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

new ethernet standard 5gbps port
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 deceive. And Wi-Fi has improved significantly over the last five years, but it’s still far from 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 megabits per second most users found real-world performance to be far less. Gigabit Ethernet, by contrast, can handle 1,000 Mbps, a much bigger number.

Then 802.11n arrived with a promise of speeds up to 600 Mbps (most homes will be limited to 150 or 300 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 Mbps — 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’re 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, 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 using the router’s settings page, 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 helps keep Ethernet alive in some 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 electricity 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 Mbps 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’s why, in spite of its advantages, we can safely say that Ethernet is slowly dying off.

Gaming

New ‘Battlefield V’ patch gives Nvidia’s ray tracing support a chance to shine

‘Battlefield V’ is the first game to use Nvidia’s ray tracing support, now available with the RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti graphics cards. The feature can, in an ideal scenario, make the game look better, but the performance hit may not be…
Gaming

The most common Xbox One X problems, and how to fix them

The Xbox One X is a brilliant console, but it's not without its issues, ranging from simple annoyances to severe hardware problems. Here are common Xbox One X problems and how to fix them.
Mobile

Vanquish lag for good with the best routers for gaming

Finding the best routers for gaming is no easy task. With so many out there, how do you know which to pick? We've looked at the many options available and put together a list of our lag-free favorites.
Cars

Bosch is developing a Rosetta Stone for autonomous and connected cars

Bosch and start-up Veniam want to create a common language that autonomous and connected cars can use. The two firms have developed a connectivity unit that transcends the national boundaries of technology.
Computing

Fix those internet dead zones by turning an old router into a Wi-Fi repeater

Is there a Wi-Fi dead zone in your home or office? A Wi-Fi repeater can help. Don't buy a new one, though. Here is how to extend Wi-Fi range with another router you have lying around.
Computing

Changing file associations in Windows 10 is quick and easy with these steps

Learning how to change file associations can make editing certain file types much quicker than manually selecting your preferred application every time you open them. Just follow these short steps and you'll be on your way in no time.
Computing

Intel's dedicated GPU is not far off -- here's what we know

Did you hear? Intel is working on a dedicated graphics card. It's called Arctic Sound and though we don't know a lot about it, we know that Intel has some ex-AMD Radeon graphics engineers developing it.
Computing

Edit, sign, append, and save with six of the best PDF editors

There are plenty of PDF editors to be had online, and though the selection is robust, finding a solid solution with the tools you need can be tough. Here, we've rounded up best PDF editors, so you can edit no matter your budget or OS.
Computing

How to easily record your laptop screen with apps you already have

Learning how to record your computer screen shouldn't be a challenge. Lucky for you, our comprehensive guide lays out how to do so using a host of methods, including both free and premium utilities, in both MacOS and Windows 10.
Computing

From beautiful to downright weird, check out these great dual monitor wallpapers

Multitasking with two monitors doesn't necessarily mean you need to split your screens with two separate wallpapers. From beautiful to downright weird, here are our top sites for finding the best dual monitor wallpapers for you.
Computing

Capture screenshots with print screen and a few alternative methods

Capturing a screenshot of your desktop is easier than you might think, and it's the kind of thing you'll probably need to know. Here's how to perform the important function in just a few, easy steps.
Computing

These cheap laptops will make you wonder why anyone spends more

Looking for a budget notebook for school, work, or play? The best budget laptops, including our top pick -- the Asus ZenBook UX331UA -- will get the job done without digging too deeply into your pockets.
Computing

Stop your PC's vow of silence with these tips on how to fix audio problems

Sound problems got you down? Don't worry, with a few tweaks and tricks we'll get your sound card functioning as it should, and you listening to your favorite tunes and in-game audio in no time.
Product Review

It's not the sharpest tool, but the Surface Go does it all for $400

Microsoft has launched the $400 Surface Go to take on both the iPad and Chromebooks, all without compromising its core focus on productivity. Does it work as both a tablet and a PC?