Being able to connect to the Internet no matter where you are is an important aspect of laptops. As a result, networking interfaces are a standard item found on all laptops. Some of them are so standardized that comparing products is difficult but some may have slight variations that can make a difference in network performance. This guide will help to sort out what they are and how they compare.
Until wireless networking became so prevalent, high-speed network connections required the use of an Ethernet cable connected from the laptop to a network device. Ethernet has been a standard network PC cable design that has been used for many years that it is found in almost all computers today. Only the extremely thin ultraportables such as ultrabooks lack the space necessary for the cable. The only real difference comes with what speed of Ethernet network the laptop supports.
There are two standard types of Ethernet speeds currently. The most common up until recently was the Fast Ethernet or 10/100 Ethernet. This has a maximum data rate of 100Mbps and is backwards compatible with the older 10Mbps Ethernet standard. This is what is found on most consumer networking gear such as cable and DSL modems. The more recent standard is Gigabit Ethernet. This allows support of connections of up to 1000Mbps on compatible networking gear. Like Fast Ethernet, it is backwards compatible with the slower network types.
The speed of the Ethernet interface will only really matter when connecting between devices on a local area network (LAN). Most broadband connections are slower than even the original 10Mbps Ethernet standard although this is starting to change with more fiber networks being installed.
Wireless networking through the Wi-Fi standards has exploded over the years making it a common feature in all laptop computers. There are a number of acronyms for the various standards and speeds of Wi-Fi networking that you will need when shopping for a laptop computer to let you know how it can be used.
There are currently four Wi-Fi standards that can be found on laptop computers. 802.11b is the oldest running at 11Mbps in the 2.4GHz radio spectrum. This is the most common type of Wi-Fi used. 802.11g uses the same 2.4GHz radio spectrum but can transmit up to 54Mbps in speeds. It is backward compatible with the 802.11b standard. 802.11a uses the 5GHz radio spectrum for improved range and similar 54Mbps speeds. It is not backwards compatible due to the different radio frequencies used.
The most recent version of Wi-Fi is the 802.11n standard. This standard is a bit more confusing as a device can be made to use it in the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio spectrums. The main way to tell is if the laptop lists 802.11a/g/n or 802.11b/g/n. Those that list a/g/n in the Wi-Fi standards will have the ability to use either radio spectrum while b/g/n will only use the 2.4GHz spectrum. Note that some listed as 802.11b/g/n will use the 5GHz spectrum. Those listing a dual antennae have capabilities to use both 2.4 and 5GHz. This only really matters for those that wish to use the 5GHz radio spectrum.
Recently, some new 5G Wi-Fi networking products have started to be released. These are based on the 802.11ac draft standards. These products claim to be able to acheive transfer rates of up to 1.3Gbps which is three times the maximum that 802.11n and similar to that of gigabit Ethernet. Like the 802.11a standard, it uses the 5GHz frequency but it is dual-band meaning it is also supports 802.11n on the 2.4GHz frequency. While this is available in router products, it has made it into a few laptops to date and still hasn't been fully ratified as a standard.
Often users will see multiple standards listed on a laptop computer, such as 802.11b/g. This means that the laptop computer can be used with all of the Wi-Fi standards listed. So, if you want to have the widest range of wireless network connectivity, look for a laptop computer listed as having 802.11a/g/n wireless networking. This can also be referred to as dual band 802.11n since it supports the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrums.
Here is a listing of some of the Wi-Fi standards:
- 802.11a - 54Mbps, 5GHz Band, Used Mainly By Corporations
- 802.11b - 11Mpbs, 2.4GHz Band, Most Widely Used Wi-Fi
- 802.11g - 54Mbps, 2.4GHz Band, Most Common High-Speed Wi-Fi
- 802.11n - Up To 450Mbps Standard, 2.4 or 5GHz Band, Current Fastest Wi-Fi Standard
- 802.11ac - Up to 1.3Gbps, 5GHz Band, Still In Draft Stages
For more information about the various Wi-Fi standard, check out the About.com Computer Networking Guide.
Bluetooth is technically a wireless networking standard that uses the same 2.4GHz spectrum as Wi-Fi. It is primarily used for wireless peripheral connections rather than actual networking. There is one aspect that it can be used and that is tethering to a wireless phone. This allows a laptop to use the wireless phone's data link. Unfortunately, many wireless phone carriers in the United States do not allow tethering or have surcharges in order to enable it with a device. Check with your carrier if this is a feature you might be interested in. Tethering is also referred to as mobile hotspot support.
The inclusion of built-in wireless modems or 3G/4G networking adapters is a fairly recent addition to laptop computers. Manufacturers often refer to this as wireless wide area networking or WWAN. This can allow a laptop computer to connect to the Internet through a high-speed wireless phone network when no other access is possible. This can be very useful but it is also quite expensive as it requires phone data contracts. In addition, the wireless modems built into laptops are typically locked into a specific provider or class of network. As a result, I don't recommend users look for these features and to purchase an external wireless modem that uses PC Card, ExpressCard or USB if you really do need such service. Another option is a mobile hotspot device that essentially combines a Wi-Fi router to a wireless modem. They still require data contracts but have the ability to be used with just about any Wi-Fi capable device.
WiMAX is a another long distance wireless networking system that was developed out of the old microwave data transmission systems. It differs from Wi-Fi because it essentially is a replacement for DSL or Cable networking by providing long range high speed network connections without cabling. This is really just another WWAN technology but has a specific name and technology behind it. Subscriptions with a provider are also required just like wireless. This is not very common in laptops. WiMAX is being sold as a 4G wireless technology by several wireless carriers and laptop partners.
Once the most dominant form of networking, modems are rarely found on any laptops. Dial-up networking is one of the oldest forms of networking for PC computers. While broadband connections are more common in the home, when on the road in remote locations this may be the only method for connecting. A simple phone cable plugged between the laptop and a phone jack allows the user to connect via a dial-up account. While many laptops may not feature these ports, it is always possible to purchase a low cost USB dial-up modem to use with just about any computer.
Due to the limitations of audio data transmissions over phone lines, the maximum speed of 56Kbps has been reached for some time. Any laptop that has a modem will be 56Kbps compatible. The only difference is it being listed as a v.90 or v.92 type. These are two forms of data connection methods and are pretty much interchangeable when it comes to an actual dial-up connection.