Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet

How to get the best of both worlds

A man sitting at a desk in front of a laptop, while using his smartphone, depicting both an ethernet connection and a Wi-Fi connection

Busakorn Pongparnit / Getty Images 

Wi-Fi and Ethernet are both ways to connect to the internet. We took a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both network technologies to help users decide which is a better choice for various devices and activities.

Overall Findings

Wi-Fi

  • Available for PCs, Macs, and smartphones.

  • Flexible and convenient.

  • Many network options.

  • Easy setup, but must find network and enter password.

  • Can be unstable.

Ethernet

  • Easy setup.

  • Physical setup limits ability to move device.

  • Very stable and reliable.

  • Very fast.

  • Lower latency for better streaming and gaming.

These days, Wi-Fi is commonplace among PCs, Macs, smartphones, and smart devices. Wi-Fi's flexibility means you are no longer tethered to an Ethernet cable when you want to go online, as was the case years ago. But Ethernet connections offer many advantages, as well, including speed and reliability. It's important to understand when a Wi-Fi connection makes sense and when it's best to rely on your Ethernet connection.

Ethernet and Wi-Fi: What Are the Basics?

Wi-Fi

  • Easy setup.

  • No physical connection.

  • Very portable and flexible.

Ethernet

  • Easy setup.

  • Physical connection.

  • Little to no portability.

Ethernet is the term used for a wired network. It's when you physically plug your computer into a router via an Ethernet cable (sometimes referred to as a CAT5 or CAT6 cable) to access the internet. Using Ethernet requires very little setup on the part of the computer owner; just plug it in. (If you are connecting a home network with more than one computer, there's a little more setup required.) But being physically connected to a wired network limits your ability to move your device around.

Wi-Fi is the untethered version of networking. No wires or cables are needed; just join a Wi-Fi network and go online. Businesses such as Starbucks and other restaurants routinely offer Wi-Fi so patrons can connect their smartphone or laptop and go online. Wi-Fi is flexible and convenient. Setting up a Wi-Fi connection is easy, but users still have to search for the available Wi-Fi networks and type in a password.

Stability and Speed: Ethernet Gets the Edge

Wi-Fi

  • Bad connection if out of range.

  • Connection drops if network is overloaded.

  • Susceptible to radio interference.

  • Speed varies.

Ethernet

  • Extremely reliable connection.

  • Connection doesn't drop out.

  • Harder for networks to get overloaded.

  • Fast speeds.

Ethernet is generally far more stable than using a Wi-Fi network. A wireless network can drop out due to radio interference, an overloaded network, or you being out of range. An Ethernet connection is as reliable as plugging your PC into a power outlet. It doesn't drop. 

Latency is also generally lower through a hard-wired Ethernet solution than a Wi-Fi connection, which means fewer issues when streaming or gaming.

Because of its reliability, Ethernet is also typically faster. Ethernet network adaptors usually offer more bandwidth than Wi-Fi network adaptors, meaning more room for data transfer. Ethernet connections can be overloaded by too many users at once, but it's nowhere near as unstable as when Wi-Fi networks get overloaded. 

Your internet connection speed could be causing a bottleneck for your network activities, not how you connect to your network. However, Ethernet will speed up transferring files within your network.

Flexibility: Wi-Fi Wins Hands-Down

Wi-Fi

  • Very flexible.

  • Perfect for portable devices.

  • Used for smart devices.

Ethernet

  • Not flexible.

  • Best for stationary devices.

Wi-Fi's greatest strength is its flexibility. Just enter the password for the network, and you're connected for as long as you're in range. This means it's perfect for portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Even inexperienced users can quickly find a Wi-Fi network to join and enter a password.

Ethernet, obviously, is not a tool for portability. It's a wired connection, so it doesn't make sense to plug and unplug a device and transfer it to different rooms.

You'll need Wi-Fi if you're embracing smart-home technology, as well. Smart-home devices such as smart lightbulbs, cameras, and doorbells also require Wi-Fi.

Use Wi-Fi with your virtual assistants and smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home Hub.

Security: Both Connections Must Be Secured

Wi-Fi

  • Must keep router up to date.

  • Use secure passwords.

  • Follow security best practices.

Ethernet

  • Must keep router up to date.

  • Use secure passwords.

  • Follow security best practices.

Security is always a concern for any network, and both Ethernet and Wi-Fi have their pros and cons here.

In theory, wireless networks are less secure than an Ethernet connection. Because wireless communication travels through the air, it's possible to be intercepted by someone, although unlikely. The key here is to keep your router up to date and to use a secure password. 

Ethernet-based connections are considered more secure, but it's important that your router's security software and firewall are properly configured and up to date.

Ultimately, as long as you follow the advice in your router's manual and adhere to security best practices, you're safe regardless of how you connect. 

Final Verdict: A Combination of Both Is Best

A combination of both Ethernet and Wi-Fi is likely ideal. Most homes have devices that aren't going to move very often as well as portable devices.

Use an Ethernet connection with a device you have no plans to move. This includes desktop computers, game consoles, smart TVs, or streaming devices. If your router is located nearby (or you can feed cables from the router to the device), it makes sense to connect them physically. This creates stability and reliability, minimizing dropouts while you're watching your favorite streamed show or playing a multiplayer game.

Similarly, if you have a wireless external hard drive or NAS, it's sensible to connect it to the router via Ethernet rather than rely on the Wi-Fi connection.

Wi-Fi is the best way to take advantage of a device's portability. Using Wi-Fi with your smartphone is a no-brainer, but Wi-Fi is also a good choice for your other portable devices, such as laptops and tablets. Uses will likely not notice a speed difference and the convenience of Wi-Fi trumps all.

Just remember to keep your router up to date at all times and to use a secure password, so there's no risk of anyone else accessing your home network. That way, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

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