A computer network adapter, also known as a network card or network interface controller, connects your PC to a network. Network adapters make it possible to share files with colleagues through either a wired (Ethernet) or wireless (Wi-Fi) connection. There are several different types of network adapters (with different applications), including PCI cards, PC cards, FireWire adapters, and USB adapters. Which to choose depends largely on whether you have a notebook or desktop PC and your needs. Some models will require a network adapter driver, which you can often download at no charge from the manufacturer’s Web site.
In this guide, you'll discover:
1. What each type of computer network adapter is and what it’s best for.
2. How to determine whether a PC already has a computer network adapter built in.
3. Where to download a network adapter driver.
4. How to choose among network adapters.
5. Other network adapters and what they do.
Network adapters 101
While all network adapters connect your PC to others, there are several different types that you should be familiar with. PCI adapters are the original network adapters; they are mostly found inside of desktops. PC card adapters (also known as PCMCIA cards) are external network adapters and insert into a slot on the side of a notebook (they can cost as little as $25). These are generally sold by cell phone carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless and add wireless connectivity to a notebook. USB adapters plug into a USB port to add network access. A final type of computer network adapter, a virtual private network (VPN), is software-based and simulates the functions of network adapters.
If Ethernet is built in, a computer network adapter won’t be necessary
Most new PCs include Ethernet and a network interface built in. Ethernet is generally integrated into the motherboard or included in a dedicated Ethernet chip, which is connected through the PCI adapter. If Ethernet is built into your system, you won’t need a computer network adapter. Checking for network adapters is simple. Look for an RJ-45 jack (which looks like a phone jack, only a little larger and flatter) on the back of the system. You can also open Windows Device Manager to look for integrated network adapters.
Making sense of wireless network adapters
Most new notebooks have built-in wireless (or Wi-Fi) network adapters. There are different standards set up by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Each operates on a different band and achieves different speeds. Current systems usually include 802.11a (which operates on the 5-GHz band and achieves a maximum speed of 54 Mbps), 802.11b, and 802.11g (use 2.4-GHz band and 11 Mbps and 54 Mbps, respectively). The newest and fastest standard is 802.11n. It operates on either band and has a max data rate of 700 Mbps. While most notebooks include 802.11a/b/g, some newer models are also bundling 802.11n. If your system doesn’t have it built in and you want the speed, look for a wireless router and PC card to add it.
wireless network adapters
Using cellular cards as network adapters
Recent network improvements make it possible for some cellular cards to reach speeds almost as fast as wired connections. Adding one of these cards to your notebook is relatively inexpensive (most are either free or under $100), but they require a monthly data service plan, which can run as much as $79.99 per month. You’ll find this cost worth it if you’re frequently traveling and spending money to connect to a hotel’s Wi-Fi network.
cellular and paging parts and accessories
can be found on Business.com.
Blazing-fast transfers with a FireWire adapter
A FireWire adapter makes it possible to transfer data between your PC and compatible peripherals. The benefit of using a FireWire adapter? Speedy data transfers, which make it a favorite for uploading video from a camcorder. External hard drives, cameras, and camcorders are three of the most popular devices that will connect to your PC via a FireWire adapter. Many new systems, especially higher-end notebooks include FireWire ports (all Apple models have them installed). Check the specs on a system if you’re looking for this connectivity.
- Before you commit to an expensive data plan, decide on how much traveling you will do with your notebook. If your answer is none or very little, connect via Wi-Fi or Ethernet at home or in the office.
- If your notebook is older and you’re thinking about upgrading, check out systems with built-in wireless broadband network adapters (and make sure you look for an Ethernet port and Wi-Fi).
- • Make sure that your system has the right computer network adapter slots. For example if you want to add a PC card, it should have a PC card slot. It seems simple, but some people confuse PC card slots with ExpressCard slots.