Wi-Fi vs Ethernet: Who wins the connectivity crown in 2021?


So you have a very important presentation to give in half an hour, and you’re trying to wire up your computer and you want to download your presentation. There are two options available: Wi-Fi vs Ethernet cable. Which do you choose?

What is Ethernet?

Ethernet refers to cable connections that are used for distributing network signals. It consists of several twisted pairs of copper wire that are covered with insulating materials like plastic or rubber. Just like other cables, one end of the wire will typically be plugged into a networking device while the other has connectors called ‘RJ45’ plugs which can plug directly into devices like computers and other devices. The fact that these cables transmit data using the same cables as phones and TVs allow for a certain degree of compatibility with existing infrastructure.


What is Wi-Fi?

Before the invention of Wi-Fi, Ethernet was used for wired networks. Wifi is short for wireless fidelity, and it is a term that refers to devices which are capable of wirelessly transmitting data among different devices like smartphones, smartphones and laptops.

Let’s dive in..

In the earlier days – Ethernet was an internet connection that was faster “in theory” than Wi-Fi simply because it uses more wires to send data. It could theoretically have speeds as high as 1 Gbps, about 100 times faster than the fastest public wifi hotspots today operate at. This speed difference was even more apparent when you look at some real-world applications. For example, downloading a 3GB video file from a server on the other side of the world would take less than 4 minutes over an ethernet connection while doing so via with a Wi-Fi connection would take nearly 45 minutes – however, things have changed.


In this article, I’m going to compare both technologies by looking at their speeds and issues such as interference and latency.

Wi-Fi vs Ethernet

1. Latency: Ethernet wins this round

Latency is the delay between a device’s request for data and its delivery. Data latencies within a network or from network to end user depend on many factors which includes speed, bandwidth, distance etc.. From another view Latency is also known as lag. In our context it may be said that Wi-Fi has more latency than Ethernet. This happens because Wi-Fi is radio-based technology, which means that there are physical limitations to its maximum speed. This is most evident in gaming, what gamers call ‘lag’ in online games. Everyone who has played an online game before will know that playing with a high ping isn’t very fun as you have to wait longer to see what’s going on around your character.

Ethernet also has a maximum speed it can achieve, but since Ethernet cables are made of copper and not of air like Wi-Fi antennas, the latency is always going to be lower with Ethernet.

Let’s look at some numbers:

With Ethernet, you get around 0.64 milliseconds every time you send a frame. In comparison, on Wi-Fi that delay could go up to 5 times as much (3.84 ms). This might not seem like a lot but there are real life situations where it will make a huge difference in your experience such as online gaming or watching HD movies online.

Consider for example this article where the author uses a stopwatch to measure the delay of various streaming services and finds out that Netflix on Wi-Fi has about 100 milliseconds more delay than watching it on Ethernet.

The bigger factor holding back your ethernet connection is that it still has room for improvement when it comes to latency. Though this is largely irrelevant for general internet usage, gamers will find the importance of low latency connections very important.

Currently, standard ethernet technology brings with it around 15-20ms of latency (the time it takes for a signal to travel from your device to the router and back again) – at least double what you’d get on Wi-Fi. This may not seem like much, but whenever high response times are involved every millisecond counts and especially so in online games where split second timing can mean the difference between life or death.

2. Interference: Ethernet wins the round

Ethernet connections do not suffer from many problems caused by interference as they use cables instead of sending transmissions through open space. This means that there is often less chance of interference from various devices using the same space at once, leading to higher speeds and more consistent connections.

Because these electromagnetic waves cannot be focused as well as radio waves, there’s always going to be some degradation of the signal, so interference levels are always going to be higher for Wi-Fi than they are with standard ethernet. This means that even if your router is in the same room as your gaming console or computer, it could still lose connection while you’re playing.

As you can see, there’s a very good reason why gamers should invest in ethernet technology rather than relying on Wi-Fi – not only does it offer lower latency and higher reliability, but also better speeds over longer distances.

This is why we always recommend switching your home network from WiFi to Ethernet.

3. Speed & Bandwidth: Wi-Fi wins this round (Wi-Fi 6 to be precise)

A big advantage of using Wi-Fi is the fact that the speeds you’re able to get on it are always increasing, but this isn’t something that can be said for Ethernet. Due to its wired connections, the maximum speed you’ll be able to achieve with it won’t really change.

Although an Ethernet connection does not suffer from many of the problems associated with Wi-Fi such as interference and latency, it’s important to remember that while these issues may grace wireless connections from time to time, they rarely affect hardwired links. As a result, today there is often less of a desire for ethernet than in previous years and manufacturers have focused more on developing high quality Wi-Fi technology instead.

Another important thing to consider is the amount of available bandwidth. With Ethernet you can get up to 1000 Mbps of data (all depending on your network equipment). On Wi-Fi 6, if your device supports it, expect around 9 Gbps at best (and this is pretty generous). However, on 802.11n or ac for example, you will get way less than that number.

But since most devices are still on older generation of Wi-Fi – This makes Ethernet better than Wi-Fi for transferring large files such as uncompressed video footage and sending big image files over the web.

Since Ethernet is a fast and stable technology that works over the same cabling as electrical power, it is hard to beat. In addition, there hasn’t been any new competing standard on the market so far that can come close to matching its speed, except – you guessed it – Wi-Fi 6!

In conclusion, Ethernet will be faster at all times compared to old generation Wi-Fi because it is not affected by factors such as interference or distance from your router.

Real world example of bandwidth

In case of an emergency where you must pull files off a system quickly then Ethernet wins hands down. This has often been illustrated in movies and TV shows when a protagonist desperately needs access to a machine located across the building only for the IT guy to run with his laptop through blazing fire just to connect an Ethernet cable and have immediate access to the system.

The same applies in real life, if you need to transfer files off of any machine that is more than 5 meters away then go for an Ethernet connection. It will ensure that no matter how many obstructions are between your laptop and the other network device, it will be able to deliver data at top speed.

4. Accessibility: Wi-Fi wins this battle

Despite this fact, Wi-Fi continues its prevalence on account of being less complicated to connect and providing more accessibility due to not requiring an Ethernet port or cable. However, it does come with a lot of drawbacks such as slow speeds caused by distance (if you can’t fix it) or interference (which you might be able to fix).

So while Wi-Fi is convenient for most people because they can very easily configure it, Ethernet is still a vital part of any network infrastructure.

5. Reliability: Ethernet wins this round

We all know how unreliable WiFi is. Even though Wi-Fi 6 is new and powerful, it is still unreliable when compared to an Ethernet connection. This is the reason why we still recommend ethernet to our Melbourne users.

Printer, scanners and all devices connected or used on Wi-Fi are always prone to connectivity issues.

For example: In our previous posts, we’ve explained how to fix Wi-Fi issues in Windows 10. Many of these issues are caused because users download Windows updates over a WiFi connection. In the process, botched updates are downloaded and this can cause your computer to malfunction.

6. Simplicity: Wi-Fi wins this round

We all know how simple it is to connect a device to a Wi-Fi connection. Simply select your Wi-Fi, key in your password and your done!


7. Expandability: W-Fi wins this round

A Wi-Fi network is quite simple to expand. A mesh system or a Wi-Fi extender can expand the Wi-Fi signal so it reaches every nook and corner of your house or business.

You will need to get an electrician in the expand your ethernet network connection.

Verdict: Wi-Fi wins the battle in 2021

When choosing between a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection, most people would opt for a Wi-Fi connection because they do not require cables and are generally more convenient than having to plug in an Ethernet cable to get online. However, while this is true in most situations, there are many advantages to using an Ethernet connection instead of Wi-Fi that can’t be neglected when looking at speed alone. Even though some people will wait minutes for a web page to load, it is important to note that speed is not the only factor in deciding which connection type should be used.

However, despite the convenience of Wi-Fi and its rapid speed increase in the last few years, Ethernet still has a lot to offer. Right now, you can easily get yourself a 1000Mbps ethernet connection from many manufacturers for less than $100 – compared to top end Wi-Fi at 600Mbps for around $150. Therefore, it’s often much preferred over wireless when attempting to stream 4K video or transfer huge files wirelessly between devices.

So, although we may have loved our ethernet sockets in previous years it’s time we realized that they’re not quite as important anymore and instead applaud modern day Wi-Fi technology.

I am a computer engineer holding a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, complemented by a Master's in Business Administration from University of Strathclyde, Scotland. I currently work as a Senior IT Consultant in Melbourne, Australia. With over 15 years of...