Not so long ago, you’d have to choose between having a wired or wireless setup for your home internet, online gaming, and all other network-based activities. But now it’s a no-brainer: Wi-Fi is the obvious choice.
Or is it? Is it really all over for Ethernet? Or does a good old-fashioned cable connection still have a place in the modern tech world? Let’s take a look.
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: The Key Differences
Up until a few years ago, the choice between Ethernet and Wi-Fi was pretty straightforward.
Ethernet was much faster but because it requires cabling, you were extremely limited in where you could place your computer in relation to your router. And once you chose a spot, you couldn’t move.
Wi-Fi, on the other hand, was somewhat slower but had the convenience of being able to be used within, say, 150 feet of the router. Wi-Fi hotspots could be found in many places. And it worked with a wider range of devices, including phones and tablets.
That was the choice: speed versus convenience. As a result, the two would often be seen as complementary, rather than opposing, technologies. But Wi-Fi has continued to improve, becoming faster and more reliable, with the result that Ethernet is being further squeezed out of the picture.
When Wi-Fi first moved into the mainstream, it was mostly based on the 802.11g standard (which would be known as Wi-Fi 3 under the modern naming convention). This offered maximum theoretical speeds of 54Mbps (megabits per second), and far less in practice.
It was enough for internet access on mobile devices but fell well short of the performance offered by Ethernet, which can produce speeds anywhere from 100Mbps to 1000Mbps up to 10 gigabits per second.
The latest Wi-Fi standard is Wi-Fi 6 and it offers theoretical speeds of up to 10Gbps (and real-world speeds of around half that). This outpaces most typical home broadband connections by some margin—the average internet speed in US homes is said to be a little over 100Mbps.
Assuming you have the hardware to support this standard (you need it in both your router and all your devices) it means your broadband speed will be the bottleneck, not the Wi-Fi speed. Even if you’re on slightly older technology, it’s still quick—Wi-Fi 5 delivers theoretical speeds of up to 3.5Gbps.
And in both cases, they have less lag (a lower latency or ping rate) than wireless used to have, which makes it increasingly suitable for gaming.
The major benefits of Ethernet are now gone, and you can even test it yourself. Go to a site like speedtest.net and test your internet speed using Wi-Fi then Ethernet (make sure you switch Wi-Fi off before doing the second test) and compare the results.
If the results aren’t as good as you’d like, you can even take some simple steps to improve your Wi-Fi speed.
All speeds are theoretical, however.
A fixed Ethernet connection is likely to be fast, stable, and deliver consistent speeds. It’s something you’ll notice the benefit of if you download large files or stream lots of 4K video.
Wi-Fi is susceptible to countless environmental factors. Radio waves can be blocked by walls and floors. Other wireless devices can interfere with the signal, including things you wouldn’t think of like microwaves and cordless phones, as well as nearby routers using the same channel. Even the atmosphere can cause problems.
The newer standards have less interference, but you can still get inconsistent performance on Wi-Fi. As you move around your home, you can see the strength of your Wi-Fi network connection fall and rise, affecting the speed accordingly. You may even have dead spots in your home where the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t reach at all.
You can minimize this by ensuring your router is placed in the optimum position in your home, but it’s unlikely that you will ever achieve the same levels of stable performance that you will get from Ethernet.
Number of Devices
While Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 deliver maximum speeds that are comparable to what you get from Ethernet, they’re unlikely to deliver noticeably faster speeds on individual devices. The main benefit of that improved performance is that you can connect a lot more devices without any of them slowing down.
You can do the same with Ethernet too, of course, but even most laptops don’t have built-in Ethernet ports these days. In most cases, you’ll be limited to a desktop PC and a games console, with cabling running to both. Or you could set up a Powerline Network to help.
Security is the other big factor when comparing Wi-Fi and Ethernet. Here, there’s no comparison.
The data on an Ethernet network can only be accessed by devices physically attached to the network. These devices, including the PC at one end and the router at the other, need firewalls to protect them, but there’s no way the data itself can be intercepted on the network.
With Wi-Fi, the data is in the air. If you’re using an open network in a public place—which you shouldn’t be—then all the data you send and receive can be intercepted, including personal information and login details.
Most Wi-Fi networks are secured, so your data is encrypted. But the strength of the encryption depends on the security method you are using. Most routers offer a range of security modes.
WEP is the least secure and should be avoided whenever possible. WPA3 is the most secure wireless security option and is the way to go if you’ve got a router that offers it, and WPA2 is also good enough.
For added security, you should also change the default Wi-Fi username and password for the admin panel on your wireless router. The default settings can be easily found online and can give someone access to your network without you knowing.
Making the Right Choice: Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi
So, when should you choose Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi?
For most people and most use cases, there’s no reason to not go with Wi-Fi. If you’re using reasonably modern hardware, you’ll get good speeds and reliable performance, and the convenience of wireless will far outweigh any remaining benefits of a wired connection.
The main reason why you should choose a wired connection is if you’re a serious gamer and your console or PC does not get a consistently fast connection, or the latency is too high.
And, of course, you don’t have to choose one or the other. Wireless routers usually have Ethernet ports on them, so you can decide on a device-by-device basis whether to go wired or not.