It seems to be common knowledge that Ethernet is better than WiFi for many purposes in a cord cutter’s life, such as streaming ultra high-definition 4K content from your favorite streaming service. But with so much else going on in our lives and over our home networks, how do we choose when it comes to WiFi vs Ethernet for streaming TV? And besides, is one really better?
While both WiFi and Ethernet are valuable for home networks, they each have their pros and cons. WiFi is very flexible and easy to set up for many homes and allows guests to connect easily. Ethernet typically offers better stability, security, and speed. Your choice should be based on your needs.
Yep, this is one of those “it kinda depends” answers. But, thankfully, there are some real, clear guidelines for when one is preferable over the other. Your decision will also be based on things like your comfort level with technology, your housing situation, and what kinds of activities the people in your house engage in.
For example, if you’re renting your house and your landlord doesn’t look kindly on tenants drilling holes in walls to run cables from room to room, you might want to stick with WiFi.
Or, if you stream that 4K content from Netflix on two TVs while one of your kids live streams on Twitch and another plays online games…all at the same time, you may want to hardwire as much as you can over Ethernet.
Wired Ethernet is better for a stable connection
Network stability is one factor where Ethernet wins hands down.
WiFi networks are spotty and temperamental because of physics. This is also why you want to make sure you place your home router carefully to get the best network performance possible throughout your house.
When your router sends out a WiFi signal it does so through electromagnetic waves that go through things like walls and doors, but also bounce off of things like metal and glass. But, do you know the exact makeup of your walls, floors, and ceilings? And can you position your appliances so that they never interfere with your WiFi signal?
How can you tell what happens to those electromagnetic waves once they leave your router?
Physics Central says this about the behavior of those waves:
The amount that gets reflected, transmitted (passes through), and absorbed depends on the type of material.
This is why it’s so hard to know how strong or weak your WiFi signal will be from room to room, and even from corner to corner in the same room. We even have apps now dedicated to helping to determine where dead spots might be in your home WiFi network.
Wired Ethernet makes all of those problems go away. Since the signal travels over dedicated wires, it doesn’t need to move through objects and walls. Because of this, it can move much more efficiently and quickly than a WiFi radio signal can.
Ethernet, however, can still suffer from interference if the cables are placed too close to other strong electromagnetic fields. But, it’s much easier to avoid this with a CAT 5 cable (the cables used for common home and office Ethernet networks), than it is with WiFi.
Wired Ethernet works more consistently than WiFi does room to room
Stability and consistency are directly related, obviously. But let’s see why this is so important for a cord cutter’s home network.
With a stable connection, one that is much less likely to drop out due to interference from environmental factors, you can expect a much more consistent stream of data to your smart TV or your favorite streaming device. And with a more consistent stream of data, you’ll have a much more pleasant experience while you’re streaming Breaking Bad or some other family show on Amazon Prime.
You can also remove the guesswork from how well your WiFi network will actually perform in certain rooms and spaces. As long as you have a solid cable running to your router, you’ll have the same reliable data stream, no matter where your device is sitting. Including that perfect, dark corner of your basement man cave or backyard, she shed.
There are limits to Ethernet as well. You can only run 100 meters of CAT 5 cable before you’ll need to include some kind of signal boosting device, like a switch for instance. Most people won’t need to worry about this limit in their home network though.
Wired Ethernet offers better security
This is another instance where Ethernet is just better. And again, it’s because of physics.
WiFi can be very secure under the right circumstances. If you’re great at home networking security, and you stay on top of router firmware updates, change your passwords often, and know the best ways to set up a home wireless network to keep out the bad guys, there’s rarely a problem with home WiFi.
However, intercepting a signal as it runs through a physical cable is a much different thing to accomplish. With a hardwired network, your neighbors will not be piggybacking on your network, if they can figure out your passwords of course. And remember those hackers wardriving everywhere? Well, apparently they’re still trying to do that, but with a wired Ethernet network, there’s no network for them to find.
Wired Ethernet can be faster than WiFi
Not always, but often.
This one is more dependent on lots of factors within your home, including the devices you’ll be running on the network. It may be the case that your WiFi network can actually provide enough speed to make everyone in the house happy, and then some. It really does depend on what everyone in your home is doing.
If everyone is streaming video at the same time, and everyone expects very high-quality content, then you may start to reach your network’s limits in terms of bandwidth. However, if everyone is simply sending email at the same time, you’ll almost certainly be far under the speed limit of your WiFi’s capability, especially with today’s faster equipment.
You may want to take an inventory of the devices and activities of your family. Think of what people do, and how much of it overlaps with each other. You’ll have a much better idea of whether speed on your network is actually a concern or not.
Flexibility, ease of use – WiFi for the win!
So, where WiFi truly shines is with its superior flexibility and ease of use.
For most homes, WiFi networks are truly plug-and-play these days. If you can figure out how to set a strong password and keep your router’s software updated, you’ll probably be fine with most of the issues above. It’s really about optimizing your experience.
WiFi can offer a home network through your house that makes moving from room to room fairly easy if you get your antennas set properly and you get to know the limits of your home’s boundaries. Working from home, for example, is as easy as dragging a chair wherever you’d like to have your office for the day.
You can even work outside on the lanai or under your mango tree.
With a WiFi network, you don’t have to drill holes in walls to run cable. You don’t have to go up into your attic or underneath your house to get CAT 5 from room to room.
It’s also a lot easier to allow guests to work with you over a WiFi connection. Want proof? Check any MacBook made in the last few years for a built-in Ethernet port.
WiFi vs Ethernet for Streaming – Who wins?
As you can see, they both have their strengths and weaknesses.
I think Ethernet wins overall if you can run the cables required for the network in your home. You’ll enjoy a more stable, consistent connection that should give you a better streaming experience, especially if you stream a lot of high-quality content. You’ll also have a more secure network with wired connections.
All in all, the best option is probably a hybrid though. Hardwire what you can and what’s convenient for your family, and at the same time set up a very secure WiFi network to make it easy to move around and allow guests and friends to connect when they need to as well.
Let us know if you have any questions or suggestions in the comments below.