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Wi-Fi (Wireless) vs. Ethernet: Which one should you use?

Our home networks rely on either wired (Ethernet) or wireless technology. Sometimes, we use a mixture of both; especially as the number of homes boasting multiple Internet capable devices steadily increases.

This article is not meant to position one option as better than the other. Each technology has benefits and drawbacks and the exact implementation of your home network varies depending on location, device(s), and personal preference.

With a solid understanding of each network infrastructure, you can decide which option (or combination of options) is best for your home network.

For each technology, we will look at three primary factors: mobility, reliability, and security. You may be surprised to learn that both network types rely on similar hardware and creating a network that successfully implements both technologies isn’t all that difficult.

Ethernet

A wired LAN (Local Area Network) uses Ethernet cables to connect computers together directly or more commonly, through a hub, switch, or router. Typically, a broadband router has multiple Ethernet ports allowing for multiple device connections.

Mobility

Wired networks require physical cables that connect each machine to the router. Although this does not lend itself well to mobility, wired connections typically cost much less and reduce battery drain on laptops and other mobile devices because Wi-Fi adapters use more power.

Reliability

Ethernet-based networks tend to be much more reliable than wireless networks. The backbone of any network (wired or wireless) relies on an Ethernet connection. The most common problem with Ethernet-based networks is loose cable connections.

This is a problem that is easily overcome by making sure to run cables in areas that are protected from foot traffic and by keeping cable runs neat. A bundle of tangled wires can result in damage and performance degradation. Using Zip-Ties is an excellent way to keep cables out of the way and tangle-free.

Performance

Although wireless network technology has improved drastically over the past several years, Ethernet-based networks still provide superior performance in a home-based environment. A typical Ethernet network has a theoretical maximum speed of 100 Mbps.

It is worth noting that this speed is rarely (if ever) achieved in practice, but it still offers a significant performance increase over the maximum 54 Mbps transfer speeds of most wireless networks.

Security

The security of a home-based Ethernet network is almost primarily dependent upon a firewall. Most broadband routers include a firewall already and software firewalls can also be installed on individual machines.

Unlike wireless networks that broadcast data through the air, all data packets in a wired network safely travel through Ethernet cables. As long as the router is protected from intrusion using a firewall, your wired home network is safe.

Internet Speeds when connected with Ethernet.
Internet Speeds when connected with Ethernet.
Internet speeds with Wi-fi.  Test taken when laptop was less than 10 feet away from wireless router.
Internet speeds with Wi-fi. Test taken when laptop was less than 10 feet away from wireless router.

Wi-Fi

Wireless LAN technology has evolved immensely in the past several years. The most common, and cost-effective, wireless standard is known as 802.11g. Maximum transfer speeds are approximately 54 Mbps.

A newer and faster standard is known as 802.11n and has theoretical maximum speeds of 150 Mbps. The equipment to set up a wireless “N” network can be more expensive than some of the older standards, but these costs continue to go down as technology and manufacturing processes improve.

When shopping for a wireless router, you are likely to encounter both “N” and “G” routers for sale at most retailers. Either one works well but the “N” router provides faster transfer speeds and future scalability.

Mobility

Wireless networking technology has become so popular because of mobility. Whether you are at home surfing the web or at your favorite coffee shop, Wi-Fi lets you connect to the Web just about anywhere.

The popularity of Wi-Fi has also increased due to increased smartphone and tablet sales. Many of these devices are not capable of wired Ethernet connections and rely on wireless signals for Internet connectivity.

The big thing to remember about Wi-Fi is that an Ethernet connection is still required to connect the wireless router to the Internet Service provider (ISP). Although the range of modern routers has greatly increased, your device still needs to be within a relatively short distance of a hardwired wireless router to work.

Reliability

For the most part, wireless technology is reliable. There are some concerns about interference from home appliances such as microwaves and cordless phones, but most wireless routers provide multiple channels that can mitigate this concern relatively easily.

Using the administrative panel of your router, the channel can be changed quickly whenever a potential source of interference is detected.

The hardware required to set up a wireless network is very similar to the routers used for hardwired connections. Improvements in technology mean that these components are unlikely to fail even with years of use.

Most wireless routers also include Ethernet ports. This feature makes creating a hybrid network very simple and cost-effective as the need for additional hardware is eliminated.

Security

The mobility of wireless networks is overshadowed in some respects by the lower security inherent to wireless. An unsecured wireless network can easily be compromised by a hacker or identity thief looking to intercept private information traveling through your wireless network.

Although these risks are very real, many of them can be avoided with proper network installation. For instance, most wireless routers come from the manufacture with a predefined username and password for accessing the administrative control panel.

These username/password combinations are well known within the hacking community and are easily exploited if left unchanged. In addition to using a secure password for logging into the wireless network, make sure that the password for the administrative panel is changed to something secure.

Although this does not make a wireless router completely safe, it certainly reduces the likelihood of unwanted guests gaining access to your information.

Summing It Up

So does this mean you should ditch one over the other? Absolutely not – both technologies are used extensively at home and in businesses around the world. In fact, many businesses rely primarily on Ethernet connections because of the higher reliability, faster transfer speeds, and more robust security while maintaining a wireless network for guests and mobile devices.

A good home network will often have both wireless and wired components. Ethernet connections are great for high-speed transfers on desktops or other devices that do not move. Your smart phone, tablet, or laptop will benefit from a wireless network that has been properly configured to ensure a secure browsing experience.

Whether you choose an Ethernet network, Wi-Fi, or a combination of the two, take time to configure it properly and add a firewall to protect your privacy and the integrity of your network while enjoying the benefits afforded by both technologies.

Router Recommendations

Below are some of my recommendations for the combo wired/wireless routers. The first router is the top of the line router available on the market. It's the best router I believe that is available for a home set up. It has great signal range and has really high end speeds that should make your Internet speed and your data transfer rate run a lot smoother and hasty.


The second router is old faithful to me. I had this router for about 3 years and it never let me down. Great speeds and great reliability. For the price you get a little less on the performance end but nonetheless a great pickup for any home.


The third router is the first router I ever owned. Again, very reliable. There are more limitations with this router than the other two. This router is not a gigabit router which limits the data transfer rate on your network. The signal range on this router is also not as good as the others. However, this router is a great buy for a small apartment. It provides all the basic functions that one needs from a router.

5 comments

Nancy 2 years ago

Hi, I have desktop with Windows XP serviced by satellite, which I need to replace, preferably with a wireless computer. I also, have a notebook connected by a wifi N router. My satellite company (HughsNet) tells me that a new wireless computer would need Ethernet. Can that come built into the computer, or must it be added externally, & if so, how?

Thank you in advance.


WestelCS profile image

WestelCS 2 years ago

I have a desktop computer with windows XP. Recently, a month ago, I attached a d-link N150 wireless PCI adapter and it works perfectly. A wireless workstation is best in terms of productivity and ease. I don't really like cabling much. Only if it's extremely necessary.


aditya 2 years ago

Why the wire less network connection is highly preferable in different network connectivities.

Explain with proper scientific information with proper diagram of this network .


wrooom68 2 years ago

How many mobiles can be connected to each other via their own wifi ?


jemuelO profile image

jemuelO 2 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Though Ethernet is conventional as compared to the sophisticated Wi-fi, I would still choose Ethernet as the better network connection. I believe that wired connections are faster and more reliable as compared to wireless networks. With wireless, the signal may experience fading due to certain factors such as interference and other noise. This would create problems such as low internet connections. But I am not saying that Wifi is bad all throughout. Choosing which internet connection is better depends on certain conditions such as location and privacy.

Thank you for this wonderful hub. Voted up!

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