Upgrading Your Computer's WiFi Card to 802.11ac

Intel_WiFi_AC

Our Dell Latitude E6410 has been a workhorse in the Legit Bunkers since we purchased it a few years ago. It was never designed to be a desktop replacement, but it is very capable in the field as it is light and is just solid with everything we throw at it.  Lately, we have been working with very large video and image files in the office and since we connect via wireless, we are starting to get a bit impatient…especially when we compare it to any of the Gigabit-connected desktop machines or even our 3-antenna Alienware M17x came equipped with an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200 AGN adapter that worked at WiFi-N speeds of up to 300Mbps. 

Intel_WiFi_AC-7For less than $30.00, we were able to pick up an Intel 2-antenna 802.11ac wireless adapter from Newegg. The Intel 7260 HMW Dual-Band Mini PCI Express combo adapter is rated to work at speeds up to 867Mbps over 5.0 GHz and 300Mbps over 2.4 GHz bandwidths. The 7260 also features dual mode Bluetooth 4.0 technology where you can pair one of the newest low energy Bluetooth devices to the computer. This adapter also includes Intel’s WiDi (Wireless Display) where you can watch the multimedia content that is on your Laptop or PC on your Living room’s HD screen. 

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Intel WiFi-AC 7260 Featured Specifications:

                     Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260

Essentials

 

Status

Launched

 

Launch Date

Q2'13

 

Board Form Factor

PCIe Half Mini Card/ M.2 (NGFF)

 

Weight (in grams)

4

 

Operating Temperature

0°to 80°

 

Supported Operating Systems

Win7, Win8, Linux

 

Networking Specifications

 

TX/RX Streams

2x2

 

Bands

2.4 GHz, 5 GHz

 

Max Speed

300/867 Mbps

 

Wi-Fi CERTIFIED*

802.11 ac/a/b/g/n

 

Compliance

PCI, CISP, FIPS, FISMA

 

Integrated Bluetooth

Yes

 

System Interface Type

PCIe/ USB

 

Advanced Technologies

 

Intel® Wireless Display

Yes

 

4G WiMAX Wireless Technology

No

 

Supported Under vPro

Yes

 

Intel® Smart Connect Technology

Yes

 

 

 

So let’s go ahead and see what it takes to install our new Intel WiFi card in our Dell laptop.

 

Installing the Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC

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Before you purchase one of the WiFi cards, you want to make sure it compatible with your laptop or computer.  We originally wanted to upgrade our Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, but Lenovo in all of their wisdom has made it impossible for most of their devices to be upgraded with third-party peripherals.

This is a concern that we didn’t have to worry about that with our Dell Latitude. Before starting this process, make sure you head over to the Intel website and download the latest driver software onto your hard drive or a thumb drive.Intel_WiFi_AC-5

After taking out the center screw from the back of the laptop and removing the batter, we slid the cover off to give us access that we need to swap the WiFi card.Intel_WiFi_AC-4

The WiFi card is very easy to get to and after disconnecting the two antennas from the chassis, we removed the one retaining screw to remove the card. Intel_WiFi_AC-1b

Installing our new Intel Wireless-AC card was very simple and because the socket is uniquely keyed, the install was dummy-proof.  All in all the swapping out of cards took less than 5 minutes with no real issues.Intel_WiFi_AC-1

Here we see the Intel 802.11ac WiFi card installed and ready to go.  (You'll notice that there is an extra wire for a third antenna.  This might make for an interesting follow-up article!  :) )

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Here is a close up of what the Intel 7260HMW IEEE 802.11AC card looks like (image is flipped):

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After putting the cover back on to the laptop, we restarted the machine and installed the driver software from the Driver Download Site on the Intel PROSet page.

Intel_7250-Driver-3 

 After the correct drivers are installed, we see that our Wireless speeds move from 300 Mbps to 867 Mbps which is consistent with our 2x2 802.11ac adapter card speeds.Intel_7250-4

Now let’s see if this $25 upgrade makes a difference in real-world WiFi speeds.

 

Wireless Speed Tests with Intel WiFi-AC

Intel_AC_Netgear_6300We were very interested to see the real-world wireless speed performance of our newly upgraded Dell Latitude E6410 so we approached our speed tests much like we have done in the past when evaluating wireless adapters and routers. Our Dell PC is running Windows 7 Professional 64-bit and we paired it to connect to our Netgear R6300 802.11ac Dual-Band Router. Let’s check out what our new 802.11ac wireless card can do. 

For our experiment, we took the Dell laptop and moved it 25-feet away from the router and made sure to connect to the faster 5GHz band. For the fastest possible data throughput, we set the router to “Unsecure Mode” and with WMM turned ON

After connecting, we ran the application LAN Speed Test (LST) to measure file transfer and network speeds. LST builds a file in memory and then transfers the packet without the effects of windows file caching.  It then reports the time and calculates the network speed.

LAN Speed Test

We repeated the test 2 more times rotating the laptop 90 degrees after each test to make sure that the measured speed was not affected adversely by the laptop’s orientation.

 

Laptop WiFi 1MB_Speed_Test

Benchmark Results: Obviously, there is a tremendous difference between the older 802.11n wireless card and our new 802.11ac card.  The Intel 7260 card increases the WiFi throughput (Average Read Speed) by a whopping 103% over the Intel Centrino 6200 WiFi-N card which is substantial. Even though these are somewhat small data packets, you are able to tell how significant the differences are between the legacy card and the modern 802.11ac card.

 

Laptop WiFi 100MB_Speed_Test

Benchmark Results: We look at the 100MB data because we are able to get a better feel of how larger data packets that emulate multimedia data behave. In our test, the newer Intel WiFi-AC chip, the 7260 again easily outperformed the “legacy” Intel 6200 card.  This time we see a 130% increase in Average Read Speeds over the “legacy” WiFi-N device.  While average speeds of 177Mbps were good, there aren’t as great as our three-antenna solutions that we have seen in other WiFi-AC tests. Even with that said, we certainly wouldn’t turn down these speeds and consider them the minimal performance you should get with an 802.11ac device.

 

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

Intel_WiFi_AC-3When we started this project, we wanted to see just how difficult to replace and change out your existing wireless card and replace it with a new and modern one.  The Intel 7260 802.11ac card was a breeze to install and provided instant results and increased performance numbers.

When looking at the LAN Speed Test data however, it was quite obvious how the Average Read Speeds were affected where we saw an approximately 103%-130% speed increase over WiFi-N.  The weird thing for us is when you looked Average Write Speeds, they were fast, but not as fast as we had expected.  We played around with our router’s channels and were able to increase the speeds, however.  Our lesson here was that these mobile WiFi cards are really sensitive to the channels that they are tuned to.  Our recommendation is to try out various channels on your router paired up to the WiFi-AC card to determine which is the best sweet spot for your system.

When recalling the actual installation of the WiFi-AC adapter, I have to admit I was really expecting something more challenging.  The fact that our Dell only needed one small Philips screwdriver was fantastic.  It was also nice to see that there was already an extra antenna lead just in case I wanted to go to a 3x3 WiFi solution in the future.  As it was, this $30 upgrade was well worth it.

Intel_WiFi_AC-2Today's upgrade shows that you can easily breath new life into your legacy Laptop or Netbook with a simple move to Wireless-AC.  Now instead of complaining about how slow your laptop is transferring files or loading that multimedia-heavy webpage, your older laptop will find its fountain of youth with the assistance of WiFi-AC.

Many people have been putting off purchasing an AC-ready routers because they don't think they have enough legacy wireless devices to justify the cost.  Well prices for both routers and adapters have been falling since last year and you can not only get WiFi-AC Routers for under $100, and you can pick up one of these WiFi-AC adapters for $25-$30 making the move to faster wireless very affordable. 

 

Legit Bottom Line:

For less than $30 a simple upgrade for your WiFi card can totally transform your older model laptop. Our tests really just confirmed what we already knew - that 802.11ac can more than double the wireless speeds over a traditional Wireless-N network adapter.  This simple upgrade will certainly extend the life of your older laptop or notebook.