My son was having trouble with the Realtek network card in his PC. The question was what to replace it with. Well, it wasn’t going to be another Realtek-based card. Should I get a Broadcom? Or an Intel? Let’s look at the pros and cons of a Broadcom vs Intel NIC.
Broadcom vs Intel NIC: reliability
I spent the first half of my career as a sysadmin. I rarely saw dead network cards. At least not completely dead. I’d see them degrade over time and start dropping connections and acting strange, but I rarely saw a dead one. When I did see a cranky NIC, it was almost always a cheap no-name. Early in my career I had a couple of different IT pros lecture me about using cheap NICs. And while I’ll say they were right, it took years for me to realize why they were right.
It’s not that cheap network cards fail right away, usually. It’s that you don’t know when they’ll fail, and if they’ll be doing something that anyone cares about when that happens.
When I started my career, there were some mid-grade options. You had Intel and 3Com at the top. Realtek was at the bottom of the market, along with many others, making clones of the NE2000, the literal minimum viable product in the networking space. A few companies tried to nose into that middle ground. I tended to buy into that middle ground, but I was in the minority. Those middle-ground players dropped out a very long time ago.
When 3Com faded, Broadcom burst in to fill the gap they left at the top. I only ever experienced one failing network card in a datacenter. It was an Intel. That turned out to be a driver issue. That system was using an especially early driver. Updating it with something more recent solved the problem. We had plenty of other hardware issues, because this was in the era of Prescott CPUs and cheap counterfeit capacitors, but the network cards were pretty good. If you’d asked me then, I would have told you I preferred Broadcom, but could certainly live with Intel.
When it comes to Broadcom vs Intel, the biggest issue is, ironically, driver support. Under Windows, either card will just work with the drivers that come with Windows, and you can load a driver direct from the manufacturer if you want a few more features. Using other operating systems can change the situation. Under Linux I didn’t notice any great difference between the two, even under heavy load that taxed other parts of the systems involved.
But under BSD-derived operating systems, Intel’s drivers are better. Intel is more willing to release code under the more permissible BSD license than Broadcom. If you’re going to run a BSD derivative, which includes projects like FreeNAS and pfSense, Intel cards are the easiest ones to get working because of the drivers.
That’s not to say a Broadcom won’t work in those projects. I know people who’ve done it. But when you go onto the forums, weird issues with Intel cards are nearly non-existent, but you do see them with Broadcom or Realtek cards. Custom drivers can sometimes resolve the issue, but they’re just trying to close the gap with the stock Intel drivers. If you need BSD, Intel is your safest bet.
When it comes to performance, I have to give Intel the edge. But if you’re not doing something like trying to scan 4.3 billion IPv4 network addresses, you’re unlikely to notice a difference. If you do things like that, I doubt you’re reading this. And when it comes to the gargantuan task of scanning billions of IP addresses, the network card isn’t your only bottleneck.
On your local LAN, you may not notice any difference at all between Broadcom or Intel. When I go outside my local network, sometimes I can get a variance of 3-5 percent, and when there’s a difference, it favors Intel. But it’s extremely difficult to notice a difference of less than 10 percent, and you’ll have to have gigabit Internet to run up against the card’s limits. If you’re on a 500-megabit connection or less, which is the overwhelming majority of the United States at least, you’re unlikely to notice a difference when it comes to a Broadcom vs Intel NIC.
When you’re buying new, I’m not sure there’s a significant difference in price in a Broadcom vs Intel NIC. On the used market there is. Used Broadcom cards sell for 50-60 percent less than a comparable Intel NIC, and that situation has held true even in the wake of COVID-19 increasing the cost of computer parts. There’s more demand for Intel, so that means Broadcoms are cheaper and more readily available, especially when you buy late in the week. Monday is the best day to shop for computer parts, but when you need something immediately, Broadcom is an easier bet.
If you know you’ll be running Linux or Windows, a used Broadcom NIC is a very good value. I tend to buy Intel to keep my options open, but I do have some Broadcom cards too. When my son needed an upgrade from his Realtek, I paid $9 for a Broadcom and got it in five days.
Broadcom vs Realtek NIC
When it comes to a Broadcom vs Realtek NIC, a Broadcom is faster, more reliable, and more consistent. With the Speedtest app, my son observed a 15-20 percent variance in the performance of his Realtek card. When they were both at their best, there wasn’t much difference, but the variance with the Broadcom was much less. More importantly, the Broadcom recovered under stress much more reliably.
There’s a lot of advice online for trying to tune or tweak Realtek NICs for better performance and reliability. Nothing we tried made a great deal of difference. When we plugged in a Broadcom NIC, it just worked with all of the default settings. And with a Broadcom NIC, the default settings tend to be the highest-performance settings too. You want to offload as much of the work to the network chipset as you can, if it will do the work reliably. Network cards are like your GPU. They’re designed to do specialized tasks faster than a general-purpose CPU will.
The advice you’ll find on Realtek NICs is to turn off as much off that offloading as you can. So you’re really trading reliability for performance. With a Broadcom, you can have reliability and performance.
I paid $9 for a used Broadcom NIC and got it in five days. That’s about what I’d pay for a new Realtek NIC, if I bought from a US seller, and I’d get it in a similar length of time. You can get Realteks cheaper if you order from China, but it will take 2-3 weeks to arrive. But I’d much rather have the used Broadcom card. It takes a while for the Realtek to develop problems, but eventually they always do. When a gigabit card refuses to run faster than 100 meg, my advice is to switch cables, and if that doesn’t work, swap the card.