Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet

How to get the best of both worlds

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 you decide which is a better choice for various devices and activities.

Wi-Fi vs Ethernet

Overall Findings

Wi-Fi
  • Available for PCs, Macs, and smartphones.

  • Flexible and convenient.

  • Many network options.

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

  • Can be unstable.

Ethernet
  • Easy setup.

  • Physical setup limits ability to move devices.

  • Very stable and reliable.

  • Very fast.

  • Lower latency for better streaming and gaming.

Wi-Fi is common among PCs, Macs, smartphones, and smart devices. The flexibility of Wi-Fi means you aren't tethered to an Ethernet cable when you go online, as was the case years ago. But Ethernet connections offer many advantages, including speed and reliability. It's important to understand when a Wi-Fi connection makes sense and when it's best to rely on an 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 a computer into a router using an Ethernet cable (sometimes referred to as a CAT5 or CAT6 cable) to access the internet. Using Ethernet requires little setup on the part of the computer owner; just plug it in. If you connect a home network with more than one computer, there's more setup required. 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 a smartphone or laptop and go online. Wi-Fi is flexible and convenient. Setting up a Wi-Fi connection is easy, but users must search for the available Wi-Fi networks and enter a password.

Stability and Speed: Ethernet Gets the Edge

Wi-Fi
  • Bad connections when out of range.

  • The connection drops if the network is overloaded.

  • Susceptible to radio interference.

  • Speed varies.

Ethernet
  • Extremely reliable connection.

  • Connection doesn't drop.

  • Harder for networks to get overloaded.

  • Fast speeds.

Ethernet is generally more stable than using a Wi-Fi network. A wireless network can drop out due to radio interference, an overloaded network, or 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 are overloaded.

The internet connection speed could cause a bottleneck for your network activities, not how you connect to your network. However, Ethernet speeds up the transfer of files within a 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. When you enter the password for the network, 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 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 require Wi-Fi.

Use Wi-Fi with 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 Ethernet and Wi-Fi have 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 the router security software and firewall are properly configured and up to date.

As long as you follow the advice in the router 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 Ethernet and Wi-Fi is 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 that won't be moved. This includes desktop computers, game consoles, smart TVs, and streaming devices. If the router is located nearby (or you can feed cables from the router to the device), connect the device physically to the router. This creates stability and reliability, minimizing dropouts while watching your favorite streamed show or playing a multiplayer game.

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

Wi-Fi is the best way to take advantage of a device's portability. Use Wi-Fi with your smartphone and other portable devices, such as laptops and tablets. You won't notice a speed difference and the convenience of Wi-Fi trumps all.

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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