What is an Integrated Network Card?

R. Kayne

An integrated network card is an internal computer component that gives the machine the ability to connect to a network. The component might be designed to connect to a wired network, or to a wireless network. A machine might have also have both types of network cards installed. An integrated network card designed for wired networks is sometimes called an Ethernet card, while the wire-free cards are wireless cards.

Cat 5 cable with RJ45 plug.
Cat 5 cable with RJ45 plug.

When designed for wired networks, an integrated network card features an RJ45 port for plugging in an Ethernet cable. The RJ45 port looks similar to a standard phone jack, but larger. The Ethernet cable runs from the machine to the network’s router or hub, physically linking the computer to the network. These network cards were once standard in all computers but are now optional in many mobile models, as wireless networks are more commonly used.

A wireless router, which interacts with a network card.
A wireless router, which interacts with a network card.

An integrated network card designed for connecting to a wireless router contains a built-in receiver and transmitter for operating over radio frequency (RF) waves. These cards are sometimes called WiFi™ cards, but technically, a true WiFi™ card is certified by the WiFi™ Alliance. Non-certified cards are sometimes referred to as “wifi” as a slang for wireless, without implicating certification. Certified or not, all wireless cards are made to comply with international standards to be interoperable with wireless routers and other wireless devices.

While wireless standards make wireless devices interoperable, there are several standards that continue to evolve, and the network card and router must share at least one common standard to communicate. These standards follow the 802.11 wireless designation with a letter following to identify the exact protocol; 802.11g and 802.11n are two examples. A wireless device might support only one standard, or several. Newer standards generally have more robust specifications, such as the ability to broadcast network signals further than previous standards, or to transfer data at faster rates.

If a wireless integrated network card does not support the same protocol or wireless standard that the intended router supports, an external network adapter can be purchased to fit the bill. External network adapters can take the form of a USB dongle or a PC Card device, and are quite inexpensive. An adapter takes the place of the integrated network card to connect to the desired network.

Another type of integrated network card less commonly found is cellular Internet service, which is designed to connect to mobile broadband networks. Cellular Internet is provided by cell phone carriers. These network cards are branded for a specific carrier and cannot be used with any other. For this reason they are usually not integrated, but purchased separately as an aftermarket option in the form of a mobile broadband adapter, also available as a USB dongle or in the PC Card format.

Aftermarket network adapters are plentiful, easy to find, and can meet any network need. Read specifications carefully and be sure the adapter is suited for the intended router or cellular service. Internal network cards are also available, but must be installed inside the machine and opening a computer might void its warranty. Check warranty details if in doubt.

A USB mobile broadband adapter.
A USB mobile broadband adapter.

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