Network Adapter

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What Does Network Adapter Mean?

A network adapter is the component of a computer’s internal hardware that is used for communicating over a network with another computer. It enables a computer to connect with another computer, server or any networking device over an local area network (LAN) connection. A network adapter can be used over a wired or wireless network.


A network adapter is usually the only component within a computer for interfacing or connecting with a network. Typically, it is built on a printed circuit board with jumpers that connect it with the computer’s motherboard.

A network adapter for wired networks has an RJ-45 port that uses twisted or untwisted pair cable for network connectivity. Wireless adapters connect with the network through a built-in or externally connected antenna. Both network adapters support popular LAN protocols, including TCP/IP.

Techopedia Explains Network Adapter

Some of the terminologies around network adapters can be confusing. It has also historically been referred to as a Network Interface Card (NIC), especially when it operated as an expansion plugged into a particular workstation. It may also be referred to as a network interface controller or a network card. All of these types of devices connect a computer to a network, which is the fundamental definition of the network adapter in general.

Network adapters have many form factors – they can be a USB dongle or an ethernet jack into an RJ-45 port. They can also be an antenna using standards based on 802.11.

Network administrators and others can evaluate network adapters according to their design and speed. For example, there are full-duplex and half-duplex network adapters, as well as various designs rated by speeds from megabytes per second to gigabytes per second, or, for cutting-edge technologies, magnitudes of order greater than the gigabyte (tera – peta – zeta – etc.)

Adapters, Modems and Routers

Another way to think about the network adapter is to contrast its role in the network to other devices that end users sometimes confuse with the network adapter itself.

One is the modem, which typically operates as a bridge to the greater Internet. The modem (short for a modulation/demodulation device) was developed as a way to port data onto the emerging Internet through telephone lines and other infrastructure. It’s the gateway for the LAN, not a connecting piece within the LAN itself.

By contrast, the network adapter does not connect the computer directly to the Internet, but to a local area network, or more specifically, to other parts of a local area network. Some of these external network adapters popular for mobile laptop computers will look around for available networks to connect to, but typically, password security often applies. In any case, although they may connect to LANs, they’re typically connecting to a router, not directly to a modem.

Another distinct piece of hardware in the LAN is the router. Typically, as was just mentioned, the network adapter connects to the router, which manages LAN traffic. Again, this can be done through an ethernet cable, or wirelessly, with a WiFi router.

Technology has largely moved from the external network adapters to internal wireless network adapters, many of which are built directly into the motherboard of the device. A smartphone, for instance, would never have an external network adapter the way that early personal computers did, where users plugged a USB dongle or network card into a particular port on the laptop or desktop computer. In those cases, it was often necessary to install specific drivers on an operating system, which led to its own challenges.

There are several different kinds of wireless network adapters to choose from. They include:

  • PCI adapters.
  • PCMCIA Adapters (or PC cards.)
  • Mini PCI Adapters.
  • Wireless USB Adapters.

By contrast, in advancing technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, effortless network adapter implementations have largely taken over as a common standard. With this in mind, the average end-user doesn’t have to think about a “network adapter” at all – they use the terminology and hardware of the day, a mobile device with software to connect to a LAN, and from there, to the Information Superhighway, also known as the Internet.



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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert
Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.