Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet: Which One Should You Use?

Both have their advantages

A man sitting at a desk in front of a laptop, while using his smartphone.

Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images 

Nowadays, Wi-Fi is commonplace amongst PCs and Macs. There's no need for your computer to be connected to a network via a long Ethernet cable, as was the case years ago. That's great for flexibility and gives you plenty of options for how you want to set up your network, but should you use the Wi-Fi rather than the ethernet connection? Is ethernet faster than Wi-Fi? Those questions and more are answered here. 

What Are Ethernet and Wi-Fi?

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 join the network. It requires very little set up on the part of the computer owner, although the owner of the network may need to do more. However, being physically connected does limit the owner's ability to move their system away from the wired network.

Wi-Fi is the untethered version of networking. Every time you connect your smartphone or computer to a network while at a Starbucks or another cafe, for example, you're using Wi-Fi. It's flexible and convenient, but requires a little more set up for the end user than just plugging it in as you need to 'search' for the network and typically enter a password.

The Advantages of Ethernet

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

Because of that reliability, ethernet is also typically faster. That's because 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 generally a bit hardier than when Wi-Fi networks get overloaded. 

Often, it's your internet connection speed that's the bottleneck for your speed issues rather than how you connect to your network. However, Ethernet will speed up transferring files within your network.

When to Use Ethernet

The best time to use an ethernet connection is when you're hardwiring something you have no plans on moving any time soon. That includes devices like game consoles, a smart TV, 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.

After all, it's more stable and reliable, and you don't want to suffer dropouts when watching your favorite streamed show or playing a multiplayer game. Latency is also generally lower through a hard-wired ethernet solution than a Wi-Fi connection, which means fewer issues when streaming or gaming.

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.

Some devices require you to physically connect it to the router.

When Not to Use Ethernet

Don't use ethernet on a device you want to move around the home. If you have a laptop, you're likely to want to take it with you from room to room. Hooking it up to ethernet is a good short-term solution, but you ideally need to use a Wi-Fi connection to take advantage a device's portability.


Everything You Need to Know About Ethernet Ports

The Advantages of Wi-Fi

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. That means it's perfect for portable devices such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. 

Thanks to how most modern devices are set up, even the most inexperienced computer user can easily connect to a Wi-Fi network; it's a little more straightforward than digging around the back of a device for an ethernet port. Pretty much everyone knows how to enter a password to join something, and you can't beat the convenience of Wi-Fi. 

When to Use Wi-Fi

On a smartphone, you have no choice but to connect via Wi-Fi, but what about other devices? If it's a portable device like a laptop, it's worth connecting to the Wi-Fi unless your computer never leaves your home office. Theoretically, it's not as fast as ethernet, but most users will hardly notice the difference. Convenience trumps all here. 

It's also a network protocol that's essential for virtual assistants and smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home Hub

Smart home devices like smart lightbulbs, cameras, and doorbells also require Wi-Fi to work. 

Is Ethernet More Secure Than Wi-Fi?

Security is always a concern for any home 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 more secure in that it's easy to pull the plug, but it still depends on your router's security software and firewall being properly configured and up to date.

Ultimately, as long as you follow the advice in your router's manual, you're safe regardless of how you connect. 

Wi-Fi vs Ethernet: What's Best for My Home?  

What works best for you is almost certainly going to be a combination of both Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Most homes have devices that aren't going to move very often (such as a TV), but there will also be a selection of gadgets that do move from room to room, like a smartphone or tablet. 

If you're embracing smart home technology, you need to use Wi-Fi for that, too. Gone are the days where you can get by on a solely wired network. Ultimately, flexibility is what counts here. 

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.