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Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet: Has wireless killed wired?

As home networks have increased in popularity, so has the wireless router. The rise of Wi-Fi has also caused the downfall of wired networks (in homes, at least), and many consumers now see Ethernet cords as being rather old-fashioned – that is, if they see them at all. Some newer computer models, like Apple’s MacBook Air, don’t even have ports for Ethernet connections anymore.

The blistering connection speeds offered by today’s Wi-Fi standards do make wired networks appear a bit of a relic, but appearances can sometimes be deceiving. Though Wi-Fi has improved significantly over the last five years, it is not perfect. So is there still a place for Ethernet in the home?

Catching up in connection speed

Several years ago, when most Wi-Fi devices were using the 802.11g standard, connection speed was a serious limitation. Though theoretically capable of transferring up to 54 MB/s most users found real-world performance to be far less. Gigabit Ethernet, by contrast, can handle 1,000 MB/s, which is a much bigger number.

Then 802.11n arrived with a promise of speeds up to 600 MB/s (most homes will be limited to 150 or 300 MB/s, however, because only expensive high-end routers support the highest data rate). Though these numbers remain more theoretical than actual, improvements in reliability have made 802.11n more likely to flirt with its peak data rate.

And now there’s 802.11ac, which promises speeds of up to 1,000 MB/s – finally giving wireless the ability to match Gigabit Ethernet on paper.

Does that means Ethernet’s connection speed advantage will go away? For most users and in most situations, the answer is yes. Data accessed from the Internet will only be transferred as quickly as a home’s Internet connection will allow, and an 802.11n home network can easily outpace the average broadband connection in North America.

Readers lucky enough to enjoy an extremely fast connection will still see benefits from Ethernet, however. If you’d like to know if Ethernet would be faster for you, try this simple test. Go to Speedtest.com and run the benchmark on your Wi-Fi-connected PC. Then, connect the computer via Ethernet (be sure to turn off Wi-Fi) and try the test again. If the second test is quicker, you are losing performance to the ether by using Wi-Fi.

Connections between home computers are a bit different. They rely only on your home network infrastructure, so the improved transfer speeds of Ethernet are always relevant. The question is, do you transfer large files between computers on your home network? If you do, Ethernet is still important; if not, Wi-Fi is just dandy.

The limitations of radio

The air might seem capable of carrying an infinite amount of data, but that’s obviously untrue. How do we know? Radio stations are broken into channels to make sure they don’t overlap; various services, like cell phones and television transmissions, also have specific spectrum allocated to them.

The problem is interference, which is an issue that can impact a Wi-Fi router just like it can impact a radio station. If another device is using the same frequency and channel as your router, the performance of both may be reduced. A common solution is to change the channel setting in the router’s settings, but even this can sometimes fail.

Radio also has a limited range. The waves can’t penetrate dense objects and can only project a certain distance before becoming useless. A wall with heavy plumbing, or a large object like a furnace, could degrade Wi-Fi performance if they intersect the router and the PC wirelessly connected to it.

All of these limitations can be resolved by Ethernet. Official specs put the range of Ethernet at 100 meters (almost 330 feet), which is far more than is needed for a typical home network. There’s also no need to worry about interference. Ethernet is very much alive and well in homes that, for whatever reason, find Wi-Fi to be unreliable.

A third option

There’s a niche option that is helping to keep Ethernet alive in homes: powerline networking. The name is appropriate. Powerline networking uses power lines that exist in a home to transfer data. Worried about how this might impact your power bill? Don’t be. The technology requires an inconsequential amount of power and doesn’t interfere with how power is delivered to devices in your home.

You need to buy at least two adapters to create a powerline network. One adapter connects via Ethernet to your primary router or modem and then plugged into a wall socket (most surge protectors aren’t compatible). The other adapter can be used in any socket in your home. Run an Ethernet cord from the second adapter to a PC and you have a powerline network.

Powerline networks are an often overlooked option that can help keep Ethernet relevant in your home. Modern adapters offer effective transfer speeds of up to 500 MB/s while maintaining the reliability of Ethernet. Multiple adapters can be added to extend the network. There’s also no need to run new wire since it uses existing power sockets, making it a great solution for renters.

Ethernet’s not dead, but…

Ethernet has many advantages. It’s generally quicker and more reliable than today’s best Wi-Fi routers, and it’s usually less expensive.

With that said, this isn’t a binary choice. It’s entirely possible to connect a desktop via Ethernet and then use wireless for everything else. You can also use Ethernet to solve problems with Wi-Fi in specific rooms. Want to extend Wi-Fi to a room that seems to block all signals? Run Ethernet to that room and then connect a Wi-Fi router to it. Problem solved!

But this is the exception that proves the rule. Sure, Ethernet can solve problems; but most home users can easily live with Wi-Fi. The average person doesn’t have a broadband connection quicker than what 802.11g can handle, won’t have a problem with interference, and doesn’t own a home large enough to encounter range issues. Ethernet is only relevant if these issues exist and need to be solved. That is why, in spite of its advantages, we can safely say that Ethernet is slowly dying off.