Ethernet card is also known as network interface card (NIC). It is a piece of hardware that allows your computer to connect to your Ethernet network. The first implementation of an Ethernet card was as an expansion card, which is a small circuit board. When plugged into a computer bus, this expansion card would give you extra facilities for networking. To connect to a network using an Ethernet card, you need to plug in an Ethernet cable with an RJ-45 connector.

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Due to their immense popularity and low cost of production, Ethernet cards are built directly into the motherboard in most of the new computers.

Unique Identification

Each Ethernet card has a unique number associated with it, known as the MAC address.  This address is used as an identification for the card.

When connected to a network that uses Internet Protocol (IP), each card gets assigned a unique IP address. Similar to MAC address, IP address is used as identification in data exchanges over the network.

Uses of an Ethernet card

The primary purpose of Ethernet card was to build a Local Area Network (LAN). Using an Ethernet cable, connect two or more computers over the LAN and transfer data and resources.

The local area network is further connected to a wide area network (WAN) such as the Internet. With the help of the Ethernet card, you can go online and stream videos, scroll Facebook and read interesting articles.

By using an ethernet card, you can do a lot more than just connecting to your internet. You can share network resources such as printers and scanners.

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You can store your data on a local server and access it any time without having to fill your local hard drive. Using local servers, you can also distribute computational resources.

This use-case is more centric to technology-based companies. With Wi-Fi increasing its footprint in homes, it is slowly replacing Ethernet. Most of the computers now come with wireless network interface cards along with Ethernet card.

Use of wired Ethernet is taking a back seat and has become limited to configuring routers, gaming, or when very high-speed internet (gigabit Ethernet) is required. Wi-Fi has taken charge of most of the other networking tasks.

Evolution of Ethernet Cards

Ethernet cards come in standard packages referred to as form factors. These form factors have evolved with increasing demand and decreasing cost of computer hardware. Even today, Ethernet cards are used in different forms in the different application.

Industry Standard Architecture (ISA)

The first standard for Ethernet cards was developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They were available in the form of large Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) cards. To install these cards, one needs to open the computer case.

Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI)

Later, newer Ethernet cards came preinstalled by the manufacturer inside desktop computers. The standard used was called Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI).

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Even today, desktop computers, which do not come with an Ethernet port integrated into the motherboard, use PCI cards.

Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA)

For laptops and mobile computers, we have Ethernet cards in the size of credit cards. The standard used for these devices was called ‘Personal Computer Memory Card International Association’ or PCMCIA.

These Ethernet cards were designed to insert into slots on the side or the front of the device. The PC Card was one of the commonly used devices built using PCMCIA standard.

However, many PCMCIA devices do not support Ethernet. This less to a decrease in support of PCMCIA standard by the early 2010s.

External USB Ethernet adapters

USB Ethernet adapters are an alternative to PCI cards for desktops without inbuilt support for Ethernet. They look like small boxes and are very convenient to use.

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Their primary use-case is video gaming consoles and other consumer devices that do not have PCMCIA slots.

Networking Speed

With the evolution of networking standard, the speed of Ethernet cards has also improved. Initially, Ethernet cards could support only up to 10 Mbps as offered by the Ethernet standard.

However, most of the new Ethernet adapters support a network speed of 100 Mbps. Gigabit Ethernet offering network speeds up to 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) is the latest technology which is proliferating into consumer space.

Ethernet Card and Wi-Fi

Ethernet cards do not come with the inbuilt capacity to support wireless networking. However, there is a way around if you want your device to communicate with wireless devices in your home.

  • Use your wireless router to create a wireless local area network. Connect your wireless device on the network.
  • Wireless routers also have Ethernet support built in them. Connect your device to the router using an Ethernet cable.

Your device and the wireless devices are effectively on the same network. You can share data and resources with the wireless devices.

Ethernet card is also known as network interface card (NIC). It is a piece of hardware that allows a computer to connect to your Ethernet network. When you plug this expansion card into a computer bus, you get networking facilities. Common supported n/w speeds of an ethernet card are 10 & 100Mbps, 1Gbps