What is the best retro network card? I will nominate the Intel 8/16 LAN Adapter. Depending on exactly what you need, there are other cards that can be just as good. And there are certainly faster cards. But the Intel 8/16 LAN Adapter is the most versatile. And it’s not terribly expensive.
Why is the Intel 8/16 LAN Adapter the best retro network card?
The Intel 8/16 LAN Adapter has the advantage of being able to work as either an 8 or 16 bit card. This means you can use it in an 8088 based machine, such as an IBM 5150 or 5160 or their many clones. You will probably need to configure it in a newer machine, and set the IRQ to 3, 4, or 5, since those are available on 8088 machines, but once you do that, the card works fine in an 8-bit slot. And its boot ROM socket happily takes an XT IDE BIOS if you need it.
Of course, the card works fine in any machine with 16-bit ISA slots, and with no special trickery. But the extra versatility is nice. You never know when you may get an 8088 based machine that will benefit from the capability.
Just watch to make sure the card you buy has an RJ-45 socket. The one on the right does. The RJ-45 is the port at the top of the card. Don’t torture yourself with coax.
What about period correctness?
And it is entirely feasible that an Intel card would have turned up in any PC that had an ISA slot. Intel was a premium brand, so it would have been a favored choice for any name brand PC. That includes budget PCs. When I worked selling computers at Best Buy in the early ’90s, there were only two network cards we sold. We had an Intel card, and we had a card from Artisoft. Presumably that was some kind of NE2000 clone. I can only speak for my store, but we sold more of the Intel cards.
The cheap knockoff NE2000 cards and other random cards were mainly sold by dedicated computer stores or mail order houses. People certainly bought them, but every computer professional I knew back then cursed them.
And yes, we did network PCs in the 90s and even the 80s. Not necessarily in the home (there was little reason to), but in school and business settings we did.
Intel vs 3Com retro network cards
The 3Com 3c509 is a fine card, and I have some of those. But they don’t always have an EPROM socket, and it’s harder to get them to work on an 8088-based machine. I use them in systems that are new enough to not need an XT-IDE BIOS to support drives larger than 512MB. Since there’s usually little or no price difference between them, I favor the Intel 8/16 LAN Adapter.
What was special about Intel or 3com?
Adrian’s Digital Basement recently ran a video where he was trying to get random old network cards working with a transceiver. It was a long video, but there was a good 2 hours of additional work he did off camera in his efforts to get those random cards working. In the end, he said not to buy random no name cards, and to stick with the two big brands: Intel or 3Com.
That was standard advice that everyone who did networking in the ’90s, or at least a lot of networking in the ’90s, generally followed. I worked in Token Ring shops most of the ’90s, so I missed a lot of the no-name madness. All Token Ring cards were expensive.
I will say that the no name cards were okay to get up and running as long as you still had the original disks. At least usually. The big problem was once you have the card working, if you misplaced the disk, it was really hard to get another one. It was hard to figure out who made the card, and if the company made more than one, the driver and utility for one card may not work on another. It was hard then and it’s not much easier now.
With the two big brands, getting the discs wasn’t much of a problem if you needed to, and there was also a better chance that the drivers and configuration utilities would work across different models of card.
All the drivers and software you need for the Intel 8/16 LAN adapter are available here. And once you have the packet driver, you can use my NE2000 tips to get it working in DOS, just substitute the Intel packet driver.
Reliability and performance
Some people also believed the two major name brands were more reliable. I think that depended on what you were comparing them to. I never had any problems with my NE2000 clone cards, at least once I knew what address and IRQ they were using. Other random cards could be a different story though.
The NE2000 was an open standard, which was nice. The big brand cards tended to be better performers, even if the difference in reliability may have been open to debate.
In the 90s, the no-name stuff had a price advantage. But if you were buying a card today, there’s usually not a lot of difference in price between the various vintage ISA network cards. Everyone thinks the no-name cards are rare and therefore collectible, so is still sell for close to what they did when they were new. If you’re going to pay a minimum of $20 for a network card, you might as well get one with good driver and utility support, and that has always been well respected, and if you can get the versatility of working either in 8 or 16 bit mode, so much the better.
Soon after he posted his video, I wasted a couple of hours trying to get three cards made by DEC working. Of course they were a big name brand, they were once the second biggest computer company in the world.
The cards themselves may have been okay. I did have good luck with them under Linux. But their DOS and Windows drivers were absolute garbage. I remember them being nearly impossible to get working in 1998, and they are just as bad now. At some point I remembered that this was my hobby and is supposed to be fun, and I ordered a couple of Intel 8/16s.