Wired vs Wireless - Which Is Better?

Why would anyone want to use a bulky network cable when they could just use Wi-Fi? This question is often asked, but not so often correctly answered or explained. Due to various factors like marketing campaigns, false advertising, and a general lack of awareness, wireless technology is often misunderstood. Let's take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both technologies and understand when and where they work best. Because the truth is, one is not better than the other overall; it always comes down to the specific scenario and one of the two will always be more appropriate for that scenario.

Hardwired (Ethernet)

The Ethernet method for connecting to the internet has been around for decades. It belongs to the family of LAN cables in the IEEE 802.3 standard and has seen an improvement over the years from 1.25Mbit/s throughput to an impressive Gigabit(1000Mbit/s) throughput. There’s even an astounding 40GBASE-T standard in the works capable of 40 Gbit/s for as long as 30m. The most common (and standardized) versions of Ethernet that are used today fall into the realm of 10 Mbit/s, 100 Mbit/s, or 1000 Mbit/s. With that in mind, there should never be a question of whether Ethernet is incredibly capable (fast), or even very practical in everyday applications. What matters here is how Ethernet delivers your connection.

Ethernet is simply a name given to “network” cables. There are many types of cables often identified by their category(CAT5, CAT5e, etc). Currently, CAT5e cables are the unofficial standard and boast the most widespread use. The major distinction here is that using Ethernet requires installing physical cabling, having to account for safety standards, using the right type of cabling, and a bit of planning in your effort to install them neatly and properly. But what you get out of having to do all of that is a guarantee of not just the fastest possible bandwidth, but also the most reliable connection.

Wireless (Wi-Fi)

The Wi-Fi method for connecting to the internet has been around for a lot less time, but has quickly taken to being massively popularized and widespread for the utility it provides its users. The Wi-Fi or WLAN(Wireless Local Area Network) class of connectivity is based on the IEEE 802.11 standards and has also seen a marked improvement since its inception. There have been different transmission frequencies of the Wi-Fi signal (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac) that span from about 11 Mbit/s to about 1,300 Mbit/s. But the 1,300 Mbit/s is a brand new technology that a vast majority of people are not even aware of yet. Most people exist in the 802.11 b/g/n range which basically translates to 11 Mbit/s, 54 Mbit/s, or 600 Mbit/s, respectively. So, already you can see that there’s a sizeable lack of speed when comparing the most common Wi-Fi technologies to the most common Ethernet technologies. But we haven’t even gotten into the how of wireless transmission yet.

The problem with wireless technology, when it comes to speed, is that despite the throughput values mentioned above, most people don’t understand that those are theoretical speeds. So, even though 802.11n proudly advertises itself as being capable of 600 Mbit/s, that actually requires setting up and using 4 simultaneous channels and most average consumers don’t even know what that means, much less know how to set it up. But when we talk about 10 Mbit/s, 100 Mbit/s, and 1000 Mbit/s Ethernet speeds, you can be sure that those values, although also theoretical, are a lot more concrete. This is because the very fact that the wireless signals have to travel through the air makes them inherently (and significantly) weaker than if those signals were traveling through a wire. Not only are there a myriad of things that can cause wireless interference, but the very nature of a wireless signal makes it such that any given person will only achieve one third to one half of their total internet speed when using Wi-Fi.

You can try running a speed test on your computer both when hardwired, and using Wi-Fi to see the difference yourself. Wi-Fi technology, at least in this day and age, can never be faster than Ethernet technology.

So Who Wins?

This is another classic case of performance versus convenience. It’s so much easier to just push a button and get online than it is to plug in and deal with a cable. But the science behind why Ethernet works better makes it easier to understand and remember where Wi-Fi stands: a signal can more easily move through a cable with conductive material than through the air. Now, this is not to say that Wi-Fi is horrible and should be avoided in all scenarios. In fact, Wi-Fi is a wonderful technology that has allowed many a business and consumer alike enjoy a wealth of convenience without feeling a lack of performance at all. The trick is to identify when and where to use Wi-Fi as opposed to Ethernet.

Let’s say that you’re at home and want to use your network for simple tasks that don’t tax your bandwidth. Using a Wi-Fi connection for your laptop or desktop for browsing the web, watching YouTube videos, or even checking emails and playing some games will not be a problem at all. The reason is that these network activities require so little bandwidth, that to insist upon having an Ethernet cable plugged in at all times will not only be an inconveniencing factor, but may also make you look crazy.

On the flip side, let’s say that you’re sitting at home and you want to run a MineCraft (or any online game) server for you and all of your friends to play on. Now, your internet connection will depend heavily on the gaming experience for you and all of your friends. It will make or break whether there is constant lag, freezing, or disconnecting altogether. If you are doing something like this, or downloading/streaming HD movies, you had better hope you had an Ethernet cable plugged in or you will be in for a world of pain. Now you will look crazy if you don’t have an Ethernet cable plugged in. Are you starting to get the picture?

Closing Thoughts

The next time you hear someone swearing by Ethernet cables, you might understand a little bit more about where they’re coming from. But now you understand that it’s not always the ideal case. When you are using your internet connection for bandwidth intensive activities, always use an Ethernet cable. When you only want to do simple things like browse the web, Wi-Fi does not hurt. But just because one method is faster and one method is easier does not mean that one method is better. It all depends on what you’re using it for.

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