What is a network adapter?

PCI network card on yellow background
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If you’ve ever tried to solve a network problem, you’ve probably encountered discussions about network adapters. So what are they and why does your computer need them? Let’s take a closer look.

What is a network adapter?

Network adapters are one of the many pieces that connect us to the Internet. They are usually an antenna or card built into your device, but can also be plug-in USB dongles or antennas that allow purely wired devices to receive data wirelessly.

Network adapters allow computers and other devices to connect to a local area network (LAN) or other type of network to access the Internet. They can work with wireless connections like Wi-Fi or wired connections like Ethernet.

A network adapter is not the same as a router. Your router is the gateway that directs wireless traffic to your devices from the Internet, while the adapter allows your device to connect to the network and receive this data.

When using external network adapters on a PC, you must download and install the driver software specific to that adapter before you can use it. The manufacturer will often pack this software with the adapter, or your computer will automatically install the driver when your adapter is first connected.

Types of network adapters

Both wired and wireless network adapters can be used on a variety of devices.

Network Interface Card (NIC)

One of the most common network adapters available today is the Network Interface Card (NIC), also called the Network Interface Controller. They are usually built into the motherboards of today’s internet compatible devices and allow both wired and wireless connection to the internet.

NICs typically all use the 802.11 standard for Wi-Fi connectivity, so the one that comes with your laptop can work with any router that uses this standard to get online. Since it is the standard for most wireless internet connections, it is quite easy for most devices to connect with.

RELATED: How to upgrade or replace your PC’s wireless card

USB adapters

This type of adapter is typically a USB dongle that connects to a wired computer. It will have an antenna connected to receive the signal from a wireless network and transmit the data it receives via the USB connection to the computer.

These adapters are a good option for activating older computers with a wireless connection because they do not require physical opening of the computer case to install an internal network adapter. A popular choice is the TP-Link N150.

Best seller in USB Wi-Fi adapters

USB network adapters can also support wired network connections. Wired or wireless, they are often packed with home routers to form a home LAN.

Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) network adapters

PCI network card with large antenna
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Similar to USB adapters, a PCI adapter is connected to a PC or laptop via a PCI card slot. These adapters also have a connected antenna designed to receive a wireless internet signal. Although external, they are built in the same way as the NIC adapter that most modern computers come with, and they can enable both wired and wireless connections.

Developed in 1992, the PCI standard was later replaced by PCI Express (PCIe). A variant of the PCI card called a PCMCIA card or Ethernet card was also used with laptops for a period of time until the technology was improved enough for network adapters to be built into laptops.

Virtual adapters

Some adapters are software only and built to mimic the features of a NIC. You will most often see this type of adapter in products such as a virtual private network (VPN), which uses another computer’s local network connection to make it look as if your computer is also using that connection from the same location.

Improve your network connection

If you are having trouble connecting to your network, you may need to upgrade your router. See our selection of the best Wi-Fi routers for your home.

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