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

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

Choosing wireless over wired squarely depends on what you need from an internet connection. If you want consistent speed and low latency, Ethernet is your best bet. For convenience and less clutter, Wi-Fi is the ideal choice.

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

There’s no single definitive answer saying which connection is better than the other because Ethernet and Wi-Fi are ideal for specific uses cases.

Wireless is an attractive option because you’re not tethered to a specific location. You can freely roam while you stream music or watch Netflix on your tablet while snuggled up in bed. Some smart devices even require Wi-Fi to function. However, the speed and range of Wi-Fi can be a real issue.

A wired Ethernet connection is ideal if you want the lowest latency when gaming online. Wired speeds are fast and don’t fluctuate like Wi-Fi, but you have the inconvenience of drooping cables that can turn your TV room into an electronic jungle. You also can’t roam freely with a wired device unless you invest in a really long (and highly inconvenient) cable.

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

Ethernet

Pros

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

Cons

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

Wi-Fi

Pros

  • Convenient
  • Wireless
  • Supported by most devices

Cons

  • Potentially inconsistent and slow speeds
  • High latency
  • Dropped connections

Why should you choose Ethernet?

You should choose Ethernet because it’s secure, has consistent speeds, and has 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.

To connect your devices to the local network using Ethernet, read our guide showing you how.

Consistent speed

The key takeaway with Ethernet is consistency and range. Wired signals don’t fluctuate like Wi-Fi connections do. Data flow is solid from end to end and is bottlenecked only by your internet plan and network congestion outside your home.

Remember, your internet plan defines your max speed

If you pay for a 400 Mbps 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 400 Mbps maximum due to the local infrastructure and the physical connection to your home.

Choosing Ethernet or Wi-Fi helps with balancing congestion in your home. But if everyone in the house is downloading simultaneously, buffering will still occur, and download times will increase unless you upgrade to a better plan.

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.

In contrast, routers “broadcast” internet connections and have a limited range. Your connection squarely depends 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.

With Ethernet, the newer Category 7 cables support a sustained maximum transmission speed of 10 Gbps (10,000 Mbps) over 328 feet. However, home networking equipment like modems, routers, and unmanaged switch boxes generally limit the speed to 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) because mainstream internet plans usually don’t go higher than a gigabit.

While you can find equipment and cables that support 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps, and 10 Gbps, there’s no need for anything faster unless you can access fiber internet connections with upload and download speeds greater than 1 Gbps.

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 as seen with Wi-Fi. Sure, Ethernet connections aren’t 100% secure. A hacker could physically connect to the network and launch malware, but the chances of that are meager at best.

Less latency

This aspect circles back to Ethernet’s consistent speed. Latency is a measurement of the time data takes to leave your device, reach its destination, and return back to you. In gaming, you need that round trip to use the least amount of time possible, and that’s where Ethernet shines.

With Wi-Fi, latency is greater due to the location of your device, how many other wireless devices currently access the network, interference from neighboring networks, and interference from other wireless devices that can lower the quality of your connection. Wi-Fi cannot guarantee a consistent data rate, even on the 5 GHz band. You may even lose the signal entirely.

Simplicity

Plug one end of your Ethernet cable into the modem or router and the other end into your device. There’s no need to connect to the network and enter the password manually. Moreover, troubleshooting connectivity issues is more straightforward—just reboot or replace the cable.

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 five 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?

You should choose Wi-Fi because it’s convenient and 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 for gigabit internet.

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.

Wait, Wi-Fi 6 is faster than Ethernet?

Theoretically, Wi-Fi 6 could be faster than Ethernet. But it’s unlikely you’ll actually experience faster speeds than Ethernet with Wi-Fi 6.

Compared to the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard (802.11ax), a 1 Gbps Ethernet connection seems extremely slow at first glance. After all, Wi-Fi 6 has a theoretical maximum speed of 1.2 Gbps (1,200 Mbps) per stream on the 5 GHz frequency band and a 160 MHz channel.

If your router and smartphone both support two Wi-Fi 6 streams (2×2), then the theoretical maximum would be 2.4 Gbps (2,400 Mbps). But the key word here is “theoretical.” In the real world, you may not even see a gigabit when you park that two-stream smartphone next to the two-stream router.

Keep in mind that you’ll typically see Wi-Fi 6 associated with a 9.6 Gbps maximum speed. That theoretical number is possible only if the router and the client device support eight incoming and eight outgoing streams (8×8). The router must also use a 160 MHz channel to support 1.2 Gbps per stream.

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: Cost

Recommendation: Consider all your costs for your specific situation.

There isn’t a clear winner between Ethernet and Wi-Fi when it comes to cost. If your internet service provider (ISP) provides a modem and router, chances are you’re renting the equipment or paying a separate fee for wireless access. Over time, that can add up, so you’re better off purchasing a modem and router. The drawback here is that you won’t get “free” upgrades—upgrading from Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6 can make your wallet weep.

Ethernet can be costly too. 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.

You could always boost your wireless connections by installing range extenders. They are little devices that plug directly into electrical outlets and retransmit (repeat) your router’s signals. They’re good for filling dead zones, but they retransmit degraded signals. This means you may have Wi-Fi in a previous dead zone, but the speed may not be ideal for your needs.

The bottom line here is that Wi-Fi may be cheaper if your wireless devices are in close range and you have a decent speed for what you need. The cost ultimately depends on your environment and what you need for a good connection.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Gaming

Recommendation: Use Ethernet when possible for gaming.

Ethernet takes the gaming trophy due to consistent speeds and low latency. This win applies to online gaming, whether it’s just a short Fortnite match, wandering new territory in The Elder Scrolls Online, or playing co-op in Far Cry New Dawn. 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 gaming include Google Fiber, Xfinity, and Verizon.

Game streaming services are best played over Ethernet too. Sony even recommends playing PlayStation Now over a wired connection, and Google’s Chromecast Ultra kit for Stadia ships with a power connector that includes an Ethernet port.

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

720p1080p2160p
Google Stadia10 MbpsNot specified35 Mbps
Microsoft Xbox Remote Play10 Mbps (minimum)Not specifiedNot specified
Nvidia GeForce Now15 Mbps25 MbpsNot specified
Sony PlayStation Now5 Mbps (minimum)Not specifiedNot specified
Google Stadia
720p10 Mbps
1080pNot specified
2160p35 Mbps
Microsoft Xbox Remote Play
720p10 Mbps (minimum)
1080pNot specified
2160pNot specified
Nvidia GeForce Now
720p15 Mbps
1080p25 Mbps
2160pNot specified
Sony PlayStation Now
720p5 Mbps (minimum)
1080pNot specified
2160pNot specified

Just on input alone—sending controller data to the server telling it that you just turned right—connection inconsistencies can be frustrating. Streaming a game over Wi-Fi could cause latency issues, degraded visuals, and disconnections. Ethernet provides a steady stream to support these requirements.

If you must use Wi-Fi for gaming, the 5 GHz band is your best option. It’s less congested than a 2.4 GHz connection, but it has a shorter reach and has trouble moving through objects like walls and thick furniture. You need a router built specifically for gaming that packs 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 Wi-Fi routers for online gaming to get an idea of what you need.

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Streaming

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

Again, Ethernet is your best bet for streaming due to consistency and range. The cables are ugly, sure, but your streaming experience won’t suffer due to local heavy 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 clutter.

HBO 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 the router, which can handle only so much traffic. Think of it 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.

Are you getting the fastest downloads possible?

If not, perhaps you need a better plan. Enter your zip code below to see what’s available in your area.

Which Ethernet cables should you use?

If your internet connection is 100 Mbps or less, you can use a Cat 5 cable. But if your internet connection is greater than 100 Mbps, use a Cat 5e cable or newer 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 10 Gbps 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 100 Gbps connection, a Cat 7 cable will work but it’s limited to 49 feet. The same cable can handle 40 Gbps across 164 feet.

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

CategoryMax data rateMax bandwidthRangeShieldingOur recommendation
Cat 310 Mbps16 MHz328 ft.UnshieldedN/A
Cat 5100 Mbps100 MHz328 ft.UnshieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 5e1,000 Mbps100 MHz328 ft.UnshieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 61,000 Mbps250 MHz328 ft.Shielded and UnshieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 6a10,000 Mbps500 MHz328 ft.ShieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 710,000 Mbps
40,000 Mbps
100,000 Mbps
600 MHz328 ft.
164 ft.
49 ft.
ShieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 7a10,000 Mbps1,000 MHz328 ft.ShieldedSee on Amazon
Cat 8.1/8.225,000 Mbps
40,000 Mbps
2,000 MHz131 ft.ShieldedSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 3
Max data rate10 Mbps
Max bandwidth16 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingUnshielded
Our recommendationN/A
CategoryCat 5
Max data rate100 Mbps
Max bandwidth100 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingUnshielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 5e
Max data rate1,000 Mbps
Max bandwidth100 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingUnshielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 6
Max data rate1,000 Mbps
Max bandwidth250 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingShielded and Unshielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 6a
Max data rate10,000 Mbps
Max bandwidth500 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 7
Max data rate10,000 Mbps
40,000 Mbps
100,000 Mbps
Max bandwidth600 MHz
Range328 ft.
164 ft.
49 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 7a
Max data rate10,000 Mbps
Max bandwidth1,000 MHz
Range328 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon
CategoryCat 8.1/8.2
Max data rate25,000 Mbps
40,000 Mbps
Max bandwidth2,000 MHz
Range131 ft.
ShieldingShielded
Our recommendationSee on Amazon

Ethernet vs. Wi-Fi: Our verdict

The Ethernet versus Wi-Fi debate depends on what you need. Ethernet is your best bet for online gaming 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.

Wi-Fi supports more devices, doesn’t clutter up your house, and is just downright convenient. It’s the only way to go with some devices like the Nest Thermostat, Google Nest Mini, Amazon Echo Dot, and others. 

In the end, however, your internet plan bottlenecks all connections. The only way to increase your max speed is to get a faster internet plan. To see what’s available in your area, enter your zip code below.

Author -

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 internet security.

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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