The world is going wireless. The lack of clutter and the convenience of being able to connect to the Internet almost anywhere means Wi-Fi is the first choice for anyone who is looking to go online. The emergence of the Internet of Things means that soon we’ll have dozens of devices in our homes all connected to the internet, and all wirelessly.
Does that mean it’s all over for Ethernet? Or does the good old-fashioned Ethernet 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, and Wi-Fi hotspots could be found in a large number of places.
That was the choice: speed versus convenience. As a result, they would often be seen as complementary, rather than opposing, technologies. With some of the changes in the last few years, it’s no longer quite so clear cut.
When Wi-Fi first moved into the mainstream, it was mostly based on the 802.11g standard. This offered maximum theoretical speeds of 54Mbps (megabits per second), and far less in practice.
It was satisfactory 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 and beyond.
The latest Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac and it offers theoretical speeds of up to 3200Mbps (and practical speeds of around half that).
This outpaces most typical home broadband connections by some margin. Assuming you have the hardware to support this standard (you need it in both your router and all your computers) it means the broadband speed is now the bottleneck, not the Wi-Fi speed.
The major benefit of Ethernet is now gone.
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 HD 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 result is inconsistent performance. As you move around your home, you can see the strength of your Wi-Fi network connection fall and rise, affecting speed accordingly. You may even have blackspots 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.
Security is the other big factor when comparing Wi-Fi and Ethernet. Here, there’s really no comparison.
The data on an Ethernet network can only be accessed by devices physically attached to the network. These devices, including the laptop at one end and router at the other, need firewalls to protect them, but there’s 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 (such as in a coffee shop) 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; WPA2-PSK is the most secure and is the preferred option.
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 day to day use, a properly sited and configured Wi-Fi router won’t give you noticeably worse performance than Ethernet.
You can even test this yourself. Go to 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 you’re a serious gamer and your console or PC does not get a consistently fast connection then you will benefit from a wired connection. You can use a powerline adapter to avoid having to install masses of cabling around your home, although these don’t tend to deliver the quoted speeds.
Similarly, if you upload or download very large files, or if you simply have a large number of devices on your network, you may notice significant improvements from sticking with the wired solution.
And, of course, you don’t have to choose one or the other. Wireless routers have Ethernet ports on them, so you can decide on a device by device basis whether to go wired or not.
If you prefer to use Wi-Fi on your Mac but are having trouble connecting to it, follow this guide to get back online.