When you need to run a network at a location, you have to make a decision. What hardware will you use? There are too many options to summarize them all, and you want to make sure your network will be effective and affordable.
In many cases, you will have to choose between Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections, and it’s not always obvious which choice is correct. This guide will help.
A Quick Definition of Ethernet
Most people have an idea of what Ethernet is, but to have a concise, accurate comparison of Ethernet and Wi-Fi, it’s worth taking a moment to clarify. This comparison is specifically talking about Ethernet and not wired connections in general. We aren’t comparing fiber optics, coaxial, or any other wires — just Ethernet.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that there are different types of Ethernet. These days, you can use anything from Cat5 to Cat8, with each increase in number representing a rather substantial improvement in speeds and capabilities. All of these types are in the comparison.
Laying Out Wi-Fi
At the same time, we also need to clarify Wi-Fi. Again, we’re specifically talking about Wi-Fi connections and not Bluetooth, LTE, or 5G.
Similarly, there are different types of Wi-Fi as well. Generally speaking, Wi-Fi 5 and 6 are the ones in popular use today, with Wi-Fi 6 offering major improvements to networking capabilities, and as above, both types will be considered in these comparisons.
Ethernet Pros and Cons
With all of that covered, we can get into the details and really compare Ethernet and Wi-Fi. The pros and cons discussed below are relative comparisons between Wi-Fi and Ethernet. When we say that Ethernet is faster than Wi-Fi, it doesn’t mean that Ethernet is the fastest connection type available. It just means that between the two, Ethernet is faster.All of that considered, let’s start with the strengths of choosing Ethernet.
Ethernet is faster and stabler than Wi-Fi, and these two facts are hard to separate. First of all, Cat8 can achieve faster data rates than any Wi-Fi currently in mass production, so the theoretical limits are higher for Ethernet.
On top of that, an apples-to-apples comparison will still put Ethernet ahead in the speed category. In fact, if you compare a 100 Mbps Ethernet connection to a 300 Mbps Wi-Fi connection, the Ethernet will still often produce faster effective data rates.
The reason for this is stability. Wi-Fi has to project signals out into the air with no idea where the connected devices are actually located. Because of this, it’s pretty common for a few packets to get lost here and there. When that happens, the Wi-Fi transmission has to resend those lost packets, and this leads to slower effective data transmissions.
Ethernet runs on a wire, so it has a lot less of this problem, and that makes it faster. The wire also makes the Ethernet connection stable in a way that even the most advanced Wi-Fi can’t match, so those are two big points.
The two other big advantages of Ethernet are ease of use and PoE. In terms of ease of use, Ethernet is universally standardized, and it’s plug-and-play. You plug in the Ethernet cable, and you have a network connection. It can’t get easier.
As for PoE, that stands for power over Ethernet, and it allows a device to draw power from the Ethernet cable. This means you can power networking devices even in places where you don’t have outlets, and that can be really nice for network design..
While those pros are compelling, Ethernet has some obvious drawbacks. Since every device has to be connected by a cable, Ethernet is more expensive to deploy (usually). Also, the need for cables means that an Ethernet device can only connect as many users as there are ports on the device. Even for high-end networks, that’s typically going to be a few dozen users per switch.
Wi-Fi routers can usually connect hundreds of users at a time, and Wi-Fi 6 routers can support more than a thousand users each. In terms of scale, Wi-Fi is a big winner.
Wi-Fi Pros and Cons
There are still more pros and cons to cover, and these are going to focus on the Wi-Fi perspective. Ultimately, we’re seeing where each networking option shines and struggles, and at the end, you’ll get a final verdict to help you decide if you should be investing in Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
Diving into Wi-Fi pros, wireless connections are extremely flexible. You can have users jumping in and out of the network all the time on their own accord, and you can move around while connected to the network. It’s difficult to overstate the value of portability in Wi-Fi networking.
As mentioned before, Wi-Fi routers can handle many more users than Ethernet switches, and as a result, Wi-Fi costs much less money per user. Wi-Fi equipment is sometimes more expensive than comparable Ethernet equipment, but when you factor in the sheer number of switches and cables necessary to match even a single Wi-Fi router’s capacity, the cost-efficiency of Wi-Fi is much higher.
On the downside, Wi-Fi is unstable. Over-air signals are much more susceptible to interference. That interference can come from other Wi-Fi traffic competing for air space. It can also come from physical impediments, like the walls in a building.
This instability causes Wi-Fi speeds to vary a lot more. You may have experienced this. It’s common for the effective speed of a Wi-Fi connection to jump up and down from one second to the next.
Overall, modern Wi-Fi does a lot to stabilize and minimize these problems, but compared to Ethernet, the Wi-Fi experience is undeniably less reliable.
Another issue with Wi-Fi is that users can request access to the network as long as they are in range, and that means too many users can request access or tax the network at the same time. This can cause users to drop from the network. It can slow down the whole network, and create an inferior experience. This is why the connection quality of Ethernet is generally higher.
The Final Verdict
Even with such competing pros and cons, choosing between Wi-Fi is actually pretty easy. The correct answer is to use both. Most Wi-Fi routers also support Ethernet switching, so you don’t even need multiple devices to have Wi-Fi and Ethernet in the same network.
Still, you might wonder about the best way to distribute your resources, and a couple of questions can help you with that.
First, is Wi-Fi viable? There are rare scenarios where there might be too much interference for Wi-Fi, or there could be extremely strict government regulations that don’t allow Wi-Fi in a location. In those cases, don’t waste your money.
Likewise, you might have mission-critical devices that need the stability of Ethernet. When that’s the case, make sure those devices have Ethernet.
Otherwise, Wi-Fi is capable of supporting most types of internet-related activities, and it’s more cost-effective at scale. So, use Ethernet to bolster Wi-Fi while your wireless networking does the heavy lifting for most devices.
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