ASUS PCE-AC66 Wireless PCIe Adapter Overview
PCIe cards are not the first form factor I think of when the topic of Wi-Fi adapters comes up. A PCIe slot implies a desktop system, and most of them have wired network connections, courtesy of that thin unshielded twisted pair (UTP) Ethernet cable that’s relatively easy to route wherever you need it. Still, there are times when it’s just more practical to set up a PC with a wireless connection. However, just because a wireless connection is more convenient, it doesn’t mean that you want to sacrifice performance. ASUS understands that logic, and they have a lot of experience with customers who want the very best performance available. That’s what the ASUS PCE-AC66 Wireless PCIe Adapter aims to deliver, even if it’s in a form factor that doesn’t seem obvious at first blush. Some effort has gone into making the PCE-AC66 the best looking Wi-Fi Adapter out there, even if it’s going to end up trapped inside a PC chassis where few will ever see it. If you have a windowed case, this is the kind of peripheral that makes your system window-worthy. There’s still a strong sense of form following function, as the large red heatsink is there for a reason. There is a powerful Broadcom 5th generation Wi-Fi IC working away inside the unit, as well as two separate high-power RF amplifiers for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Those RF power amps are part of the reason this Wi-Fi adapter seems to blast right through walls and other common obstructions with ease.
The PCE-AC66 can support direct connection to the three dual-band antennas, right on the expansion card itself, or the dedicated antenna stand can be used to achieve a better signal. The antenna base has two features that make it easy to deploy and improve the RF performance. The first is the magnets built into the base that allow you to mount it on a vertical surface. It needs to be steel or some other ferrous material, in order for the magnet to be attracted to it, so don’t try this with your high-end aluminum case. Secondly, the three separate antenna leads are built into the stand, so you don’t have to juggle the mounting base and three RF coax cables, all at once. All three conductors are bonded into one flat cable assembly, and are attached with a strain relief on one side of the triangular base. The retail package includes the PCIe card, 3 antennas, the magnetic base with integral cables, full-size and half-height expansion brackets, a CD with drivers and utility software, and documentation. The packaging is attractive and informative; in case you have the opportunity to see it on display in a store, you can tell what you’re getting and what it does without going on-line. A quaint, dated concept, I know…..
The 45 degree orientation you see below is the recommended setup for the three antenna stalks, and there are detents at 0, 45, and 90 degrees on all three antenna bodies that make it easy to set them that way. They also rotate continuously, so you can point them outward at equal 120 degree intervals. The three included antennas are no bigger than a number of antennas that I’ve seen on other wireless PCIe Adapter, since the start of the 2.4GHz era. They just look bigger here, because the magnetic base provided with the PCE-AC66 is relatively small, by comparison. The antennas attach to the base with standard SMA coaxial connectors. Antennas are actually very complicated devices, even though they may appear to be simple. The standard antennas included with the PCE-AC66 are rated at 3.5dBi, which is a decent rating. In order to significantly improve the signal strength, the antennas would have to be much larger, between 12″ and 15″ long. Those are much too unwieldy for a small mounting base like this, and they would most likely need to be mounted on a larger surface. The flexibility to move the provided base around slightly and improve the signal reception, plus have it STAY there because of the magnet, is probably just as useful as having a bigger antenna that’s rigidly mounted. Besides, as we’ll see later, the whole point of an 802.11ac wireless adapter is to use technology to improve performance, rather than brute force hardware mods.
The PCIe card itself is relatively small and straightforward. There are no controls on it, just the three SMA connectors poking through the I/O plate and an old-school style LED indicator that signals the flow of traffic in and out of the adapter. The large red heatsink is the dominant visual component, which hints at the processing power sitting directly below it. We’ll have a look at those later, when we tackle Insider Details. For now, it’s enough to know that the kind of data throughput that this card can pump out means that a heatsink is called for. Maybe a smaller one would have been enough, but once you have to install one, a bigger one is only marginally more expensive than a smaller one.
The back side of the ASUS PCE-AC66 is pretty standard. A few power supply components, some decoupling caps, and an assortment of resistors clumped around the footprints of the major ICs occupying the face of the PC board. One thing I’ve learned to pay attention to in the last couple of months is the FCC ID number on the regulatory compliance sticker. There is a wealth of information contained in the FCC testing data, which is in the public domain. Before the product hits the market most of it is embargoed, but once the public can buy the item, all bets are off and the regulators are required to release the information. They do an impressive tear-down, usually. Too bad their camera is way below par.
Now that we’ve seen every angle of the ASUS PCE-AC66 from the outside, let’s take a peek at what’s under the hood, so to speak.