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What Should I Consider When Buying a Network Card?

By A. Wells
Updated May 16, 2024
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There can be a lot to consider when buying a network card, but some of the most important things are speed, interface capability, and overall quality, which often has to do with the manufacturer. The cards, which are also sometimes called network interface cards or simply NICs, enable a computer or server to access and remain connected to a wireless Internet host. In the early days of wireless connectivity choosing a card was often a really important and typically expensive endeavor that required at least some understanding of the hardware involved. The technology has advanced over the years, but the overriding concept is basically the same; the biggest difference today is that nearly all computers and servers come with cards already installed, usually internally and completely out of view. As such, one of the most important considerations in wireless card purchasing today is matching what you already have, at least in terms of capabilities and technical specifications. From there, you may choose to upgrade with an eye towards speed, security, or ease of access.

Matching What You Already Have

The first thing you should normally consider when buying a network interface card is the sort of card that your system, be it a laptop, a desktop, or a gaming console, is already running. The vast majority of new technology comes with networking cards pre-installed. Understanding what you have is key to finding a replacement that will both work and match your prior capabilities.

Accessing the card can sometimes be tricky. Your user manual will normally state the specifications of the existing card, and will typically also provide instructions on getting to it for service or replacement. Talking to a service technician or salesperson can also give you some insight into the parameters appropriate for your machine specifically, and many stores will also perform the physical card swap free of charge with card purchase.

Older machines typically don’t have pre-installed cards, meaning that you’ll have to buy one and install it yourself in order to get connected. Your specifics are still important, though, as not all cards are suitable for all devices. You’ll want to do some research into the capabilities of your device as well as the options available on the market. Ideally, you’ll find a card that is neither too fast nor too slow for the computer’s capabilities, and is compatible with the server you intend to be using most frequently. A bit of research and investigation can make the choice a lot easier, and again, card salespeople are often great resources when trying to answer specific questions.

Speed Considerations

Connection speed is one of the most important considerations for most consumers. An 802.11g card, which is usually considered to be the wireless standard, is often preferred because it provides speeds of up to 54 Mbps. An 802.11b adaptor is another type of wireless NIC that is becoming less common because it is slower than its 802.11g counterpart. It provides speeds of about 11 Mbps and is therefore more affordable; it may also work best in older machines with slower operating systems generally. An 802.11n is even faster than the g version, giving even faster download and upload speeds.

Understanding the Interfaces

The card’s basic interface is another important consideration. The most common network card interfaces are a PCI, ISA, or PCMCIA card. The kind you choose largely depends on your computer and its interface.

A PCI card is placed in the PCI slot of your computer and operates at a fast speed. This is usually recommended for the average PC user but it can be more costly than other options. An ISA card connects to a computer's motherboard and less expensive than the PCI card but it is also typically less reliable. PCMCIA cards are used in laptops. They are placed in a corresponding slot in your laptop, usually near the power and utility docks.

Manufacturing Considerations

The overall quality of the card also usually matters, and in most cases this can be stermined at least broadly in terms of the manufacture. For novice computer users especially, choosing a manufacturer that provides technical support with their product may turn out to be helpful. Some makers provide phone support in installing your card. You may also want to choose a card that comes with a warranty in the event of failure or damage.

Possible Need for Cables

In most cases, wireless cards require no cables or installation beyond popping the card into its intended clot. Some network cards, however, are hardwired with a cable. In this case, you'll need to consider the type of cable you'll need. Since the card typically is not sold with its corresponding cable, you'll need to consider the connection that your card has. For a card that has a RJ-45 connection, for example, you should use an Ethernet cable. If the card has a BNC connector, use a coax cable. These concerns are most common with older models or in machines designed primarily for wired Internet access.

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Discussion Comments
By FrameMaker — On Jul 24, 2011

I am a little disappointed that I just bought a new Xbox 360 before the next generation model came out. I paid $200 for the system, and another $100 for the wireless network interface card, only to find out that the new systems come with free wireless adapters.

I guess I bought the video game system a few months too early. Boo.

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