It was 1998. I was getting ready to network my two PCs, so I asked my friendly neighborhood networking professional what to buy. He didn’t hesitate. “Intel or 3Com,” he said. “Cheap NICs will talk, but they’ll start acting flaky after a while, dropping packets in the middle of transfers, stuff like that.”
I couldn’t afford 3Com or Intel at the time, so I bought a cheap “SOHOware” brand bundle that included two 10/100 NICs, a hub, and cables for around $150. A comparable first-tier setup would have run me twice that. The hub died after a couple of years. The cards fared better. “After a while” took 11 years or so to come, and I finally got sick enough of it to retire my last one.
The last of those cards came out of service today. I dropped in an Intel 10/100 card to replace it. The other card came out of service a few years ago, when the PC it was in fell woefully obsolete.
The symptoms were pretty much what he described. Occasionally, large file copies would just abort. Large downloads would take much longer than they take on other PCs with better cards in them. And sometimes the machine would just stop responding to pings. Unplugging and replugging the network card usually fixed the issue. If not, ipconfig /release followed by ipconfig /renew would do enough to bring it back.
My flaky cards had a Macronix chipset on them. I haven’t seen any of those in years and years, so I doubt many people are experiencing the specific problem I had. But some motherboards have oddball, sub-par networking built in even today. Maybe when network cards cost $100 or more it was worth putting up with, but these days there’s little point in messing around. If your motherboard’s built-in NIC starts acting goofy, disable it and install a card. A second-tier Realtek-based gigabit card, such as those sold by D-Link or Netgear, sells for about $20. You probably don’t want to put them in a corporate server, but they’re perfectly adequate for home use. Used Intel cards are cheap too. These days 3com is pretty much out of the business of making network cards, now that HP bought them out. Broadcom is the other first-tier gigabit chipset maker, but it’s much harder to find Broadcom-based cards at retail.
On the 100-megabit front, secondhand Intel and 3Com 100-meg NICs are dirt cheap–I find them on Craigslist all the time for $2-$5 each. But even Realtek 8139-based 10/100 cards are reasonably reliable, they’re just more resource hungry than 3Com or Intel equivalents. And you can still get those new for about $10, if you’re on a budget but want new stuff.
If you can afford it, going gigabit makes sense. Gigabit switches such as those from TP-Link are reasonably priced and if you can’t afford gigabit NICs and a switch right now, get the card or cards you need and get the switch later to upgrade your network to gigabit speeds. Plug the switch into your router, then plug your wired connections into the switch so your gigabit-equipped PCs can talk at high speeds with each other.
D-Link switches won’t hold up in commercial server rooms but they are suitable for home use. When streaming or copying large files between machines, gigabit is nice, even if it does nothing to make your Internet faster. (If it makes your Internet faster, it’s because the old switch or NIC wasn’t working right in the first place.) I don’t have a DVD burner in all of my machines–or even a place to put one, in some cases–so I’ll sometimes copy large files to a machine with a burner. That process works a lot better with first- or second-tier equipment involved.