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A wired network adapter is a hardware device that accommodates an Ethernet cable, used to connect a computer to a local area network (LAN). The network adapter is either installed internally in the computer, or it can be an external adapter or USB dongle. This device contrasts with its cousin, the wireless network adapter, which broadcasts network signals over radio frequency waves, negating the need for cables.
Many computers come with a wired network adapter preinstalled. Checking for this device is easy as it features an RJ-45 port that looks like a telephone jack, but slightly larger. This is where the Ethernet cable attaches. The other end of the cable runs to the network router or hub, which is in turn connected to the server or main computer in the network. (In a home network, the main computer might be a desktop.) If an Internet connection is also provided to the router, all computers connected to the network can also share that connection.
The biggest advantage of a wired network is speed between local machines. Data over a wired LAN can travel at speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second, depending on network hardware and other factors. The type of cable used is also important, with optical fiber being the most advantageous, followed by the old standbys of twisted pair and coaxial. Fast LANs are essential to business productivity for companies that exchange large amounts of data over the network as a matter of routine.
Another advantage of a wired network is security. Wireless network adapters broadcast all data transmitted over the LAN, requiring the administrator of the network to incorporate an encryption protocol in order to keep would-be eavesdroppers from stealing data. Using Ethernet cable, the only security required is internal permissions to restrict users or employees to relevant areas of the network.
Due to the pervasive popularity of wireless networks, some new laptops are no longer including a wired network adapter by default. If your machine does not have an Ethernet adapter, or if the present adapter is inoperable, you have several choices.
A new wired network adapter can be purchased to be installed inside the laptop, but this is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. New machines might not have a bay for an internal adapter, and even if the machine has a bay, the footprint of the new adapter must be compatible with the laptop model. The laptop's manufacturer should have information and recommendations.
An easier route is to simply purchase an external wired network adapter. These are made in a card-style format to slip into the PC Card® port where available; or as USB dongles. A USB dongle plugs into the USB port, proving an Ethernet interface.
Regardless of the type of wired network adapter, a device driver will need to be installed in most cases. The driver is the software interface that allows the system to utilize the hardware correctly. Drivers should come with the adapters, or in some cases they are available for download.
Note that the fastest wired LAN cannot increase the speed of an Internet account. Internet bandwidth or speed is capped by the Internet Service Provider. The advantage to greater speeds on a wired LAN is the ability for local computers to share data quickly.
@Terrificli -- There is a very good reason that some laptop manufacturers are not adding Ethernet ports to their machines. If you have a laptop, the emphasis is on portability while a wired connection is more suited for computers that are stationary.
Don't worry, though. If you have a desktop, the chances are good that it will have an Ethernet port. If you have a laptop, the chances are still good that it will have an Ethernet port because (as you pointed out) a lot of people still use them.
Don't be surprised if Ethernet ports become scarce on portable devices one day in the near future. Luckily, adapters are pretty inexpensive.
If you need a wired network adapter, make sure you look at that computer for an Ethernet jack before you buy that computer. Why? It is becoming increasingly popular for laptops to eliminate that feature and go solely for wireless connectivity.
That is a shame, too. There are still a lot of times when you will need a wired connection. It would be a pity to get a computer home and find that you had to buy a USB adapter or install an internal card to get that Ethernet port which should be standard equipment.