Guide to Computer Network Adapters

Learn about types of network adapters and what they do

Digital tablet with clouds for network adapters
D3Damon / Getty Images

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.

Most modern devices come pre-equipped with a NIC, or network interface card, that's installed on the device's motherboard. This includes not only wired-capable devices like desktops and laptops but also tablets, cell phones, 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. A wired-only desktop computer, for example, that doesn't have a wireless NIC, can use a wireless network adapter to interface with Wi-Fi.

Types of Network Adapters

Network adapters can serve the purpose of transmitting and receiving data on both a wired and a wireless network. There are many different types of network adapters, so choosing the one that best suits your needs is necessary.

An illustration of the different types of network adapters.

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

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) just plugs into the port and provides wireless capabilities without you 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.

However, to have a network adapter that does connect directly to the motherboard can be accomplished with PCI network adapters. These come in both wired and wireless forms and are much 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 just a few examples.

Another type of network adapter is Google's Ethernet Adapter for Chromecast, a device that lets you use your 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.

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

See these wireless adapter cards and wireless network adapters for some 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 have 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.