Wi-Fi is obviously more convenient than wired Ethernet cables. But Ethernet still offers advantages — faster speeds, lower latency, and no wireless interference problems.
You probably won’t be connecting an Ethernet cable to your smartphone any time soon. But this matters when dealing with desktop PCs, laptops at desks, game consoles, TV-streaming boxes, and other devices.
How Much Faster is Ethernet?
Ethernet is just plain faster than Wi-Fi; there’s no getting around that. 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. This is a maximum speed for all the devices on your network to share, and you likely won’t get anywhere near close to these speeds — but Wi-Fi is much faster than it used to be.
On the other hand, a wired Ethernet connection can theoretically offer up to 10 Gb/s, if you have a Cat-6 cable. The exact maximum speed of your Ethernet cable depends on the type of Ethernet cable you’re using. However, even the Cat-5e cable in common use supports for up to 1 Gb/s.
But your Internet connection is the real bottleneck — it’s the slowest part of the system. Your Internet connection is likely nowhere near close to capping out your Wi-Fi connection speed, so just switching to Ethernet probably won’t speed things up.
Local connection speeds between devices on your network are affected by this. For example, if you want to transfer files as fast as possible between computers or devices in the same house or otherwise on the same local network, you’ll want to use Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi — and ideally at least Cat-6 cables instead of Cat-5e ones. Your Internet connection isn’t involved in this, so it’s all up to the maximum speeds your local network hardware can provide. But even this only matters if you regularly transfer large amounts of data between your computers and you want it to be as fast as possible.
You can test this by running several Internet connection speed tests, once while on Wi-Fi and once while connected to Ethernet. You shouldn’t see a difference. If you’re curious about local file transfers, 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 difference between those.
How Much Less Latency Does Ethernet Offer?
Connection quality just isn’t about raw bandwidth. Latency is also a big factor. This is known as “ping” in online gaming circles. 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.
On the other hand, if you’re just streaming Netflix, the difference in latency won’t matter. 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 less latency.
You can test this by running a ping command. Ping your router’s IP address, both while connected over Wi-Fi and then while connected over Ethernet. Compare the results to see how much latency the Wi-Fi is adding.
Wi-Fi is subject to more interference than a wired connection. Ethernet cables can also experience signal degradation, but it’s easier to manage and avoid. And, once you’ve got things set up properly, they should just continue to work without experiencing seemingly random signal degradation.
With Wi-Fi, many more things can interfere. Your neighbors’ networks, other devices using Wi-Fi spectrum, and objects in the way can all cause problems. If you’re moving around, your signal may be stronger in some places than others. That’s why it’s tough to say exactly how much latency will be introduced above — it may be inconsistent and depend on how much interference there is.
It’s tough to quantify interference, although 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?
Wi-Fi is still useful. Wi-Fi allows you to get a smartphone, tablet, or laptop on your network from anywhere, moving around — that’s obvious. But Wi-Fi also allows you to connect devices to your network without running an Ethernet cable, so it can just be useful even when you don’t want to bother running an Ethernet cable from your router to a device in another room in your house.
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, or if you have a game console or set-top box that stays by your TV, Ethernet is still a good option. Assuming it’s easy enough to plug the devices in with an Ethernet cable, you’ll get a more consistently solid connection. Yes, Ethernet is better.
But it’s not necessarily that much better, and most people may be happy staying with Wi-Fi and forgetting about running Ethernet cables. It’s up to you — testing your connection speeds and latency with the speed test and ping tools above can help you make a more informed decision.
Security is another concern. Even if you’re using modern WPA2-PSK to secure your Wi-Fi, people could theoretically try to connect to your Wi-Fi network. If you’re using a wired Ethernet network, people can only connect if they can physically plug a device into your router. Of course, you’ll probably be using both wired and wireless connections, so this usually only matters if you’re setting up some sort of secure business network. Some routers do allow you to isolate your wireless network from your wired one, although that can cause problems when devices want to communicate with each other.