Whether you’re setting up a smart home, gaming or just plain checking email, you have two main options when it comes to connecting to the internet – Ethernet, or WiFi.
But which is better?
Ethernet vs WiFi
While WiFi is almost always more convenient than Ethernet, Ethernet is faster, more secure and overall more reliable. That said, configuration is everything. There are WiFi setups out there far more secure and faster than Ethernet. But, when it comes to equipment and configuration, and both things considered equal, it’s hard to beat an Ethernet connection.
That’s the quick and dirty answer. The longer explanation involves a lot of additional factors.
But before we get into all that, let’s cover some basics.
What are Ethernet and WiFi?
Ethernet (802.3) and WiFi (802.11) are just communication protocols used to connect devices within your home to the internet.
When you connect a bunch of devices to the internet in a small area, that’s referred to as a Local Area Network (LAN). Contrast this with a Wide Area Network (WAN), which covers a much larger area, like a school or a hospital.
Both protocols, Ethernet and WiFi, use something called a modem to connect to the internet. A modem is what gives you access to the Web.
Routers then connect to your modem (unless you have a modem-router combo), enabling multiple devices to access the internet. Routers also add a layer of security to your internet connection by including a firewall.
The way Ethernet and WiFi connect to the modem/router is the big differentiator.
Ethernet connects to the internet via a physical cable. One end of this cable connects to your router (which is connected to your modem), or a modem-router combo, and the other end of the cable connects to the Ethernet port on your computer, laptop, video game console, etc.
Technically your Ethernet cable could just connect directly to your modem in order to access the internet directly, instead of connecting to your router first. So in theory, you don’t need a router if you’re only connecting one device with an Ethernet cable. However, the added firewall layer makes it highly advisable that you use a router.
Ethernet can also connect to your USB port using an Ethernet-USB adaptor. This is especially handy now a days since most devices no longer have an Ethernet port.
WiFi, on the other hand, is wireless. Hence it’s name, Wireless Fidelity.
WiFi uses radio frequencies (waves) to send signals in order to communicate with different devices. When connecting to the internet with WiFi you’ll need both a modem and a router, or a modem-router combo (whereas with Ethernet, as previously mentioned, you don’t need a router, although it is always preferred as it is more secure).
Again, the modem is what connects to the internet, and in this case the router is what broadcasts the WiFi signal (or radio frequency), allowing your devices to connect to it, and ultimately the internet.
When you set up WiFi with a router, the network of connected devices is referred to as a Wireless Local Area Network, or WLAN.
Now that we know the main difference between Ethernet and WiFi setups, which is faster?
To answer this we need to quickly level set on the two major contributors to speed – bandwidth and latency.
Bandwidth has to do with capacity. It’s the data transfer rate of the internet. It measures how much data can be sent through a given connection.
Latency is all about delay. It’s the amount of time (or delay) that it takes to send data over the internet.
You can think of bandwidth as how wide or narrow a pipe is, and latency as how fast water can move from one end of that pipe to the other. Latency and bandwidth influence each other, and therefore internet speed, in significant ways.
For example a low bandwidth, low latency connection is going to be slower than a high bandwidth, low latency connection (remember low latency is good, it means less delay).
For a real world example of this, consider the check out lines at a grocery store. In our scenario we’ll say it takes 60 seconds for a shopper to get through a checkout line (low latency). 5 shoppers will checkout quicker if there are 5 check out lanes open (high bandwidth), than if there is only one check out lane open (low bandwidth).
So, to understand how fast internet is we need to consider both bandwidth and latency.
Internet speed is usually measured in megabits per second, or Mbps. You’ll often see Mbps shortened to Mb, so for example 10Mb. The higher the number of Mbps (megabits per second) you have, the faster your online speed should be. Most homes can get away with 50-100 Mbps internet speeds.
Ethernet vs WiFi Speed
When it comes to Ethernet vs WiFi speed, Ethernet is almost always lower latency (less delay), and higher bandwidth (more capacity) than WiFi, i.e. Ethernet is almost always faster than WiFi.
This of course assumes a solid network configuration is in place.
Ethernet configuration considerations
When configuring Ethernet, here are the main things to consider when you’re trying to get the highest speeds, in this order:
- Your internet plan
- It all starts here, and in almost all cases, this is the bottleneck when it comes to internet speed in your home. If your internet plan caps you at 25 Mbps, there’s no sense in worrying about having equipment that handles 100 Mbps. Most internet plans range from 25 Mbps up to 2000+ Mbps. If you’re interested, you can check out your internet speed here.
- Your modem
- If you have a great internet plan that supports high speeds, but your modem is crap, your speed will be capped at what ever speed your modem supports. Modems are split into speed tiers so make you check what speed your modem supports. Oh, and make sure it supports DOCSIS. This is required by most broadband internet providers.
- Your router
- The router splits your modem’s signal up so that more than one device can use it. Again, you’ll want to check what speeds your router supports. But remember, since your router is splitting the signal of the modem, the speed of the router will be impacted as you connect more and more devices.
- Your Ethernet cable
- At first glance, an Ethernet cable is just an Ethernet cable. But that’s simply not the case. There are many different categories of Ethernet cables (identified as “Cat” followed by a version number). Each category has a max speed. The most common are Cat 5, Cat 5, Cat 6, Cat 6a, Cat 7, & Cat 7a. Here’s a break down of each:
|Cat 5||100 Mbps|
|Cat 5e||1,000 Mbps|
|Cat 6||1,000 Mbps|
|Cat 6a||10,000 Mbps|
|Cat 7||10,000 Mbps|
|Cat 7a||10,000 Mbps|
WiFi configuration considerations
- With a WiFi configuration, you’ll still need to consider your internet plan and your modem and router speed, but you’ll also want to think about…
- How far your router is from device you’re using
- As the device moves further away from the router, the router will reduce the channel width and step down the data rate to maintain the connection, until it hits the minimum. In layman speak, your speed will go down!
- How much material (walls etc.) is between the router and the device your using
- Since you’re using WiFi, and therefore relying on radio signals, you’re internet signal will be negatively impacted by things like walls and concrete. The more obstructed your WiFi signal, the slower your signal.
- How much interference is in the air (from both WiFi and non-WiFi sources)
- Many devices in your home today use WiFi or the 2.4 GHz radio wave that WiFi operates on. The more devices using the same wave length to communicate, the more congested the network gets and the more interference occurs. As more and more devices compete with each other, the speed of your network slows down.
As you can see, there are simply more factors to consider when configuring a WiFi network, in order to optimize for speed. Since WiFi uses a radio signal, things like distance, physical obstructions and interference, all come into play.
The first thing to understand when thinking about Ethernet vs WiFi and security is, in order to hack an Ethernet connection, a person has to more or less be able to physically get their hands on your Ethernet cable connection.
WiFi is much easier to snoop on since it is transmitted via radio waves. Someone can sit outside your home and potentially pick up your WiFi network from the comfort of their car, or their apartment next door.
For this reason alone, Ethernet tends to be more secure. It’s just inconvenient, and logistically more challenging, to break into someones home AND hack their Ethernet, than it is to snoop on your WiFi signal.
That said, these days WiFi has added encryption, called WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2). Which basically just means you can add a password to your WiFi (make sure you do!).
By simply setting up a passphrase in order to access your WiFi, your level of protection is greatly improved.
However, when it comes to security, it’s not just about your form of connection. Aside from the connection itself, you also need to consider the devices your connected with and how up-to-date their operating systems are.
Software updates are important because they often include critical fixes to security holes and vulnerabilities. If you’re not running the latest version, your device is at risk. There are additional vulnerabilities to consider as well which are outside the scope of this article.
This one is pretty straightforward.
When you use Ethernet, you’re using a cord to physically connect your device to the internet. That means you’re limited on how far you can move within your home, since you’re connect by a cable.
In addition to being limited in your ability to move, you also have to deal with seeing a bunch of cords. Cords just kind of suck. I hate that messy look of multiple cords being run alongside a wall or through a room. It’s just not visually pleasing and they get in the way.
If you’re looking to connect many of your devices via Ethernet, you’re likely going to have to run cables throughout your home, and that ain’t cheap.
If you already have Ethernet cables throughout your home, this is obviously less of an issue. You’ll still be limited mobility wise, but if you’re connecting something like a video game console, you’re probably not all that concerned about mobility since you won’t be moving your console that often.
Ultimately WiFi just gives you more freedom than Ethernet. Freedom to move around with the device whenever you want and freedom from cords. Did I mention cords suck?
Conclusion: Ethernet vs WiFi
In the battle of Ethernet vs WiFi, Ethernet wins just about every time. It’s simply faster and more secure than WiFi. That said, configuration is really everything!
Say you set up your Ethernet with the best modem/router combo out there, and you buy a fast, Cat 6a Ethernet cord, but your internet plan provides you just 25 Mbps. Well guess what? Your internet speed is going to be capped at 25 Mbps. Slower than most WiFi options!
It’s also important to consider what you’re trying to accomplish.
If you’re just watching Netflix, browsing the web, and checking emails, you don’t need to be all that concerned about speed. A basic 50 Mbps plan, with some middle-of-the-road equipment should suffice.
On the other hand, if you’re gaming or setting up a smart home, you might find any degree of latency unacceptable. In those scenarios it’s probably worth doing a bit more investigation to make sure your internet setup will meet your needs and expectations.
In my home, I use a combination of Ethernet and WiFi. They both have their place.
What’s your home internet setup look like?