Wi-Fi is obviously more convenient than wired Ethernet cables, but Ethernet still offers significant advantages. Join us as we take a look at the pros and cons of wired and wireless connections.
You probably won’t be connecting an Ethernet cable to your smartphone any time soon. But it’s usually worth running Ethernet cables to the devices that matter, if you can—gaming and media PCs (or consoles), backup devices, and set-top boxes being just a few examples. To help you make the decision, we’re going to take a look at the three main advantages of using Ethernet over Wi-Fi—faster speeds, lower latency, and reliable connections.
How Much Faster is Ethernet?
Ethernet is just plain faster than Wi-Fi—there’s no getting around that fact. But the real-world differences are smaller than you might think. Wi-Fi has gotten significantly faster over the last few years, thanks to new standards like 802.11ac and 802.11n, which offer maximum speeds of 866.7 Mb/s and 150 Mb/s, respectively. Even though this is a maximum speed for all your wireless devices to share (and you likely won’t get those speeds in the real world), Wi-Fi has become good enough to handle most of our daily tasks.
On the other hand, a wired Ethernet connection can theoretically offer up to 10 Gb/s, if you have a Cat6 cable. The exact maximum speed of your Ethernet cable depends on the type of Ethernet cable you’re using. However, even the Cat5e cable in common use supports up to 1 Gb/s. And, unlike with Wi-Fi, that speed is consistent.
While all that speed is great, the thing to keep in mind is that the speed of your Internet connection is the bottleneck for activities involving the Internet. If your Internet speed is significantly lower than whatever type of connection you’re using, upping the speed of that connection won’t matter much.
Ethernet will, however, affect the speed between devices on your network. For example, if you want to transfer files as fast as possible between two computers in the house, Ethernet will be faster than Wi-Fi. Your Internet connection isn’t involved in this, so it’s all up to the maximum speeds your local network hardware can provide.
Here are just a couple of good examples of when this local speed might be important:
- If you have multiple devices that back up to a NAS, backup server, or shared hard drive, backups will go faster over an Ethernet connection.
- If you have devices that stream from a media server on your network (like Plex or Kodi), an Ethernet connection will give you a considerable boost in streaming quality.
If you’re curious about the difference in local file transfer speed, try transferring a large file between two computers while they’re both connected to Ethernet and while they’re both connected to Wi-Fi. You should see a speed difference there.
How Much Less Latency Does Ethernet Offer?
Connection speed and quality isn’t just about raw bandwidth. Latency is also a big factor. In this case, latency is the delay in how long it takes for traffic to get from from a device to its destination. We often refer to latency as “ping” in the networking and online gaming worlds.
If reducing latency as much as possible is your concern—for example, if you’re playing online games and need reaction time to be as quick as possible—you’re probably better off with a wired Ethernet connection. Yes, there will be other latency that factors in along the Internet path between your device and the gaming server, but every little bit helps.
On the other hand, if you’re just streaming videos, listening to music, or browsing the web, latency won’t matter much to you.
You can test latency by running the ping command at your terminal or Command Prompt. Ping your router’s IP address—both while connected over Wi-Fi and while connected over Ethernet. Compare the results to see how much latency the Wi-Fi is adding.
In summary, with Wi-Fi, there’s a bit more of a delay when signals travel back and forth between a Wi-Fi device and your wireless router. With a wired Ethernet connection, there’s much less latency.
Wireless Interference and Connection Reliability
Ethernet offers a more reliable connection than Wi-Fi. It’s just that simple.
Wi-Fi is subject to a lot more interference than a wired connection. The layout of your home, objects blocking the signal, interference from electrical devices or your neighbors Wi-Fi networks—all these things contribute to Wi-Fi being generally less reliable.
This interference can cause a number of problems:
- Dropped signals: Occasionally, Wi-Fi will lose the signal and have to reacquire it. This may not be a big deal for daily browsing or even streaming video (which gets buffered on the local device), because the re-acquisition happens quickly. But if you play online games, it can get pretty irritating.
- Higher latency: Increased interference can mean higher latency, which can be a problem for all the reasons we outlined in the previous section.
- Lowered speeds: More interference also means lower signal quality, which results in lower connection speeds.
It’s tough to quantify interference, because it tends to ebb and flow–especially if you’re moving around with your device. However, there are things you can do to reduce wireless interference and get the best Wi-Fi signal possible.
When Does It Make Sense to Use Ethernet?
We don’t mean to come down too hard on Wi-Fi. It’s pretty speedy, super convenient, and perfectly serviceable for most of what we do on our networks. For one thing, Wi-Fi is essential if you’ve got mobile devices. Also, there are times you just can’t use Ethernet. Maybe it’s too difficult to run a permanent, out-of-the-way cable to the location you want. Or maybe your landlord won’t allow you to run cables the way you want to.
And that’s the real reason to use Wi-Fi: convenience. If a device needs to move around or you just don’t want to run a cable to it, Wi-Fi is the right choice.
On the other hand, if you have a desktop PC or server that sits in a single place, Ethernet may be a good option. If you want better quality streaming (especially if you’re doing it from a media server on your network) or if you’re a gamer, Ethernet will be the way to go. Assuming it’s easy enough to plug the devices in with an Ethernet cable, you’ll get a more consistently solid connection.
In the end, Ethernet offers the advantages of better speed, lower latency, and more reliable connections. Wi-Fi offers the advantage of convenience and being good enough for most uses. So, you’ll just have to see if any of your devices fit into the categories where Ethernet will make a difference, and then decide whether it will make a big enough difference to run some cable.