Guide to Laptop Networking Features

Know how a laptop's features can get it connected online

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
Laptop with wifi symbol on the screen will illustration of connection icons coming out of the copmuter

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Being able to connect to the internet no matter where you are is an important aspect of laptops. As a result, networking interfaces are standard for all laptops. Some are so common that comparing products is difficult, but they might have slight variations that could make a difference in network performance. This guide will help to sort out what they are and how they compare.

Wi-Fi (Wireless)

Wireless networking through the Wi-Fi standards has exploded over the years making it a required feature in all laptop computers. There are several acronyms for the various standards and speeds of Wi-Fi networking that you will need when shopping for a laptop computer to let you know how it can be used.

There are currently five Wi-Fi standards that can be found on laptop computers. 802.11b is the oldest running at 11Mbps in the 2.4GHz radio spectrum. 802.11g uses the same 2.4GHz radio spectrum but can transmit up to 54Mbps in speeds. It is backward compatible with the 802.11b standard. 802.11a uses the 5GHz radio spectrum for improved range and similar 54Mbps speeds. It is not backward compatible due to the different radio frequencies used.

The most common standardized version of Wi-Fi is the 802.11n standard. This standard is a bit more confusing as a device can be made to use the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio spectrum. The main way to tell is if the laptop lists 802.11a/g/n or 802.11b/g/n. Those that list a/g/n in the Wi-Fi standards will have the ability to use either radio spectrum while b/g/n will only use the 2.4GHz spectrum. Note that some listed as 802.11b/g/n can use the 5GHz spectrum.

Those listing a dual antenna have capabilities to use both 2.4 and 5GHz. This only really matters for those that wish to use the 5GHz radio spectrum which has the benefit of being less crowded in many areas for better bandwidth due to less congestion.

More and more laptops are now using the new 5G Wi-Fi networking. These are based on 802.11ac standards. These products claim to be able to achieve transfer rates of up to 1.3Gbps which is three times the maximum that 802.11n and similar to that of wired networking. Like the 802.11a standard, it uses the 5GHz frequency but it is dual-band meaning it also supports 802.11n on the 2.4GHz frequency.

Often users will see multiple standards listed on a laptop computer, such as 802.11b/g. This means that the laptop computer can be used with all of the Wi-Fi standards listed. So, if you want to have the widest range of wireless network connectivity, look for a laptop computer listed as having 802.11ac or 802.11a/g/n wireless networking. This can also be referred to as dual-band 802.11n since it supports the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum.

Here is a listing of some of the Wi-Fi standards:

  • 802.11a — 54Mbps, 5GHz Band (Used mainly by corporations)
  • 802.11b — 11Mpbs, 2.4GHz Band
  • 802.11g — 54Mbps, 2.4GHz Band
  • 802.11n — Up To 450Mbps Standard, 2.4 or 5GHz Band
  • 802.11ac — Up to 1.3Gbps, 5GHz Band (Backwards compatible on 2.4GHz bands via 802.11n)

Ethernet (Wired Networking)

Until wireless networking became so prevalent, high-speed network connections required the use of an Ethernet cable connected from the laptop to a network device. Ethernet has been a standard network PC cable design for many years that is was found in just about every computer. With the emphasis on smaller laptops such as Ultrabooks that lack the space necessary for the cable port, more systems are now dropping the once-ubiquitous interface.

There are two standard types of Ethernet speeds currently. The most common up until recently was the Fast Ethernet or 10/100 Ethernet. This has a maximum data rate of 100Mbps and is backward compatible with the older 10Mbps Ethernet standard. This is what is found on most consumer networking gear such as cable and DSL modems. The more recent standard is Gigabit Ethernet. This allows support of connections of up to 1000Mbps on compatible networking gear. Like Fast Ethernet, it is backward compatible with the slower network types.

The speed of the Ethernet interface will only really matter when connecting between devices on a local area network (LAN). Most broadband connections are slower than the Fast Ethernet standard although this is starting to change with more high-speed fiber networks being installed.


Bluetooth is technically a wireless networking standard that uses the same 2.4GHz spectrum as Wi-Fi. It is primarily used for wireless peripheral connections rather than conventional networking. There is one aspect that can be used and that is tethering to a wireless phone. This allows a laptop to use the wireless phone's data link.

Unfortunately, many wireless phone carriers in the United States do not allow tethering or have surcharges to enable it with a device. Check with your carrier if this is a feature you might be interested in. The feature is becoming less common now though because of the Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities of smartphones.

Wireless 3G/4G (WWAN)

The inclusion of built-in wireless modems or 3G/4G networking adapters is a relatively recent addition to laptop computers. Manufacturers often refer to this as wireless wide-area networking or WWAN. This can allow a laptop computer to connect to the internet through a high-speed wireless phone network when no other access is possible. This can be very useful, but it is also quite expensive as it requires special data contracts.

Also, the wireless modems built into laptops are typically locked into a specific provider or class of network. As a result, we don't recommend users look for these features and to purchase an external wireless modem that connects to your computer via USB if you do need such a service.

Another option is a mobile hotspot device that essentially combines a Wi-Fi router to a wireless modem. They still require data contracts but can be used with just about any Wi-Fi capable device.

Dial-Up Modems

Once the most dominant form of networking, modems are rarely found on any laptops now. Dial-up networking is one of the oldest forms of networking for PCs.

While broadband connections are more common in the home when on the road in remote locations this might be the only method for connecting. A simple phone cable plugged into the laptop and a phone jack allows the user to connect via a dial-up account.

While many laptops might not feature these ports, it is always possible to purchase a low-cost USB dial-up modem to use with just about any computer. The one downside is that analog modems do not generally work with many VoIP lines because of the data compression.

Due to the limitations of audio data transmissions over phone lines, the maximum speed of 56Kbps has been reached for some time. Any laptop that has a modem will be 56Kbps compatible. The only difference is it being listed as a v.90 or v.92 type. These are two forms of data connection methods and are pretty much interchangeable when it comes to an actual dial-up connection.