Guide to Laptop Networking Features

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are common, but cellular and wired connections work, too

The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
The Ultimate Laptop Buying Guide
Introduction

Every mainstream laptop shipped today includes several methods of wireless network connectivity. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth top the list, but a few offer wireless cellular modems or Ethernet ports. The modern market is standardized to a significant degree. As recently as the mid-2010s, different devices offered more variation than today.

Wi-Fi Networking

Wi-Fi is the standard for wireless connectivity. When you see 802.11, you're looking at the Wi-Fi standard. Although Wi-Fi is a recognized protocol, the relative version level of that protocol governs the relative speed of a connection. Current hardware uses the 802.11ax protocol.

Truck driver enjoying Wi-Fi at truck stop
Javier Encinas / Moment / Getty Images

A Wi-Fi connection is only as fast as the oldest and slowest 802.11 protocol supported between the router and the laptop. A router that transmits using 802.11ax maxes at 10 Gbps of throughput. A Wi-Fi radio in an old laptop using the 1999-era 802.11b standard only sees the 802.11b throughput of 11 Mbps. And vice-versa; a bleeding-edge wireless network card can't speed up a coffee-shop router that hasn't been updated since 1999.

Every few years, the 802.11 protocol receives an update, which is represented by a one- or two-letter suffix. More than a dozen protocol versions remain in active use, so when you buy a new laptop or a plug-in wireless networking card, choose the most recent protocol to ensure the fastest speed and best reliability in any setting.

Some low-budget laptops and some refurbished models use older Wi-Fi radios. Check the specs before you buy if maximizing speed and reliability are important use cases for your new laptop.

Bluetooth Radios

Although Bluetooth is most commonly associated with short-distance connections for things like earbuds, Bluetooth works great for network tethering. You don't generally find Bluetooth-based routers in airports or coffee shops, but the odds are good your laptop or tablet can connect to your smartphone to use your smartphone's data plan to access the internet.

Cellular and Ethernet Connections

Some prosumer-grade laptops and tablets include cellular modems to enable direct access through a mobile carrier. Some of the Microsoft Surface lines, for example, include optional 4G modems. These are convenient—no need to tether or to connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots—but usually require a data plan through a mobile carrier for an additional monthly fee.

Older laptops, and some laptops designed specifically for enterprise markets, include Ethernet connections. Wired networking isn't common in homes and public places, but wired connections often are the default in corporate settings.

Buy an Ethernet-to-USB dongle to effect a wired connection on devices that lack a dedicated Ethernet port.