Is using an ethernet cable faster than WiFi when connecting to the internet?-Internet User
I can’t count the number of times I have seen this question on the internet.
Well, I finally decided to test this on my own.
I am glad I did, as I learned a few things in the process.
Hopefully you will learn something as well.
What is the difference between ethernet and WiFi?
Before I share the results of my experiment, let’s start by breaking down the difference between ethernet and WiFi.
What is an ethernet cable connection?
An ethernet connection to the internet is also known as a wired connection.
In a wired connection, an ethernet cable is connected from a router to the device that will be accessing the internet. This device could be:
- A desktop computer
- An Apple TV
- A modern gaming system
- Any other device that connects to the internet with an ethernet port
Whenever a request is sent from the device to the internet, electrical signals are sent through the ethernet cable to the router. From the router, the signal is sent to the modem where it is translated into an analog signal and forwarded out to the Internet Service Provider (ISP). Depending upon the setup of your network, your request will follow a path similar to this:
The ISP is responsible for finding what you requested (e.g. website, YouTube video, etc.) and returning it back to you so you can view it on your device. The response from the ISP will take the following path:
There are multiple types of ethernet cables that can be used to connect your device and router. As you can see in the pictures above, ethernet cables are also used to connect your modem and router if they are separate devices.
Can an ethernet cable affect internet speed?
You should be aware that the type of ethernet cable you use can have an impact on your internet speed. I have previously written an in-depth post explaining the different types of ethernet cables if you would like to learn more.
What is WiFi?
WiFi stands for wireless fidelity and it is said to have been used as early as 1999. This is the name stuck in the tech industry. It does not have much literal meaning when it comes to wireless internet connections.
A WiFi connection to the internet is also known as a wireless connection.
In a wireless connection, there is no ethernet cable between the router and the device that will be accessing the internet. The device and router connect to each other using radio waves that are sent through the air.
The internet request from your device will look something like this:
Once the ISP handles your request, they will send a response to your device along this path:
When sending a request over WiFi, your device sends its request to the router via radio signal. The radio signal is sent with a frequency of either 2.4 or 5 gigahertz (GHz). This is why modern routers have 2 different networks you can connect to:
For example, on my network there is an available 5 GHz connection (Wettown Estates II 5G) and 2.4 GHz connection (Wettown Estates II).
I will explain the difference between a 2.4 GHz and a 5 GHz wireless connection in another post.
Ethernet cable vs. WiFi speed test
I will admit I went into this experiment with an idea of what the results would be.
All the articles I had read about the speeds of ethernet and WiFi indicated that ethernet connections are much faster. What I didn’t realize was that the equipment you use in your internet connection can affect your results.
Don’t know what I mean? You will understand what I am talking about as I walk you through my results.
Let’s get started.
Dell Inspiron 3580 speed test
The first thing I wanted to do in this experiment was compare the bandwidth of ethernet and WiFi connections.
A bandwidth test is a test of a connection’s pure speed. Think of this as a measure of how fast someone can sprint during a 40 yard dash.
How fast can data move from the internet to your device?
WiFi speed test
The first test I performed was a bandwidth test on my 5 GHz wireless network. As a note, 5 GHz wireless networks are generally faster than 2.4 GHz connections. I wanted to see what my fastest possible WiFi connection was so a 5 GHz connection was the logical choice for this test.
I used the online speed test from Ookla for my experiment. If you want to run this experiment yourself, check out their site.
Before showing my results, it is important to note that my internet plan with my ISP provides a maximum download speed of 600 megabits per second (Mbps). In other words, my maximum data rate for any of my devices would be 600 Mbps.
My results for the wireless speed test for my personal laptop (Dell Inspiron 3580) were as follows:
As you can see, my personal laptop was getting about 219 megabits per second (Mbps) over WiFi. This is plenty of bandwidth for any of my internet needs on my laptop.
Ok now we have a data point to compare with the bandwidth of a wired internet connection.
Ethernet speed test
Next I connected a Cat5e ethernet cable to my personal laptop to test my wired internet connection. For your reference, a Cat5e ethernet cable can support speeds up to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps). I used a Cat5e cable because it supports speeds greater than my maximum internet speed (600 Mbps) and therefore wouldn’t restrict my internet connection.
I used the same speed test that I used for my wireless speed test for consistency. My results were as follows:
Speed test results comparison
The results were in: I got 219 Mbps with a wireless connection and about 46 Mbps for my Cat5e wired connection.
Wait, what? I thought ethernet cable internet connections were supposed to be faster than wireless connections?
There had to be something wrong. Everything I had read stated that ethernet was much faster than WiFi.
I decided to dig into this to find out what the problem was. It turns out my own computer was the bottleneck.
Why was my wired ethernet connection so slow?
When conducting the ethernet connection test, I assumed that all computers are built to handle all ethernet speeds.
What I didn’t realize that the hardware of a computer can greatly impact your ethernet connection experience.
I looked up the specs of my personal computer to see why my ethernet connection was so slow compared to WiFi. In short time I found the ethernet port capabilities on my Dell Inspiron 3580:
The maximum ethernet connection speed of my personal laptop is 100 Mbps. That explains why my ethernet connection was not faster than my 219 Mbps wireless connection.
I was not expecting that.
Ethernet ports on your devices
Although a WiFi connection was faster than an ethernet connection in this case, it does not mean that the ethernet connection would not meet my internet needs.
The most bandwidth-intensive thing I do on my Dell Inspiron 3580 is stream YouTube videos and Netflix. With 46 Mbps from my ethernet connection, I can do both of those things in ultra-high definition without any issues. In other words, I can use an ethernet cable or WiFi to connect to the internet and have an unrestricted internet experience.
It is more convenient for me to connect wirelessly, so I will use WiFi without thinking twice.
Another example of this is your Apple TV.
Apple TVs have an ethernet port that only supports 100 Mbps connections.
Why is this? Why doesn’t it support 1 Gbps?
The reason is because it doesn’t have to. Similar to my laptop, the most bandwidth-intensive thing an Apple TV has to do is stream video. You can stream anything you want without restriction with much less than 100 Mbps. There is no need to have an ethernet port that supports anything faster.
Conclusions from the Dell Inspiron 3580 bandwidth test
The results from this bandwidth test made me realize that an ethernet connection is not always faster than a WiFi connection. It largely depends on the hardware you are using to connect to the internet. In my case, my laptop is a few years old and it did not break the bank when I bought it.
Lastly, if a wireless connection is faster than ethernet it does not mean that the device won’t meet your needs of it.
But what if I used a more modern computer for my test? Would I see the same results?
I decided to find out.
HP Elitebook 840 speed test
To try the bandwidth test again, I got my hands on an HP Elitebook 840 G6 laptop. This laptop is newer and more expensive than my personal laptop, so I figured it would be good for the retest.
I looked up the specs of the ethernet port on the Elitebook 840 to make sure it had an ethernet port that supported faster speeds than my personal computer.
Unlike my Dell Inspiron 3580, the HP Elitebook 840 G6 has an ethernet port that supports 1 Gbps. This removes the bottleneck from the previous experiment.
Now let’s run the full test again.
WiFi speed test
I ran a wireless speed test on on the same 5 GHz wireless connection that I used in the previous test.
As you can see, I got much faster wireless connection speed with this laptop at 405 Mbps. Not only is the ethernet port better on this laptop, but the wireless adapter is better as well.
Wireless adapter comparison
On my Dell Inspiron 3580 I have a Qualcomm QCA9377 wireless adapter which is capable of up to 433 Mbps.
On the more expensive HP Elitebook 840 there is an Intel AX200 wireless adapter capable of up to 2.4 Gbps.
As expected, my maximum wireless internet connection speed is higher on the better internet adapter card on the HP Elitebook 840.
What about the ethernet connection speed? Would that top the speed of the wireless connection?
Ethernet speed test
I ran the ethernet bandwidth test with the same Cat5e cable I used on the other test.
The results were much better than what I saw with the Dell Inspiron 3580.
The HP Elitebook 840 saw about 440 Mbps with an ethernet connection.
Speed test results comparison
That is more like it.
On the Elitebook 840 an ethernet connection got 440 Mbps while the WiFi connection saw 405 Mbps.
From a pure speed perspective, it is true that an ethernet connection can be faster than a wireless connection, but only if the ethernet port of the device you are using can support it.
So is that it? Has our investigation concluded? Can we definitively say that ethernet is faster than WiFi?
Actually, there is another aspect of these connections we can investigate.
I’m talking about latency.
What is internet latency?
Latency is another term that is used when analyzing the speed of an internet connection. It describes the time it takes for one device to respond to another device. In other words, latency is the amount of time from when a device sends a request until the time it receives a response. It is often referred to as “ping” and it is measured in milliseconds (ms).
If a bandwidth test is the speed that someone can run a 40 yard dash, latency is how quickly the person starts moving after the starting gun goes off.
For a visual example of latency:
Why is latency important?
Latency can affect the performance of any real-time activity on the internet.
Example of real-time activities are:
- Online gaming
- Skype or Zoom video conferences
- Voice calls over the internet
Latency may be more important than bandwidth during these activities.
For example if you are voice calling someone over the internet, a high latency would mean that the person on the other line says something and you don’t hear it right away. This often results in people talking at the same time because they hear silence from the other end of the call.
In online gaming, latency can cause you to shoot at someone on your screen but in reality they are no longer there. This is often referred to as lag.
Latency is important because users want instant feedback from the other end when they perform an action. High latency leads to a poor experience and frustration for everyone involved.
With that said, what has higher latency? Ethernet or WiFi connections?
That was the next factor I investigated.
Ethernet cable vs. WiFi latency test
Similar to what I read about bandwidth, I read that there is less latency in ethernet connections. Less latency means there is less delay from when a request is made until a response is received.
After the results of the bandwidth test I performed, I wasn’t so sure.
For the latency test I continued using the HP Elitebook 840 as opposed to the Dell Inspiron 3580. I felt the HP Elitebook would provide more accurate results because the ethernet port would not limit the ethernet connection.
HP Elitebook 840 latency test
To test the latency of a connection a ping test can be performed. Anyone can perform a ping test on their computer by opening the command line interface. This can be done by entering “cmd” in the search bar of a Windows computer.
A ping test can be performed by completing the following steps:
- Open a command prompt
- Type “ping” followed by the device or location you want to ping and pressed enter
- E.g. “ping google.com” will give you statistics on your latency for connecting to google.com
- You can also ping your router if you know its IP address
The device or location will be pinged 4 times and the statistics of the test will be shown.
If you are a visual learner I created a YouTube video detailing how to complete a ping test.
WiFi latency test
In order to compare the latency of an ethernet and WiFi connection, I decided to perform the ping test to my router. The router is the first device that receives an internet request that comes from a laptop, so I felt it would allow me to directly compare the difference between a WiFi and ethernet.
The results for the ping test to my router were as follows:
The average latency between the HP Elitebook 840 and my router was 2ms. Not bad!
Ethernet latency test
For the ethernet latency test, I used the same Cat5e ethernet cable that was used for the bandwidth test.
I performed the ping test to the router for consistency:
0ms! Is that even possible?
Technically no, as all communications between devices take at least a fraction of a millisecond. We can safely say that the ping from the HP Elitebook to the router using the ethernet cable took less than 1ms.
Latency test results comparison
For the wireless connection, an average of 2ms was experienced between the laptop and router. For the wired connection there was an average latency of less than 1ms.
It looks like ethernet has won this battle as well.
To take this experiment one step further, I pinged Google on a wired and wireless connection to see if anything changed. I also pinged Google 10 times instead of 4 so the average latency would not get distorted by a bad ping.
With a wireless connection:
The average latency was 30ms.
And for the Cat5e wired connection?
There was an average latency of 17ms.
The results agree with our initial test. Therefore we can confirm what I had read: ethernet connections experience less latency than WiFi connections.
Ethernet and WiFi upload speeds
The experiments I performed all pertain to the download speed on a device.
What about the reverse direction? What about the upload speeds of these connections?
To summarize my findings, it did not appear that the type of internet connection greatly affected the upload speed.
For your reference, the upload speed is included as part of the Ookla bandwidth tests that I ran.
Here is a summary of the test results:
As you can see no matter what connection or device was used, there was an upload speed of about 18 Mbps.
If you frequently upload to the internet (e.g. large files or live streaming), I would recommend using an ethernet connection. WiFi connections transfer their signals through the air and these signals can be interfered with by other electronic devices (e.g. monitors, microwaves, etc.). Ethernet connections are more resistant to this interference from other electronic devices and therefore offer a more reliable connection.
To put it simply, ethernet cables are much less likely to have a dropped connection than a WiFi connection.
What do these test results mean?
The experiments I performed indicate that ethernet connections provide higher bandwidth and lower latency connections to the internet.
In light of these results it is important to note that just because ethernet connections can be faster than WiFi (with the right equipment), it does not mean that wireless connections are too slow to meet their intended function.
In most cases, a WiFi connection will fit your internet needs if you have the right internet plan. However, if you’re an online gamer or frequently need the internet for real-time communication, you’ll want to use an ethernet connection to minimize latency.
Have you tested your connections and had findings similar to mine? I would be interested to hear about your results.
Feel free to share them in the comment section below or send me an email to discuss.
If this information was helpful to you, check out some similar posts I’ve written: