile network, as well as the smartphone. With the Surf Stick, you can build your own connection to the Internet, even if you have no router and no Internet contract with a provider such as Telekom.

The third in the league, which likes to be confused with the WLAN stick, is the WLAN Repeater. Here it is not the optics, because unlike WLAN Stick and Surf Stick, the WLAN Repeater does not look like a standard USB stick, but it has a power plug and is not to the computer or another device, but to a power outlet connected. It captures the WiFi signal of the router and amplifies it, so that even at remote locations in the house, on the balcony or in the garden there is good wireless coverage. The devices integrated into the local network can access the repeater with the amplified signal instead of the router with its too weak signal. For example, you can connect a device via WLAN on the first or second floor.

More terms around the WLAN stick

In addition, there are other terms around the WLAN Stick, which we would like to briefly explain here on STERN.de.

What is …

… a WLAN hotspot?

A Wi-Fi hotspot is a publicly accessible, wireless Internet access point. WLAN hotspots are located in public buildings, for example, but are also offered in private rooms such as in the catering trade. The hotspots are designed to give people free access to the Internet.

… Wi-Fi ??

Wi-Fi, pronounced wai-fair, is an art term that was invented on the basis of the well-known analogy Hi-Fi for High Fidelity. The term was developed by a consortium of companies that worked in the field of radio interface certification and renamed themselves Wi-Fi Alliance in 2002 from WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance). A real shortcut is Wi-Fi therefore not, although the Wi is certainly wireless (wireless). Wi-Fi is often synonymous with Wi-Fi in English but also in German-speaking countries, but while Wi-Fi refers to the wireless network, Wi-Fi is certified to IEEE 802.11 standard.

… a dongle?

A WLAN dongle is the same as a Wi-Fi stick. The name comes from the beginning of this technique when the WLAN sticks were called dongle.

… an access point?

An access point or wireless access point is a device that not only receives but also sends data. With its help, different devices can be connected in a network. For example, in a home network, the router is the access point. Public access points are hotspots.

… a UMTS stick?

A UMTS stick is nothing but a surf stick. However, it must not be confused with the WLAN stick.

Alternatives to the WLAN stick

If a device is to be connected to the home network that does not have a WLAN receiver, there is, of course, the option of connecting the device via a cable. If it is a desktop PC that is in a fixed place, for example on a desk, and it is possible to lay the cable so that it does not bother, connecting to an Ethernet cable is a good alternative, as the cable ensures a stable and fast connection. In practice, however, it is often the case that the cable is lying around or hanging in the way, either annoyingly or unpleasantly, and you would, therefore, prefer to use a wireless connection. If the connection with the WLAN stick is unstable or too slow, there is the possibility of using a WLAN adapter with antennas. Alternatively, a new network card with WLAN receiver may also be installed in the device. However, this requires some specialist knowledge and a computer layman must have this done in a corresponding workshop.

Maintenance and care of the WLAN stick

Maintenance and care are usually not necessary with a WLAN stick. However, you should protect the stick from dust, dirt, and moisture, being careful not to drop it or otherwise subject it to vibration and mechanical impact. If you do not use the stick or carry it around with you, it makes sense to carry it in a small box or similar, where it stays dry and clean. When using Wi-Fi adapters with antenna, it may be advisable to use a USB extension to ensure that the antennas do not interfere with the stick being connected directly to the computer and that you do not accidentally get caught and break anything,

Accessories for the WLAN stick

The most important accessory for a WLAN stick is a USB extension. It is not always sensible or possible to connect the WLAN stick to a USB port on the end device. If, for example, there are no USB ports on the front of the device and the back of the device is directly against a wall, the WLAN stick may not receive the signals there in a bad way. In these cases, a USB extension helps with which the WLAN stick can be placed in a better position. Another useful accessory is a USB hub. If you do not have a spare USB port on your device, you can use a USB hub to provide additional ports.

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