Laptops or tablets with built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi are scarce, but if you have a desktop, it's now quite easy to add the full speed of this new Wi-Fi standard to it, thanks to the PCE-AC66 Dual-Band Wireless-AC1750 Adapter add-on adapter from Asus.
This is a PCIe add-on card, similar to a video card, but it uses an x1 PCIe slot, which is available in most desktop computers. You can get this card now for around $90. It's not exactly cheap, but I find it quite worth the investment for what it has to offer.
The PCE-AC66 is currently the only adapter on the market that supports the three-stream 802.11ac standard. All other adapters, especially those that connect to a computer via USB, such as the Trendnet TEW-805UB, support the dual-stream setup at most. Like all existing 802.11ac adapters, the PCE-AC66 only works with Windows.
Dual-band, full 802.11ac speed
The 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard is currently available in three tiers, based on the number of spatial streams: single-stream, dual-stream, and three-stream, which offer speed capacities of 450Mbps, 867MBps, and 1.3Gbps, respectively.
Apart from supporting 802.11ac, which is only available on the 5GHz frequency band, the PCE-AC66 also supports the Wireless-N standard on both of its bands. The adapter sports the three-stream setup of 802.11n Wi-Fi to offers a speed capacity of up to 450Mbps when you use it with a Wireless-N network.
The PCE-AC66 is based on the Broadcom BCM4360 802.11ac chip, which is the most powerful chip in the company's 802.11ac family, which was unveiled prior to CES 2012. It's also currently the only PCIe add-on card that offers the full speed of the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard.
The BCM4360 chip requires more power than other less powerful chips, and for this reason the Asus PCE-AC66 adapter comes with a relatively large heat sink. The adapter is bulkier than most x1 PCIe add-on cards I've seen.
The Asus PCE-AC66 has three detachable antennae that can be attached to the add-on card itself or to an included magnetic base. This base helps to extend the Wi-Fi range and allows more flexible positioning of the antennae. The base has a very strong magnet and can easily stay attached to metal surfaces, even a vertical ones.
If you have installed an add-on card before, you'll find it quite easy to install the PCE-AC66. Basically, you just need to open the desktop's chassis (after it's unplugged, you've grounded yourself to get rid of any static electricity, and so on), insert the card into an available PCIe slot, close the chassis, attach the antenna, and you're almost good to go. The last step is the software installation, which is as easy as popping the included CD into the optical drive. Alternatively, you can also download the card's software at Asus' Web site.
The installation process will ask if you want to install just the driver (required) or the driver and the utility (optional). The utility, though not required, offers some powerful features, including the ability to dynamically adjust the Tx Power setting, which specifies the strength of the signal that the card produces during transmission.
In my trial, the card was able to get a full 1.3Gbps connection with a RT-AC66u router quite easily. In real-world testing, it offered somewhere between 33MBps to 45MBps (or some 260Mbps to 360Mbps) of sustained data speed.
Note that it's quite normal that the real-world speed is significantly lower than the ceiling speed when it comes to Wi-Fi. This is because the actual speed depends on many factors, including the environment. That said, the PCE-AC66 offered the fastest 802.11ac speed I've seen so far.
This might change in the future when quad-stream 802.11ac Wi-Fi products become available, but that might be another year or so away.
Until then, if you're looking to get the best out of Wi-Fi, the PCE-AC66 adapter and a three-stream 802.11ac router -- such as the Asus RT-AC66u, the Trendnet TEW-812DRU, or the Netgear 6300 -- is the way to go.