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Guide to Computer Network Adapters

Learn more about network adapter types and what they do

A network adapter connects the device to the network. The term was originally popularized with Ethernet cards for PCs, but it also applies to other types of USB network adapters and wireless network adapters.

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Type of network adapter

These are some of the most common types of network adapters.

network interface card

Most modern devices come pre-equipped with a NIC or network interface card installed on the device’s motherboard. This includes wired devices such as desktops and laptops, as well as tablets, cell phones and other wireless devices.

However, a network card is different in that it is an add-on device that enables wired or wireless functionality on devices that previously did not support it. For example, a wired desktop computer without a wireless network card can use a wireless network adapter to communicate with Wi-Fi.

Network adapters send and receive data on wired and wireless networks. There are many types of network adapters, so it is necessary to choose the one that best suits your needs.

Wireless network adapters may have antennas attached to maximize their potential to reach the wireless network, but other wireless network adapters may have antennas hidden inside the device.

USB adapter

A network adapter that connects to the device via a USB connection, such as the Linksys Wireless-G USB Network Adapter or the TP-Link AC450 Wireless Nano USB Adapter. These are useful in situations where the device does not have an available wireless card but has an open USB port.

A USB wireless network adapter (also known as a Wi-Fi dongle) plugs into the port and provides wireless functionality without having to turn on the computer and install a network card.

USB network adapters can also support wired connections, such as the Linksys USB 3.0 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.

PCI adapter

However, using a PCI network adapter enables a network adapter that plugs directly into the motherboard. These come in wired and wireless forms, and are similar to most computers’ onboard NICs. The Linksys Wireless-G PCI Adapter, D-Link AC1200 Wi-Fi PCI Express Adapter, and TP-Link AC1900 Dual Band Wireless Adapter are some examples.

Chromecast Ethernet Adapter

Another network adapter is the Google Ethernet Adapter for Chromecast, a device that allows you to use your Chromecast on a wired network. This is necessary if the Wi-Fi signal is too weak to reach the device, or if the building is not equipped with wireless capabilities.

virtual adapter

Some network adapters are software packages that emulate the functionality of the network card. These virtual adapters are common in virtual private network (VPN) software systems.

Check out these wireless adapter cards and wireless network adapters for other examples of network adapters, and links to purchase them.

where to buy network adapters

Many manufacturers offer network adapters, most of which also have routers and other networking hardware. Some network adapter manufacturers include D-Link, Linksys, NETGEAR, TP-Link, Rosewill and ANEWKODI.

Get the network adapter device driver

Windows and other operating systems support wired and wireless network adapters through software called device drivers. Network drivers are required for software programs to communicate with network hardware.

Some network device drivers are automatically installed when a network adapter is plugged in and turned on for the first time. However, if you need help getting network drivers for your adapter in Windows, see How to Update Drivers in Windows.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a Powerline Network Adapter?

    Powerline network adapters are an alternative to installing an Ethernet cable in your home to connect devices to the network; instead, you can use your home’s existing wires to carry your internet signal.

  • What is a wired/wireless network adapter?

    These are generic terms for the type of connection (wired or wireless) supported by the adapter. Within these categories, you can have wired or wireless USB network adapters, PCI network adapters, and more.

Content

Guide to Computer Network Adapters

Learn about types of network adapters and what they do

A network adapter interfaces a device to a network. The term was popularized originally by Ethernet add-in cards for PCs but also applies to other types of USB network adapters and wireless network adapters.

Lifewire Types of Network Adapters

Here are some of the most common types of network adapters.

Network Interface Card

Most modern devices come pre-equipped with a NIC, or network interface card, that’s installed on the device’s motherboard. This includes wired-capable devices, like desktops and laptops, and also tablets, cellphones, and other wireless devices.

However, a network card is different in that it’s an additional device that enables wireless or wired capabilities on a device that didn’t previously support it. For example, a wired-only desktop computer that doesn’t have a wireless NIC can use a wireless network adapter to interface with Wi-Fi.

Network adapters transmit and receive data on both wired and wireless networks. There are many types of network adapters, so choosing the one that best suits your needs is necessary.

One wireless network adapter may have an antenna attached to it to maximize its potential for reaching a wireless network, but others may have the antenna hidden away within the device.

USB Adapters

One type of network adapter connects to the device with a USB connection, such as the Linksys Wireless-G USB Network Adapter or the TP-Link AC450 Wireless Nano USB Adapter. These are useful in cases where the device doesn’t have a working wireless network card but does have an open USB port.

The wireless USB network adapter (also called a Wi-Fi dongle) plugs into the port and provides wireless capabilities without having to open the computer and install the network card.

USB network adapters can also support wired connections, such as the Linksys USB 3.0 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.

PCI Adapters

However, having a network adapter that connects directly to the motherboard can be accomplished with PCI network adapters. These come in both wired and wireless forms and are like the built-in NICs that most computers have. The Linksys Wireless-G PCI Adapter, D-Link AC1200 Wi-Fi PCI Express Adapter, and TP-Link AC1900 Wireless Dual Band Adapter are a few examples.

Chromecast Ethernet Adapters

Another type of network adapter is the Google Ethernet Adapter for Chromecast, a device that lets you use Chromecast on a wired network. This is necessary if the Wi-Fi signal is too weak to reach the device or if there aren’t wireless capabilities set up in the building.

Virtual Adapters

Some network adapters are software packages that simulate the functions of a network card. These virtual adapters are common in virtual private networking (VPN) software systems.

See these wireless adapter cards and wireless network adapters for other examples of network adapters, plus links for where to buy them.
Where to Buy Network Adapters

Network adapters are available from many manufacturers, most of which also have routers and other network hardware. Some network adapter manufacturers include D-Link, Linksys, NETGEAR, TP-Link, Rosewill, and ANEWKODI.

How to Get Device Drivers for Network Adapters

Windows and other operating systems support both wired and wireless network adapters through software called a device driver. Network drivers are necessary for software programs to interface with network hardware.

Some network device drivers are installed automatically when the network adapter is first plugged in and powered on. However, see how to update drivers in Windows if you need help getting a network driver for your adapter in Windows.

FAQ

What is a powerline network adapter?
A powerline network adapter is an alternative to running Ethernet cables across your house to connect devices to your network; instead, you can use your home’s existing electrical wiring to transmit your internet signal.

What are wired/wireless network adapters?
These are umbrella terms for the kind of connection the adapter supports, either wired or wireless. Within these categories you can have wired or wireless USB network adapters, PCI network adapters, and others.

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