There’s more than one way to get online. Ethernet (a wired connection) and Wi-Fi (wireless) are the two most common methods.
Ethernet tends to be faster, with the disadvantage of needing to be plugged directly into the device. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is slower and more prone to interference, but offers a lot of flexibility and freedom of movement.
In this article, we’ll go through all the details of each connection type and help you decide when to use Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi. Let’s dig in.
Is Ethernet faster than Wi-Fi?
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi for gaming
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi for streaming
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi FAQs
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: What’s the difference?
Ethernet delivers an internet connection to your device via a connected cable. Wi-Fi, however, delivers that same connection wirelessly by broadcasting a network that devices can connect to. This fundamental difference (wired vs. wireless) is the driver behind most of the pros and cons of each connection type.
Ultimately, Ethernet and Wi-Fi both get you to the same place: online and accessing your favorite sites, media, and games. However, there are a couple of major differences (and several minor ones) to consider when deciding which type of connection to use.
An Ethernet connection offers faster, more consistent speeds. This is primarily because the signal is getting sent directly to the device instead of broadcasted. This direct approach has fewer variables that can impact signal strength, like interference from other electronics, and lets the full strength of the signal reach the device.
Additionally, Ethernet cables typically (though not always) have higher maximum bandwidth than Wi-Fi routers, so higher speeds are possible (if your internet plan supports them).
The last part of the speed puzzle is latency. Latency is the delay between when a signal leaves one location and arrives at its destination.
A signal can travel faster through the cable than over the air, so Ethernet connections almost always have lower latency by default. This makes them ideal for applications where reaction time matters, like gaming. If you’ve ever hit a command in a game and waited several seconds for your character to take the action, you’ve experienced high latency.
Ethernet is also inherently more secure than Wi-Fi. This is because, with Ethernet, there’s no network to join — you’d need physical access to the network in order to get to the data on it, whereas Wi-Fi travels through the air and is thus more easily intercepted.
Ethernet is ideal in a few different situations:
- You have a device that will never be moved, such as a streaming TV box or desktop computer.
- You need to minimize latency and other potential interference, such as with a gaming PC.
- You need an enormous amount of bandwidth on a consistent basis, such as with a server or data center.
Ethernet isn’t without its downsides. It’s based on a physical cable connection, which presents a few issues. The main problem is that Ethernet cables come straight from the modem — unless you want hundreds of feet of cables snaking through your house, you’ll be limited to working in the room with the modem and nowhere else. This also makes cord clutter a thing.
Additionally, an Ethernet port on a device is a relative rarity these days. Most desktop computers still have them, but many laptops and nearly all tablets ship without them. That means purchasing adapters to connect.
Wi-Fi excels in all the areas Ethernet falls short in. There’s no cord clutter, and while there’s a theoretical range limit, you can essentially connect from anywhere in your home. Pretty much all modern devices are able to connect to Wi-Fi, from smartphones to desktops. And you can have multiple devices connected and working at the same time.
Wi-Fi is best suited for situations where convenience and mobility are most important:
- A home network shared by multiple people.
- Working from home, where you may want to change environments throughout the day.
- Streaming music or video on a tablet while you work or game on another device.
Of course, a Wi-Fi connection also has weaknesses. The wireless nature of the network introduces the issues of latency and interference. These can make the online experience more frustrating. And you never have to worry about how to find your Wi-Fi password when you’re on a wired connection.
Traditionally, wireless connections also tended to have slower speeds compared to wired connections. This difference has become less pronounced in recent years as new wireless technologies emerge, but it’s still largely true, particularly if you’re working with extremely fast internet speeds (5 gigabytes per second [Gbps] and up). Of course, if you’re just trying to watch Netflix with a VPN, your Wi-Fi speed may not matter much.
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi pros and cons
|Less cord clutter|
|Connects multiple devices|
|Faster internet speeds|
What is Ethernet?
Ethernet is a wired internet connection with the technical name IEEE 802.3. Ethernet works by connecting a device directly to the modem using a cable. This means it offers theoretically better performance than Wi-Fi, at the expense of convenience and mobility.
There are several different Ethernet standards approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the governing body that ensures internet protocols are standardized (among other things). These include Fast Ethernet (up to 100 megabytes per second [Mbps]), Gigabit Ethernet (up to 1 Gbps, probably the most common today), and 10 Gigabit Ethernet (you guessed it — up to 10 Gbps).
These standards determine the maximum speeds your devices can handle, but there’s another variable with Ethernet: the cable. There are several different types of Ethernet cable on the market, and which type you get does matter:
- Cat5: An older standard that is now mostly obsolete. These max out at 100 Mbps, which isn’t future-proof at all, even if your current connection is less than that.
- Cat5e: An “enhanced” Cat5 cable, these are currently sold as the budget Ethernet cable option. They support up to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps), which should be plenty for most users, although still not particularly future-proof.
- Cat6: The current gold standard Ethernet cable. These support the same speeds as Cat5e (1 Gbps), but Cat6 has twice the bandwidth, which means better performance all-around. They’re also shielded to reduce interference.
- Cat6a: These are the current premium Ethernet cables, capable of supporting speeds up to 10 Gbps and much higher bandwidth than Cat6. If you have an internet plan over 1 Gbps or want to future-proof as much as possible, this is the type of cable to go with.
Ethernet is a fantastic choice for a device that needs a constant, reliable, fast connection. It’s also smart to use Ethernet when security is important. However, it does lack the convenience of Wi-Fi.
What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a wireless internet implementation defined by the IEEE 802.11 standard. Wi-Fi is not an acronym — it’s a brand name. It was created by a marketing firm to provide consumers a way of knowing that devices will be able to work together.
While Wi-Fi networks don’t require cables to connect, they do need a specialized piece of equipment: a wireless router. This is an access point that takes the signal from your modem and broadcasts it over an area, creating the network. You’ll need this when you set up your Wi-Fi network.
Wireless routers can be bought separately, meaning you’ll need two pieces of equipment for your network. They can also come built into a modem — these devices are known as wireless gateways. When you rent equipment from your internet service provider, it’s usually a wireless gateway, since they don’t need to worry about providing two separate pieces of equipment.
When purchasing your own wireless router, it’s important to ensure that it’s capable of handling your internet plan’s full speed. Like Ethernet, there are several different Wi-Fi protocols that offer increasing bandwidth and speed:
- 802.11n: An older standard that isn’t used much in new equipment, but might still be found floating around on used routers and devices. 802.11n has a maximum data rate of 450 Mbps, and so it wouldn’t work for many of today’s high-speed connections.
- 802.11ac: This standard can still be found on some new budget-oriented routers and devices. It can support speeds up to 1.73 Gbps, so it should be more than enough for most use cases. However, it may not be very future-proof.
- 802.11ax: The current top-of-the-line standard, alos known as Wi-Fi 6. This standard supports speeds up to 2.4 Gbps, making it the most future-proof option.
Wi-Fi is all about convenience. As you can see from the list above, even the most modern Wi-Fi standard can’t match Ethernet in potential speed. However, Wi-Fi is less of a hassle to use for most people, particularly since modern devices are highly mobile.
Is Ethernet faster than Wi-Fi?
Yes, Ethernet is usually faster than Wi-Fi. The main reason is that cables are capable of transmitting more data, at faster speeds, than current wireless technology (and probably always will be).
Now, exactly how much faster Ethernet speeds are depends on the specific equipment you’re using, how fast your internet connection is, and how many other devices are using the wireless network at the same time.
Assuming your router is decent and both your wireless and wired gear is able to handle the full speed of your internet service, the difference might not be very noticeable.
However, certain activities benefit from the extra speed and reduced latency of an Ethernet connection:
- Streaming high-definition (HD) video
- Transferring large files between devices
With these tasks, you generally want all the bandwidth you can get, so Ethernet is the ideal connection type. And with gaming, latency can be the difference between winning and losing the match, so Ethernet is the way to go.
For most other activities, Wi-Fi is fine. However, to make sure you get the best performance, keep in mind that things like wireless interference from other devices, distance from the router, and the number of active devices on the network can all impact the speed.
ry to do your most intensive tasks when nobody else is using the internet, and make sure your Wi-Fi signal isn’t interrupted by a wall, floor, or furniture.
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi for gaming
When it comes to online gaming, Ethernet is always going to be the best bet. This is less about the potential speed differences and more about latency — high latency can absolutely ruin the experience, particularly for competitive multiplayer games like League of Legends or Call of Duty.
The only possible issue might be connecting your gaming consoles to your router with an Ethernet cable. If your Xbox is upstairs and your router and modem are in the basement, you might be better off using a wireless connection.
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi for streaming
For streaming videos, the difference between Wi-Fi and Ethernet is less pronounced. That said, you’ll likely still get more mileage out of an Ethernet connection for HD streaming — and if you’re streaming in 4K, a wired Ethernet connection is the way to go.
In this case, it’s all about maximizing speed and minimizing potential interference. A 4K stream can eat up a huge amount of bandwidth, so every little bit helps.
Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi FAQs
How much faster is Ethernet than Wi-Fi?
Ethernet connections can support up to 10 Gbps, while the current maximum speeds with Wi-Fi are limited to 2.4 Gbps. Ethernet also has much lower latency than Wi-Fi, which makes a big difference for gaming.
Is Ethernet better for streaming?
Yes, Ethernet is typically better for streaming. Since Ethernet offers higher maximum speeds and suffers less from network interference, it’s almost always the best choice. The only exception would be if you needed the mobility of Wi-Fi.
Should I use Wi-Fi or Ethernet for my smart TV?
Ethernet would be better than Wi-Fi for a smart TV, if you have your modem nearby. This ensures a more stable and reliable connection for your TV. But if your modem is far away, you can likely make do with Wi-Fi.
Is Ethernet better for gaming?
Ethernet is the way to go for gaming. The reduced latency makes a huge difference in reaction times in fast-paced games like League of Legends.
Ethernet is a fast and reliable connection type that offers much better performance for intensive tasks like gaming and HD streaming. Wi-Fi is slower, but much more convenient due to its wireless nature.
In other words, both are good for different uses. That said, if you just want to know what’s faster, Ethernet is the winner.