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Ethernet vs. WiFi: Pros and Cons Compared

ethernet vs wifi

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Pros and Cons Compared

Key Points

  • The most important factors for residential users when choosing between ethernet and WiFi are their speeds, tech compatibility, and overall stability. The cost is about the same.
  • Ethernet is almost always faster than WiFi.
  • Ethernet is a more stable way to connect two devices, although it can be impractical at times. WiFi is less stable than ethernet, but it comes with the benefit of being extremely portable and easy to use
  • Almost all of today’s devices have WiFi capabilities already built-in.

Ethernet and WiFi are the two most common methods of connecting people to the internet. Although there are many others (coaxial, powerline, etc.), none of them really measure up to the practicality and performance that ethernet and WiFi provide. Today, we will be comparing the two and learning which is better for your specific situation, plus a few important notes that will make your experience better. Let’s get started!

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Side-by-Side Comparison

CharacteristicEthernetWiFi
Underlying technologyTwisted pair cables and fiber optics.Radio frequencies with 802.11 protocol. 
Primary useA wired transfer of data between computers and the internet.To wirelessly transfer data between computers and the internet
SpeedBetween 10 Mbps and 10 GbpsTheoretical rates between 54 Mbps and 2.4 Gbps
StabilityExtremely stableStable, but can be influenced by external factors
CostAround $.50 per foot of cableUsually sold within existing technology. As little as 5.99 for an antenna
CompatibilityRequires a LAN portRequires an 802.11 compatible transmitter. Most widely used across the world
Initial releaseCommercially introduced in 1980The first version was released in 1997
Technologies influencedInternet, LAN, WAN, Fiber connection, mass computingInternet, LAN, Fiber, mobile devices, smart devices, the internet-of-things

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Must-Know Facts

Cat 5 Ethernet Cable
Ethernet is a method of connecting computers and transferring data

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  • Ethernet technology is simply a wired method to connect computers and transfer data.
  • Ethernet requires an ethernet cable to transfer data.
  • Ethernet requires a LAN port in order to connect devices.
  • Ethernet can transfer data at extremely high speeds.
  • Ethernet is most commonly used to connect a user to their home router, providing internet.
  • Ethernet is usually the default data transfer cable for servers, hubs, and commercial environments.
  • Ethernet’s wired connections are inherently more stable.
  • WiFi technology is a wireless technology that allows computers to transfer data.
  • Wifi uses high-frequency radio signals to transfer data.
  • Wifi requires an internal or external antenna.
  • Wifi operates on the 802.11 protocol.
  • Wifi usually comes in 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands.
  • Wifi can penetrate most drywall.
  • Wireless connections are inherently less stable.

What Is WiFi?

WiFi, also known as Wireless Fidelity, is a wireless method of connecting a device to the internet. It is can be used with a wide range of devices, including laptops, tablets, and smartphones. WiFi uses radio waves to provide a fast and reliable internet connection. It works with a wireless router which sends the radio signal to devices which are nearby. The router is typically connected to a modem to allow internet access. Undoubtedly, the most popular feature of WiFi is that it allows devices to remain connected while in the vicinity of the router, without the need for cables.

What Is Ethernet?

Like WiFi, ethernet is a method of connecting devices to the internet. However, ethernet requires the use of an ethernet cable and is subsequently more commonly used with desktop computers and laptops which are in used in one place. It connects the device to a Local Area Network (LAN). Ethernet again requires the use of a router but this is connected to the device with the cable.

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Full Comparison

The most important factors for residential users to consider when choosing between ethernet and WiFi are their needed speeds, tech compatibility, and overall stability.

Ethernet and WiFi technologies have been around for quite some time. They have both had a massive impact on the world, and both of them exist as popular options for consumers today. In fact, if you are reading this, you are using one of these technologies in some way! To most consumers, there are a few things that matter the most. Let’s break down those essential things and learn what the differences are.

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Speed

Smartphone Wi-Fi wifi network
WiFi and ethernet are closely matched in terms of speed

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Although the current “potential speeds” for both ethernet and WiFi are equal, the reality is that ethernet is almost always faster than WiFi when it comes to real-world scenarios. For most users, using an ethernet cable looks like plugging it into their router or modem and then directly plugging it into their computer. This “hardwire” allows for a constant connection between the two devices with minimal interruption. Still, the speeds offered for both ethernet and WiFi are enough that the vast majority of consumers wouldn’t notice any changes between the two, given the same internet provider. 

Currently, ethernet has a maximum transfer speed of 10 Gbps (10 gigabits per second), although the best internet providers in the country only offer speeds 1/10th of that. There are varying technologies among ethernet cables today, but the fastest is fiber optic. Fiber Optics use light to transmit data down a fiber tube, and many modern ethernet cables have this technology within their rubber casing. 

WiFi has gotten to a point today where it is also incredibly fast, just not as fast in the “real world” as ethernet is due to environmental factors like distance and network interference. For most people, the upper limit they run into when using the internet isn’t their connection method (ethernet or WiFi) but their internet provider speeds.

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Stability

Ethernet is a more stable way to connect two devices, although it can be impractical at times. WiFi is less stable than ethernet, but it comes with the benefit of being extremely portable and easy to use.

When we refer to “stability”, we are really referring to how often two connected devices experience delay or disconnection between their data transfers. Ethernet is a physical cable that doesn’t really allow for much data loss when it’s connected on both ends. WiFi, however, is a radio frequency that can be affected by things like distance and objects. If you are too far away from your internet source on WiFi, for example, you begin to lose connection. Additionally, WiFi can be negatively affected by other radio frequencies, namely, other WiFi networks. 

People who need absolute stability with minimal downtime should choose an ethernet connection. These people can be high-level gamers or content creators who need to upload large amounts of data completely uninterrupted.

People who value portability and ease should go with a WiFi connection. Anyone who carries their phone, iPad, or laptop around with them likely already uses WiFi. 

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Cost

When it comes to the cost between ethernet and WiFi, the cheapest option will always be the one that your device already comes with. For example, a laptop with a pre-installed WiFi adapter will allow someone to connect to any other WiFi-compatible network without any extra money. A desktop computer that doesn’t have a WiFi card but has a LAN port could utilize an ethernet cable without any extra cost.

Almost all commonly used devices today have WiFi receivers inside them, making WiFi the cheaper option for most people. For the rare case that a device doesn’t have WiFi but has a LAN port, buying an ethernet cable would likely be cheaper if there is a connection nearby.

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Compatibility

When it comes to compatibility, WiFi wins hands down. Almost all of today’s devices have WiFi capabilities already built-in. Phones, laptops, tablets, smart speakers, smart refrigerators, smart screens, and more can all connect to WiFi natively.

There are some devices that don’t come with WiFi compatibility, but they are quite rare these days. Custom-built PCs, server stacks, and a few other commercial devices only have LAN ports, but even then, a simple USB  WiFi antenna from Amazon will only cost a few dollars.

Pros and Cons of Ethernet

ProsCons
Really stable connectionRequires cabling and ports
Fastest speeds possibleCan be inconvenient for mobile computers (phones and laptops)
It is simple to set up.It can be an eyesore if the cables aren’t installed within the walls.

Pros and Cons of WiFi

ProsCons
It is almost always compatibleInherently less stable
Easy to set upLower top-end speed
Best for portable and mobile computersSignal diminishes with range and through walls
Automatically connects you with others on the network.

Ethernet vs. WiFi: Which Should You Use?

For most people, WiFi is the easier and best way to connect to the internet. Most devices already come ready to receive, and those that don’t can be upgraded for a few dollars.

We recommend ethernet connections to gamers, content creators, streamers, and anyone else that needs a super-stable connection to the internet that is rarely interrupted.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to use WiFi or Ethernet?

If both are available, ethernet is faster and more stable. WiFi is usually more readily available, however, and devices can natively connect to it.

How much faster is Ethernet compared to WiFi?

Ethernet is faster than WiFi, but this is only noticeable in certain situations. Most online activities like browsing the internet or streaming a video don’t result in a noticeable difference in ideal settings.

Can you have WiFi and Ethernet at the same time?

You can have an ethernet cable plugged in and be connected to WiFi at the same time, but your computer can only utilize one data source at once.

Does Ethernet slow down WiFi?

Ethernet doesn’t slow down WiFi, but nearby WiFi networks can slow down your WiFi connection.

Which is better for gaming WiFi or Ethernet?

Ethernet is generally a better option for gaming as it has less lag and can provide faster speeds when it matters.

Is WiFi or Ethernet better for cloud-based storage?

For most people, WiFi is a better option for uploading and downloading items on the cloud. Many phones passively upload photos to the cloud at night while you sleep! For content creators utilizing large amounts of cloud storage, an ethernet connection would be a faster way to retrieve or upload content.

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