Introduction to Computer Network Adapters

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A network adapter allows an electronic device, like a computer or laptop, to interface with a local computer network. They can work with wired connections, like those including an Ethernet cable; wireless ones, which use routers; or both.

Types of Network Adapters

A network adapter is a unit of computer hardware. Several types of hardware adapters exist:

  • Many new computers contain integrated (built-in) wireless network adapter chips
  • USB network adapter plugs into a standard USB port to enable computer network connections (typically Wi-Fi or Ethernet)
  • A wireless game adapter (sometimes called a "media adapter") connects to older game consoles or other home entertainment products, providing a bridge to Wi-Fi wireless capability.
  • On older PCs, a PCI adapter (often called a NIC) was a type of add-in card installed inside a desktop personal computer. A variant PCI adapter called "PC Card" (also known as PCMCIA cards) inserted into the side of a notebook computer to provide similar capability.

Adapters are necessary when building a network. Every common adapter supports either Wi-Fi (wireless) or Ethernet  (wired) standards. Special-purpose adapters that support very specialized network protocols also exist, but these are not found in homes or most business networks.

How to Know Whether a Network Adapter Is Present

Newer computers often include a network adapter when sold. Determine whether a computer already possesses a network adapter as follows:

  • In both desktop and laptop computers, look for an RJ-45 jack on the back of the computer. The RJ-45 jack appears similar to a phone line jack but is slightly larger.
  • In notebook computers, look for a thin, removable metal device roughly the size of credit card.
  • For notebook computers running Windows that may contain integrated adapter chips, open the Windows Device Manager. Access Device Manager from the Hardware tab of the System Properties section of Windows Control Panel.
  • In any type of computing device, look for a small external device with LED lights connected to a USB port

Purchasing a Network Adapter

You can buy a network adapter separately from most manufacturers that supply routers and other forms of networking equipment. When purchasing a network adapter, some prefer to choose the brand of adapter that matches their router. To accommodate this, manufacturers sometimes sell one or two network adapters together with a router in a bundle called a home network kit. Technically, however, network adapters all offer very similar functionality according to the Ethernet or Wi-Fi standard they support.

Installing a Network Adapter

Installing any network adapter hardware involves two steps:

  1. Connecting the adapter hardware to the computer.
  2. Installing any required software associated with the adapter.

For PCI adapters, first power down the computer and unplug its power cord before proceeding with the installation. A PCI adapter is a card that fits into a long, narrow slot inside the computer. The computer's case must be opened and the card firmly inserted into this slot.

You can attach other types of network adapter devices while a computer is running normally. Modern computer operating systems automatically detect newly connected hardware and complete the basic software installation required.

Some network adapters, however, additionally require custom software installation. Such an adapter will often be accompanied by a CD-ROM containing the installation media or the web address you can use to download it free from the manufacturer's Web site.

Software installed with a network adapter includes a device driver that allows the operating system to communicate with the hardware. In addition you may also receive a software management utility that provides a user interface for advanced configuration and troubleshooting of the hardware. These utilities are most commonly associated with Wi-Fi wireless network adapters.

You can normally disable a network adapter through its software. Disabling an adapter provides a convenient alternative to installing and uninstalling it. Wireless network adapters are best disabled when not in use, for security reasons.

Virtual Network Adapters

Certain types of network adapters have no hardware component but consist of software only. These are often called "virtual adapters" because they don't have a physical, hardware component. Virtual adapters are commonly found in virtual private networks (VPNs). Research computers or IT servers that run virtual machine technology may also use them.

Summary

The network adapter is an essential component in both wired and wireless computer networking. Adapters interface a computing device (including computers, print servers, and game consoles) to the communication network. Most network adapters are small pieces of physical hardware, although software-only virtual adapters also exist. Sometimes you have to buy a network adapter separately. Often, however, the adapter is already part of a device, especially if it's newer. Installing a network adapter is not difficult and often is a simple "plug and play" feature of the computer operating system.