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Network Cards

Network Cards Buying Guide

Although wireless networking technologies have come a l...
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Network Cards Buying Guide

Although wireless networking technologies have come a long way towards catching up with wired networks, they still have many downfalls. Not only does their speed still lack when compared to a gigabit wired network but they are also terrible over longer distances without costly repeaters. A wireless network makes a great addition to any home in terms of allowing laptop users free rein of the house, gaming systems to hook up online and computers that are farther away to be easily connected without awkwardly running a network wire. However, for PC gaming, downloading and intense file/media sharing among home systems, a wired network is still the best way to go. Modern networks have come a long way from the old 10/100mbps connection speeds and are now capable of doing 10/100/1000mpbs (otherwise known as gigabit). These fast speeds allow very large files to be moved from computer to computer very quickly and efficiently and also open the door to steaming live media over a network - handy for the growing number of HTPC’s (home theatre PC’s).

Integrated Network Controllers
I'll make an educated guess that the vast majority of the population out there with computers built during the past 10 years or so are probably using the network controller that is built right onto their motherboard. Ever since motherboard manufacturers started integrating all the vital components onto their motherboard designs the need for a lot of add-on cards has diminished. Pretty much all these integrated network controllers are 10/100mpbs and even on brand new systems it can still be hit or miss as to whether or not you're getting a 10/100/1000mbps (gigabit) connection. For most people reading this, the integrated network controller on your motherboard will be all you ever need for networking. It's fast, efficient and doesn't occupy any extra space inside your case like a PCI network card would. For those who build their own systems, you may see some high performance motherboard's including not one, but two network jacks on their rear I/O plate. This means you have the option of plugging your computer into two jacks on your router at once and the motherboard network controller will intelligently manage traffic from both - giving you a massive networking speed performance boost!

Add-on Network Cards
Many people question why they should move to an add-on network card if they already have a perfectly good integrated network card. There are three primary answers to this; upgrading to a faster networking standard, increasing system performance or gaining the added benefits that a manufacturer may offer on their network card.

If you're wiring your house for gigabit ethernet or recently purchased a gigabit router/switch then it might not be a bad idea to spend a few extra dollars to put a gigabit network card in any computers that are used on the network. If you're someone who does a lot of file transfers on your network or steams media from PC to PC then you will certainly benefit from the extra bandwidth and speed available. PCI gigabit networking cards are very inexpensive and will allow you to add increased networking performance to virtually any PC.

For those who do a lot of gaming, specifically online gaming, using an add-on networking card will allow you to disable the motherboard's built-in networking card and increase performance and frame rates. By disabling the integrated card you are taking a load off the CPU because integrated motherboard components will pull more CPU cycles to run themselves due to their lack of individual processors. When you put in an add-on PCI/PCI-Express networking card it will have all the components it needs to run itself built onto the card - thus freeing up some CPU cycles to put towards your game. If you're willing to spend a little more, many manufacturers make gamer-specific add-on network cards as well. These cards will have better network traffic management than a standard card, often giving more bandwidth to currently running games than any background networking processes. Having as much bandwidth as you can for your current game will greatly reduce your ping to the gaming server and often result in better and faster online play.

Lastly, some add-on networking cards are starting to do more than just the basic networking these days. There are some cards on the market that actually have ROM based bit-torrent clients, FTP clients and much more that will run directly from the card. Taking care of these applications on the hardware front will help free up memory and CPU cycles in your operating system for not only better operating system performance but also the ability to game on your system while running downloads/uploads in the background. With these card's being intelligent enough to direct traffic where it is needed the most, you won't have the lag associated with running a software download client from your PC while simultaneously gaming.

I hope in this short guide that I've been able to de-mystify some of the unknowns about your often overlooked PC network controller. If you're building or upgrading a wired network then I say spend the few extra dollars and start building it gigabit. Although it may not be something you use right away, you can bet that as computers do more and more in our homes that you will probably benefit from it in the very near future. For gamers and downloaders, if the budget is available then look into some of the high-performance network cards on the market that will improve your network performance for both gaming and downloading applications.


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