A network controller card is an internal or external piece of computer hardware engineered to establish and maintain a continuous connection to either a local area network (LAN) or a wireless local area network (WLAN). There are several types of network cards, including wired, wireless, integrated, and mini or portable. Portable wired and wireless cards are typically plug-and-play, whereas integrated wired and wireless cards require the installation of special network card software.
A wired network controller card uses an RJ-45 interface port to establish an Ethernet connection to a LAN. In most cases, the LAN itself is connected to the Internet via either a digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem. The data transfer speed is dependent on the speed of the adapter and the speed of the Internet connection. The three most commonly used standards in 2010 are 10BASE-T, which runs at 10 Mbit/s; 100BASE-TX, which runs at 100 Mbit/s; and 1,000BASE-T, which runs at 1000 Mbit/s.
A wireless network controller card relies on Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 wireless standards to establish a 2.4GHz or 5GHz wireless connection to a WLAN. In such an instance, a wireless router must be employed to wirelessly transmit signals between the wireless network card and the Internet modem. The three most commonly used standards in 2010 include 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n. The 802.11n standard provides the fastest throughput rate up to 300 Mbps. Keep in mind that, though some manufacturers claim a speed of 600 Mbps, it’s rarely achieved.
An integrated network controller card is one that’s installed within a computer. Such a card is situated in a peripheral component interconnect (PCI) or PCI Express slot, from which it transmits data from the motherboard to the network, and vice versa. Note that an integrated network card can provide either a wired or wireless connection, depending on the type of technology built into it. Integrated cards are preferred by desktop users because they provide faster communication between the computer and the network, which in turn means reduced latency and faster access speeds.
A portable or mini network controller card connects to a computer externally from a universal serial bus (USB) or FireWire® interface. It also provides either a wired or wireless connection. Keep in mind that, no matter how fast the wired or wireless connection, it’s restricted by the transfer speed of the interface. Regardless, mobile users exceedingly prefer mini network cards, because they can easily be transported and they can also be swiftly switched from one laptop to another.
When deciding which type of network controller card to utilize, carefully analyze the situation. If the network provider doesn’t support 1,000BASE-T or Gigabit speeds, then no benefit whatsoever would be garnered from using a Gigabit network controller card. Or, if a computer’s PCI slots are already full, then it’d be useless to purchase an integrated card. Suffice it to say, each and every situation requires a unique solution tailored to the specific details — type of computer, network speed, available ports and slots — of the situation.