Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (2024)

Get the best internet connection by determining whether Ethernet or Wi-Fi is right for your application.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (1) by Kevin Parrish
Edited by Cara Haynes

Oct 13, 2023 Share
Equipment Guides, Gaming

Wi-Fi is great to have. It’s convenient, clutter-free, and available nearly everywhere you go. But it’s not always your best option. Ethernet gives you consistent speeds and low latency, whereas Wi-Fi does not. We’ll explain the best of both worlds so you can decide what’s best for you.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (2)

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (3)

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Jump to: Which connection is better? | Why choose Ethernet? | Why choose Wi-Fi? | Cost | Gaming | Streaming | Recommended Ethernet cables | Our verdict

Jump to:

  • Which connection is better?
  • Why choose Ethernet?
  • Why choose Wi-Fi?
  • Cost
  • Gaming
  • Streaming
  • Recommended Ethernet cables
  • Our verdict

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Which connection is better?

Here’s the skinny. If you’re outside mowing the lawn and you want to stream music, Wi-Fi is your only option of the two. If you’re participating in an online gaming tournament where every button press counts, Ethernet is your optimal connection.

That’s the short answer.

Overall, wireless gives you mobility. You can freely roam while you stream music or watch Netflix on your tablet while snuggled up in bed. The drawback is range and interference play havoc on your connection. You will see dramatic slowdowns or disconnects altogether as you move away from the router.

Meanwhile, Ethernet gives you reliability. The wires are ugly and keep you tethered to a location. But Ethernet speeds don’t fluctuate like Wi-Fi—you can get the same speeds at 300 feet as you do at ground zero. The drawback is you lose the tether-free mobility of Wi-Fi.

Here are the pros and cons of Ethernet and Wi-Fi:

Ethernet

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (4) Pros:

  • Consistent speeds
  • Low latency
  • Higher security
  • Simple connections

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (5) Cons:

  • Cluttered setup
  • Less convenience
  • Expensive setup with multiple devices

Wi-Fi

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (6) Pros:

  • Convenient
  • Wireless
  • Supported by most devices

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (7) Cons:

  • Inconsistent and slow speeds
  • High latency
  • Dropped connections

Why should you choose Ethernet?

Choose Ethernet for its secure connection, consistent speeds, and low latency. It’s not an attractive solution—we get it. But Ethernet is just better in specific scenarios, like gaming online and streaming to media centers.

Read our guide showing you how to connect your devices to the local network using Ethernet.

Consistent speed

The key takeaway with Ethernet is consistency and range. Wired signals don’t fluctuate as Wi-Fi connections do. Data flow is solid from end to end.

For example, a CAT 6 cable supports 1,000Mbps (1Gbps) over 328 feet. Technically, you’ll see a maximum of around 940 Mbps after software and hardware overhead when you connect it to Gigabit Ethernet ports, but it’s still consistent from one end to the other.

Wi-Fi can never make that consistency promise because radio waves weaken over distance. Plus, your speed and range squarely depend on the router’s generation, how many antennas it has, how many antennas are inside your wireless device, what generation they support, and how many devices are wirelessly connected. What a headache.

Remember, Ethernet doesn’t increase your internet plan’s speed.

If you pay for a 400Mbps plan, that’s all you get no matter what you install in your home. A Category 7 Ethernet cable or the latest Wi-Fi 6 router won’t make that speed magically skyrocket into gigabit territory. You may not even see that 400Mbps maximum due to the local infrastructure and the physical connection to your home.

To determine your current internet speeds, plug a computer directly into the modem via Ethernet and run our internet speed test. If you have a modem/router combo, but sure to use a wired Ethernet connection for the best results.

Security

Ethernet creates a direct, physical connection to the network. There’s no chance of a hacker lurking nearby that could eavesdrop on your connection and intercept your emails or banking data like with Wi-Fi. Sure, Ethernet connections aren’t 100% secure. A hacker can physically connect to the network and launch malware, but the chances of that are meager at best.

Less latency

Latency is the amount of time data uses to reach a remote server and bounce back to you. In gaming, you need that round trip to use the least amount of time possible, and that’s where Ethernet shines.

Wi-Fi adds an extra translation step to your connection, which increases your latency. Other factors also come into play: local network congestion, interference, and your physical distance from the router. You don’t have these problems with Ethernet.

Simplicity

To access the local network, just connect your wired device to the router using an Ethernet cable. That’s it. You typically don’t need to enter a password unless you need one to access the network, like in an enterprise setting or a hotel. Moreover, troubleshooting connectivity issues is more straightforward—just reboot or replace the cable, for example.

On the flip side, mobile devices like phones and tablets don’t have Ethernet (RJ45) ports, so a USB adapter is needed. Here are a few examples:

Are you shopping for a new Ethernet cable?

Check out our listings for the best Ethernet cables if you want a faster wired connection, a cable that blends in, or one you can use outdoors.

Why should you choose Wi-Fi?

Choose Wi-Fi for convenience. It’s supported by nearly every device you use, like smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and laptops. You can roam freely with the device and still access the internet, plus there are no drooping vine-like cords like with Ethernet connections.

Compatibility and convenience

Compatibility is where Wi-Fi trumps Ethernet. Most computing devices now ship with wireless connectivity. That includes desktops, laptops, game consoles, mobile devices, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, set-top boxes, and so on. You can even purchase a stove, microwave, refrigerator, and more with wireless connectivity.

Ethernet is not quite so compatible. Your device needs a dedicated RJ45 port to tether it to a network physically. Desktops and game consoles typically ship with an Ethernet port, with the exception of the Nintendo Switch—but you can add Ethernet connectivity to the Switch dock by purchasing a USB-based dongle.

On smartphones, tablets, and thin-and-light laptops, a bulky Ethernet port makes no sense. You can add Ethernet (RJ45) connectivity by using a USB adapter. They’re bulky and annoying, sure, but if you’re willing to compromise mobility for bandwidth, they can be surprisingly inexpensive.

Here are a few examples of Ethernet adapters for mobile devices:

Mass connectivity

Because there are no physical connections, you can have 50 or more wireless devices accessing a router simultaneously. The same router may support only four physical connections, forcing you to install gigabit Ethernet switch boxes if you need to connect more Ethernet-based devices than the allotted four.

To handle all your wireless traffic, consider one of the fastest routers we’ve tested to date.

Less clutter

Wi-Fi doesn’t use cables or switch boxes, so there’s no clutter.

Ethernet can turn your home into an electronic jungle, with “vines” draping down from devices and “snakes” running along your baseboards. In some cases, you may have switch boxes installed to expand your wired network to accommodate more devices than your router or modem was designed to support.

One way to help alleviate all the ugliness is to install flat Ethernet cables, especially if you’re running them along baseboards and around door frames. They sit flat against the wall and are less obvious than the old-school round cables.

Is your router an old and tired dinosaur?

You should consider an upgrade. One of the best Wi-Fi 6 routers you can buy right now is perfect for handling all of your wired and wireless devices.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Other factors to consider

Here are a few other things to consider to help you decide which connection is best your you.

Cost

Recommendation: Consider all your costs for your specific situation.

Ethernet can be costly. The amount of cable you need to reach an area of the house you can easily access over Wi-Fi—albeit at a low-quality connection and likely the reason why you’re running Ethernet in the first place—could get expensive, depending on the length, quality, and generation. Do you need a switch box or two to reach your destination? That’s something to consider with cost as well.

Wi-Fi range extenders can be costly too, depending on the model. They’re good for filling dead zones, but they retransmit degraded signals, so the speeds you get may not be ideal for your needs—or worth the money.

The bottom line here is both solutions can be cheap and expensive. The cost ultimately depends on your environment and what you need for a good connection.

Gaming

Recommendation: Use Ethernet when possible for gaming.

Ethernet takes the gaming trophy for its consistent speeds and low latency. This win applies to online gaming, whether it’s just a short Fortnite match, wandering new territory in World of Warcraft, or playing co-op in Destiny 2. Technically, latency is subject to internet traffic that you can’t control—all the data traffic jams that happen on the public side of your modem—but you can reduce that latency on your end by using Ethernet.

Want the best internet for gaming?

Our recommendations for the best internet for gaminginclude Google Fiber, Xfinity, and Verizon.

Game streaming services are best played over Ethernet too—Sony even recommends playing PlayStation Plus over a wired connection.

Here are the Internet speed requirements for the three major online gaming services:

720p1080p2160p
Microsoft Xbox Remote Play10Mbps (minimum)Not specifiedNot specified
Nvidia GeForce Now15Mbps25MbpsNot specified
Sony PlayStation Plus5Mbps (minimum)Not specifiedNot specified
Microsoft Xbox Remote Play
720p10Mbps (minimum)
1080pNot specified
2160pNot specified
Nvidia GeForce Now
720p15Mbps
1080p25Mbps
2160pNot specified
Sony PlayStation Plus
720p5Mbps (minimum)
1080pNot specified
2160pNot specified

Game streaming over Wi-Fi isn’t a flawless experience. Connection inconsistencies can bring your framerate and movements to slideshow speeds. Graphics can become a pixilated mess. You may even lose your connection to the remote server. Ethernet provides a steady stream to support game streaming requirements.

If you must use Wi-Fi for gaming, avoid the 2.4 GHz band altogether. It’s best used for legacy devices and IoT gadgets. Avoid the lower 5 GHz channels too, if you can, because everyone under the sun has jumped off the 2.4 GHz connection and now crowds the lower 5 GHz spectrum. The best speeds and latency to be had are on the higher 5 GHz channels and the new 6 GHz band.

That said, get a router built specifically for gaming. Many typically pack a hefty processor, tools to prioritize your gaming traffic, and possibly a third band you can reserve just for gaming. Check out our list of the best routers for gaming to get an idea of what you need.

Streaming

Recommendation: Use Ethernet when possible for streaming, especially if you experience long load times.

Ethernet provides consistent speeds across a long range. The cables are ugly, sure, but your streaming experience won’t suffer due to heavy local Wi-Fi traffic or range. Devices like Apple TV, smart TVs, Blu-ray players, some Roku players, and more include Ethernet ports. You can always place your router next to your streaming device, if possible, to reduce the cable length.

Max alone requires a data rate of 50 Mbps to stream UHD content. Because Wi-Fi signals fluctuate based on interference and range, you may see the stream dip to HD to compensate or, in some cases, visually fragment due to slow speeds. A wired connection helps alleviate these issues and provides a consistent streaming experience from start to finish.

One thing to keep in mind is that no connection is without issues, whether you’re using Ethernet or Wi-Fi. You’re at the mercy of your internet plan and router, which can handle only so much traffic. Think of your router as a dedicated computer with a brain that communicates with each device. At some point, speaking to everyone in a crowd can become tiring and burdensome, slowing it down.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (8)

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Is It Really Better to Go Wireless? (9)

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Which Ethernet cables should you use?

If your internet connection is 100Mbps or less, you can use a Cat 5 cable. But if your internet connection is greater than 100Mbps, use a Cat 5e or newer cable instead.

So how do you know which cable to use since they all look identical? The cable’s category (or Cat) type is usually printed on the outside. This information is important to know because Ethernet cables of different categories support different speeds.

A category defines the amount of bandwidth (in megahertz) a cable can handle, its maximum data rate over a specific distance, and the shielding it uses. The number denotes the generation—the higher the number, the newer the cable. A Cat 7 cable, for instance, is a seventh-generation cable capable of 10Gbps across 328 feet.

When you’re shopping for an Ethernet cable, the category should be the first box you check off. Shielding is important too, so keep that feature in mind. Ethernet cables use twisted copper wire pairs, so they’re subject to electromagnetic interference that can disrupt the data flow. Cat 6 cables introduced a foil layer to reduce interference—these and newer cables are marked as “shielded.”

Range is another important factor to keep in mind, which defines how far a single cable can sustain the maximum data rate. For instance, if you need a 100Gbps connection, a Cat 7 cable will work, but it’s limited to 49 feet. The same cable can handle 40Gbps across 164 feet.

Here are the different categories of Ethernet cables and our recommendations for each:

CategoryMax data rateMax bandwidthRangeShieldingShop online
Cat 310Mbps16 MHz328 ft.UnshieldedN/A
Cat 5100Mbps100 MHz328 ft.UnshieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 5e1,000Mbps100 MHz328 ft.UnshieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 61,000Mbps250 MHz328 ft.Shielded and UnshieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 6a10,000Mbps500 MHz328 ft.ShieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 710,000Mbps
40,000Mbps
100,000Mbps
600 MHz328 ft.
164 ft.
49 ft.
ShieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 7a10,000Mbps1,000 MHz328 ft.ShieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 8.1/8.225,000Mbps
40,000Mbps
2,000 MHz131 ft.ShieldedSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 3
Max data rate10Mbps
Max bandwidth16 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingUnshielded
Shop onlineN/A
CategoryCat 5
Max data rate100Mbps
Max bandwidth100 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingUnshielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 5e
Max data rate1,000Mbps
Max bandwidth100 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingUnshielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 6
Max data rate1,000Mbps
Max bandwidth250 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingShielded and Unshielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 6a
Max data rate10,000Mbps
Max bandwidth500 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 7
Max data rate10,000Mbps
40,000Mbps
100,000Mbps
Max bandwidth600 MHz
Range328 ft.
164 ft.
49 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 7a
Max data rate10,000Mbps
Max bandwidth1,000 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 8.1/8.2
Max data rate25,000Mbps
40,000Mbps
Max bandwidth2,000 MHz
Range131 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Shop onlineSee on Amazon

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Our verdict

Ethernet is your best bet for gaming online and streaming to set-top boxes and smart TVs. The speed is high and consistent, giving you a smooth experience whether you’re watching superheroes beat each other down or shooting the Hive infestation on the Moon.

Most computing devices support wired networking through a built-in Ethernet port or through a compatible USB adapter. But using Ethernet with a smartphone isn’t practical, and that’s where Wi-Fi comes in. There’s no clutter with Wi-Fi, plus some devices can’t work without it, like the Nest Thermostat, Google Nest Mini, Amazon Echo Dot, and others.

In the end, the Ethernet versus Wi-Fi debate depends on what you need at the moment. You certainly don’t want to drape an Ethernet cable to your laptop as you lounge by the pool… or maybe you do. We won’t judge. Honest.

Related resources

  • What Cables Do I Need to Connect My Router to My Computer?
  • Is My Wi-Fi Slow Because of My Router or My ISP?
  • Best Internet Providers for Streaming
  • 9 Ways to Speed Up Your Internet in Less Than 10 Minutes

Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed onAmazon.comat the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.HighSpeedInternet.comutilizes paid Amazon links.

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Author - Kevin Parrish

Kevin Parrish has more than a decade of experience working as a writer, editor, and product tester. He began writing about computer hardware and soon branched out to other devices and services such as networking equipment, phones and tablets, game consoles, and other internet-connected devices. His work has appeared in Tom’s Hardware, Tom's Guide, Maximum PC, Digital Trends, Android Authority, How-To Geek, Lifewire, and others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on network equipment testing and review.

Editor - Cara Haynes

Cara Haynes has been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.

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