The term Ethernet refers to a wired connection that transmits data over cables, whereas Wi-Fi refers to a wireless connection that transmits data using radio waves. Which is better? Ethernet and Wi-Fi have different strengths and weaknesses so neither of them is better overall, but each is better for different use cases.
(Spoiler alert: Ethernet is faster, more reliable, and more secure, but the convenience and mobility of Wi-Fi are enough to make Wi-Fi more popular for most consumer devices.)
What is Ethernet used for?
Ethernet is a local area network (LAN) standard –the latest being IEEE 802.3ae – for connections between devices within a physical space. Connections are effected through LAN ports on devices using coaxial, twisted pair or fiber optic cables, the three main types of Ethernet cables. (Something of a misnomer, wireless Ethernet (WLAN) uses radio waves rather than cables to transmit data between devices and therefore is a Wi-Fi setup.)
Ethernet cables are used to connect devices, like computers or printers, often within a LAN, to a network or wide area networks (WANs), like the internet, or within a WAN. Ethernet is not itself a LAN, which is a shared network limited to a specific geographic area that utilizes Ethernet to connect to the internet or devices within its own network.
For enterprises, Ethernet is used to ensure secure communications, enable fast and stable connections, control what devices are connected to company networks, allow employees to share resources, and download large files.
In the industrial sector, Ethernet cables are used to securely connect machines and devices in production processes on the factory floor. Industrial protocols like EtherNet/IP connect Edge devices to controllers, like programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and human-machine interfaces (HMIs).
Single Pair Ethernet (SPE) enables the transmission of data between field devices and the cloud. It uses a single pair of wires that can transmit data at speeds up to 1 Gbps over short distances. (Conventional Ethernet uses four twisted pairs.) SPE also enables Power over Data Line (PoDL), the simultaneous supply of power to end devices. Advanced Physical Layer (APL) for Ethernet allows single-pair wiring for cables as long as 1,000 m.
On the home front, Ethernet connections are best for heavy-duty processing, like gaming, data streaming or downloading large files.
What is Wi-Fi used for?
Wi-Fi is a communications protocol based on the IEEE 802.11x standards for implementing Wi-Fi networks. While Ethernet may be faster and more secure, for the average user, Wi-Fi is the more attractive option. For instance, Wi-Fi carries the majority of IP traffic, 70.6 percent, due to its flexible connection options and portability. Wi-Fi is not limited to internet usage; it replaces cables and wires with radio signals and is used for numerous types of data exchange, for example streaming video between devices.
How do Ethernet and Wi-Fi stack up against each other?
Ethernet is way faster. The figures vary – depending in the case of Ethernet on the cable used, and in the case of Wi-Fi on the standard – but Ethernet speeds of up to 40 Gbps using a Cat8 cable and Wi-Fi speeds of up to 10 Gbps for 5G, the latest 802.11 standard, is possible. (In reality, actual speeds for 5G fall far short of the above figures.) 6G is still at an experimental stage, with commercial rollout expected around 2030, but it is estimated 6G speeds will be 100 times faster than 5G.
Ethernet signals do not fluctuate, unlike Wi-Fi signals which are prone to signal interference and disconnections and can weaken when going through physical objects like walls. Ethernet provides consistent communication with reduced latency.
Ease of use
Ethernet may require lots of cabling and can be complex and time-consuming to install and maintain. It requires a LAN port to connect devices. Mobility is limited to the length of the cables. Wi-Fi requires no cables or ports, allowing complete portability with no cable clutter. It requires an internal or external antenna. The good news is that modern Ethernet-based devices have built-in Wi-Fi that can be used at the same time. Whilst desktop computers have LAN ports, most modern mobile devices, like laptops and tablets, don’t.
For basic installations, Ethernet is cost-effective to set up but only one connection can be set for a device at a time; the cost of cabling and switch boxes for multiple connections can add up. Most Wi-Fi devices have a built-in antenna and it is easy to add new connections at no extra cost. However, using Wi-Fi may require boosting or extending devices to reduce signal interference, an additional cost.
Ethernet creates a direct, secure connection to the network, which is why it has traditionally been used extensively in the industrial sector. The biggest risk to the industrial sector since the growth of IT/OT convergence in recent years is security, with data on previously isolated Ethernet networks becoming more vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Unlike with Ethernet networks, it is easy to connect multiple devices across Wi-Fi networks.
Ethernet allows the transmission of power from computers to external devices, like cameras.
Mobility and convenience
Wi-Fi allows users complete mobility. It is also more convenient in smart homes with no cable clutter. Ethernet users are physically restricted by the length of the cables used.
The flexibility and convenience of Wi-Fi suggest Wi-Fi may, in the future, prove the “better” overall option. Or will it? For many pundits, besides the factor of mobility, the pros of Ethernet – speed, reliability, lower latency, and security – far outweigh those of Wi-Fi. Experts say future Wi-Fi generations, even 7G, which tempts with enticing 100 Gbps speeds, are unlikely to completely replace Ethernet.
In specialized industries like oil and gas, utilities, telecommunications and manufacturing, the cost and logistics of realigning millions of devices in geographically disparate locations are prohibitive. And, like Wi-Fi, Ethernet is evolving, albeit more slowly. Terabit Ethernet (TbE) may in the future allow data transfer rates of over 100 Gbps.
As to which is better: for now, the choice is between the convenience of wireless connectivity versus faster speeds, and a more secure and reliable connection, as long as you stick close to the LAN.