Guide to Computer Network Adapters

Learn about types of network adapters and what they do

Digital tablet with clouds for network adapters
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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.

Types of 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, 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. 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.

Network adapters transmit and receive data on both a wired and a wireless network. There are many 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 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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.