What's wrong with NE2000 clones?

ISA Cards: Bad News

Back in dinosaur days, Novell was having a difficult time in the early network OS market because of ridiculously high monopoly pricing charged by 3Com Corporation for its 10Mbps ethernet NICs. So, circa 1984, Novell formed a small hardware unit to make and sell "Novell Ethernet" (thus "NE") adapters. These were deliberately the cheapest possible ISA NIC, using a National Semiconductor 8390 chip. It was an 8-bit design, small buffers, no shared memory, no DMA, no method for selecting a transceiver. The hardware division was soon (1989) farmed out to Anthem Technology, Inc. as a joint manufacturing/design/sales venture called Eagle Technology Business Unit, still selling the cards in Novell-branded boxes. (Anthem manufactured and sold the cards; Novell came up with new designs and lent its name.) Later (1994), Anthem sold the unit to Artisoft, Inc. which the following year sold it again to Microdyne Corporation.

Novell/Eagle didn't even design the card, really: It was a prototype example design in National Semiconductor's LAN databook, intended to demonstrate minimal 8390-chip functionality at rock-bottom parts pricing. NatSemi had no problem with someone putting this design into production, so that's what Eagle did.

The Novell Eagle ISA series was, accordingly, really, really bad. However, it was intended to be only good enough to force 3Com to lower its prices, so it worked for that objective.

Then, of course, the Taiwanese cloners produced knockoffs of both the NS8390 and of the supporting ISA circuitry, producing ISA clone cards that emulated the barely adequate design of the original, and added to that their own incompatibilities with the original. Proprietary-OS users didn't care about those incompatibilties, since they used custom driver preloads in their hard drives as delivered by the OEM, or used custom driver diskettes. Linux/BSD users, by contrast, tended to have a rough time since they tended to (rather naively) assume that an NE2000 clone should routinely work with the standard ne.c + 8390.c driver. Also, each separate clone design required its own setup utility diskette (or jumpers), as you mentioned, to set the IRQ and I/O base address.

Not Worth Your Time

The only ISA cards I haven't long ago thrown away are a pair of 3Com 3C509B cards in my aging K6/233 installfest server, because they Just Work. All other ISA cards long ago got the heave-ho, and NE2000 ISA clones go that heave-ho first and most enthusiastically.

PCI Cards: Good News

PCI NE2000 cards (from those same Taiwanese cloners, usually using RealTek 8029 or Winbond 89c940 chips) have been an entirely different, and happier, story. They're a great deal faster, do 32-bit data transfer, and manage transactions with the PCI bus with reasonable speed (considering their still being 10Mbps cards). They still remain very speed-limited, and still waste a lot of CPU power by being unable to do DMA, but at least they have a stable driver interface (requiring, in Linux, the ne.c/ne2k-pci.c + 8390.c driver).