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The internet has become a daily necessity in life. In fact, the United Nations Human Rights Council has deemed it a Basic Human Right. What actually connects our computers to not only the internet, but the network at work, or a PC gaming party?

There are quite a few pieces of hardware used in running a network. While you don’t need to have intimate knowledge of every piece of kit, it’s worth having a basic understanding of what’s going on.

The modem/router

The essential piece of any internet connection is the modem. This device connects you and your home or work to the world wide web (WWW). By plugging a phone cable into the modem, it is able to link up with your internet service provider (ISP), which connects you to the internet. Modems can only be connected to one PC at a time, because of this, it requires a router for multiple connections.

A router is a device that allows several devices, either wired or wireless, to connect to the internet through your modem. They will include either several Ethernet (network) ports for a wired connection and/or an antenna for WiFi-enabled devices. Though these can be bought separately to modems, there’s a good chance you’re using the most common of these devices: a modem router.

As the name implies, a modem router combines the functionality of a modem and a router. It not only connects you to the internet and ‘speaks’ to your ISP, but allows several other devices to connect as well. This is what most homes and businesses have as it’s far more convenient than having a separate modem or router for the same purpose. Marketers tend to refer to these as either modems or routers, instead of modem routers, which muddies the naming convention.

WiFi adapters

In order to connect to the modem router or network, you’re going to need a WiFi adapter. If you’re using a laptop, phone, or tablet, this component is already integrated into your system. For desktop PCs, WiFi adapters come in either USB or PCIe flavours. The USB variant is pretty standard and plugs into a free USB port on your system. The PCIe version needs to be installed inside of your PC, but both offer the same functionality.

It’s worth noting that WiFi became a popular network connection after Windows XP was released. Because of this, it is much harder to setup a wireless connection on the operating system, as opposed to the later Vista, 7, 8, and 10 versions.

Ethernet adapters

For laptops and home PCs, this is the most common connection type: a physical network cable, or ethernet. In fact, unless you have a MacBook or slim form-factor laptop, your system will have an ethernet port, which looks like a bigger version of a phone cable. These devices are also standard on almost every PC motherboard.

They work the same way as a WiFi adapter, but with a cable instead of a wireless signal. Using a physical cable is better for network speeds and file transfers, boasting much higher speeds than a wireless connection.

Though this article refers to a wired network connection as Ethernet, it is, in fact, one of two options with the other being Gigabit. An Ethernet connection is able to handle 10/100Mbps (around 12.5Mb/s transfer rate), while Gigabit is 1000Mbps, or 125MB/s. Even though Gigabit is significantly faster, it’s not as widely adopted due to the increase in cost.

A network switch

These black boxes sit at the heart of any wired network and allow multiple PCs to talk to each other at once. Instead of connecting a cable directly from PC to PC, which would severely limit how a network can be utilised, a switch is used to connect several systems.

Network switches are basic in construction. They only containing a few indicator lights and typically between either eight and 16 Ethernet or Gigabit ports. Ordinarily, they are plug-and-play devices allowing for minimal setup, but more advanced versions allow users to control the flow of network and manually assign network addresses.

These are all of the core components for a computer network. There are other network pieces, such as Power Over Ethernet (PoE), though those are variants of what has been discussed here.

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