Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet for Gaming – 7 Things You Should Know

By | May 13, 2021

When gaming over the LAN network or online on Steam, a key hardware component is the network connection type which can be ethernet (wired) or wifi (wireless).

Ethernet is the older one and used widely even today, whereas wifi is completely wireless and is emerging as the major replacement to the wired ethernet.

However there are certain differences between ethernet and wifi and each has certain advantages and disadvantages.

The old IEEE 802.3u Ethernet network and connection used Cat 3 cables which had a maximum speed of 10Mbps.

Compared to ethernet, Wifi 5/6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit at 7 Gbps and above, but in practice the maximum attainable speed is much lesser at around 100 Mb/s which is many orders of magnitude lower.

More speed about wifi standards and speed can be found here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wi-Fi

I recently tried transferring a large file from my Ipad Air 4 (connected on wifi) to my desktop pc (connected via ethernet) and the maximum file transfer speed was 10.8 MB/s which is close to 100 Mb/s.

On the other hand transfer speed over ethernet is significantly higher even if you are using an older technology router and cat cable. So ethernet is still much faster in terms of file transfer speed and many other applications as well.

Office use vs Gaming

For office use wifi is the best option since it provides a wireless interface setup and run the network and provides sufficient speed for office requirements like file transfer and download.

However gaming requires a much faster network interface than what current and older generation wifi devices can provide.

The entire assessment of Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet boils down to the actual specifications of a particular network, including all its crucial building components.

1. Wi-Fi Standards and Features

First lets take a look at what the standards and specifications of wifi technology and what are its capabilities compared to ethernet.

The following are the wifi standards as they evolved over time. Each generation is better than the previous one.

  • 802.11b (Wi-Fi 1) - 1 to 11 Mbit/s - 2.4 GHz
  • 802.11a (Wi-Fi 2) - 6 to 54 Mbit/s - 5 GHz
  • 802.11g (Wi-Fi 3) - 6 to 54 Mbit/s - 2.4 GHz
  • 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) - 72 to 600 Mbit/s - 2.4/5 GHz
  • 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) - 433 to 6933 Mbit/s - 5 GHz
  • 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) - 600 to 9608 Mbit/s - 2.4/5 GHz

There are a few interim standards among these available and evolving generations. Wi-Fi 6 has been released but is not as widely available as Wi-Fi 5 yet. More information about Wifi 6 can be found on its wikipedia page

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.11ax-2021

Wifi 6 requires wifi-6 capable routers as well wifi-6 capable network adapters on devices like laptops or wifi cards. Also note that wifi 6 hardware is usually more expensive than wifi 5 devices.

The most important features of a Wi-Fi network for gamers are frequency, coverage, speed, reliability.

1.1 Frequency

Wi-Fi routers operate in two frequencies: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Dual-band routers can operate on both frequencies.

Tri-band routers are capable of generating three wireless signals, one at 2.4GHz and two at 5GHz.

Smart WiFi Router - Dual Band

Smart WiFi Router - Dual Band

Users can also switch or choose the preferred frequency with multi-band routers.

Most gamers use tri-band routers. Triband routers create multiple communication channels across different devices, thereby reducing any latency due to simultaneous data traffic.

1.2 Coverage

2.4GHz frequency provides greater coverage area, usually up to four hundred feet when amplified, using a repeater or range extender. The 5GHz frequency has a smaller coverage area, but it can also be amplified.

It should be noted that extending range or coverage can reduce speed.

WiFi Range Extender

WiFi Range Extender

1.3 Speed

The maximum theoretical speed at 2.4 GHz(802.11n / Wifi 4) is 300Mbps, though real world speeds would be lower around 150 Mb/s.

The real data transfer rate of 5 GHz (802.11ac / Wifi 5) is around 1.7 Gb/s, but actual transfer speed would be much lesser around 100 Mb/s. The 802.11a and 802.11n (Wifi 4) standards have lower speeds at 5 Ghz.

Speed will also depend on channel width, which can be 20 Mhz, 40 Mhz or 80 Mhz. Higher channel width gives higher speed.

More information about channel width, frequency band and speed can be found here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.11

For the best wifi speed inside your local network make sure that they are all capable of the latest wifi 6 standard and that you use the 5Ghz frequency band which provides faster speed compared to 2.4 Ghz.

1.4 Reliability

2.4 Ghz signals have longer range and goes farther, but provide lower data speed. It is also more susceptible to interference from other signals overlapping in the same region.

The longer range of 2.4GHz wifi may be because it has better penetration through solid surfaces or objects.

On the other hand, 5ghz signals provide more transfer speed but the have shorter range. They are less vulnerable to interference compared to 2.4Ghz signals.

If your devices are close to the wifi router inside your house then it is always best to use the 5 Ghz frequency band.

1.5 Security

The most reliable standard of Wi-Fi security is WPA2-AES. Preceding wireless security protocols include WPA-AES, WPA-TKIP/AES, WPA-TKIP, and WEP.

WPA3 protocol has been released but not many devices and clients are compatible yet.

Security is not a major consideration for gaming purpose so much as data speed is.

2. Ethernet Standards and Features

Ethernet standards are regulated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE-SA). It is the authorized body operating within the ambit of IEEE or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

All the standards come under the IEEE 802.3 group. More information can be found here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.3

The Ethernet technology has seen many standards over its evolution but the most common ones in use today are the following
The most commonly used Ethernet standards over the decades are:

  • 100BASE-T - 100 Mbit/s
  • 1000BASE-T - 1000Mbit/s
  • 2.5GBASE-T - 2.5 Gbit/s
  • 5GBASE-T - 5Gbit/s
  • 10GBASE-T - 10Gbit/s

The numbers in the standards indicate the speed of data transfer. Each of the above standard also have multiple variations as well. More details can be found on the wikipedia pages:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethernet_over_twisted_pair

The Ethernet cable also plays an important role in the speed and bandwidth. The most common Ethernet cables are Cat 5, Cat 5e, Cat 6, Cat 6a.

Cat-6 or any of its variation provides the fastest speed, compared to Cat 5 cables.

Ethernet Cable

Ethernet Cable

The most pertinent Ethernet features for a gamer are frequency, bandwidth, and speed.

2.1 Frequency

Ethernet operates in the frequency range of 16MHz up to 2000MHz. Cat 5 and 5e cables cap the frequency at 100MHz.

Cat 6 supports 250MHz. Cat 6a supports 500MHz. Cat 7 facilitates 600MHz. Cat 8 cable supports up to 2000MHz, or 2GHz. Higher frequencies allow greater quantum of data transfer and faster speeds.

The frequency in case of ethernet indicates how much data is being transferred in each clock cycle.

2.2 Transfer Speed or Bandwidth

The transfer speed or bandwidth is measured in Mbits/s or Gbits/s and indicates how much data is being transferred per second. Dividing the number by 8 would give you the transfer speed in megabytes per second or gigabyte per second respectively.

The maximum bandwidths available for Ethernet based on standards are:

  • 100BASE-T - 100 Mbit/s - Cat 5
  • 1000BASE-T - 1000Mbit/s - Cat 5/6/6A
  • 2.5GBASE-T - 2.5 Gbit/s - Cat 5E
  • 5GBASE-T - 5Gbit/s - Cat 6
  • 10GBASE-T - 10Gbit/s - Cat 6A

It should be noted that the speed of transfer would depend on both ends of the ethernet connection. So your computer's network adapter and the router should both support high speed. If one of them has a lower maximum speed the speed would be capped at that level.

The most important thing is that in case of ethernet the actual transfer speed are very close to the theoretical speeds which can be a huge advantage when compared to wifi.

6 Things you should know about Wi-Fi vs. Ethernet for Gaming

Now that we know the basics of both ethernet and wifi technology its time to compare them and see how each works out for gaming.

1. Hardware Support needed for Gaming

Ethernet has better and widespread hardware support on desktop pcs and is capable of providing the necessary speed and quality for gaming.

However if you plan to game on laptop then make sure that either the laptop should have ethernet port or it should have wifi 6 along with a wifi 6 tri band router beside it.

In case of wifi you need high end wifi routers designed for gaming. Gaming wifi routers are usually Wifi 6 enabled with dual or triple bands and multiple antennas like 3-8 or even more in high end models. More antennas allow gaming wifi routers to establish multiple independent wireless communication channels to increase overall bandwidth.

If you want wifi on desktop then you either need motherboard with inbuilt wifi 6 or you need install a pcie wifi 6 card. The usb wifi cards will not work since their speeds are slower.

2. Ease of extension

If you plan to extend a network to longer distances like in a big house or office, the performance of ethernet hardware vs the wifi hardware is significantly different.

Ethernet can be be extended with extra switches and cables without any significant degradation in speed. The ping times will stay well below 1ms upto several meters. However you would more wires which might need more maintenance or care as well.

However when extending wifi range the only option is to use a wifi extender/booster/repeater. With wifi extenders the speed is reduced since it has to capture the signal and re-transmit it. Compatibility issues between multiple devices can further degrade the speed.

So when it comes to extending network coverage over distance, ethernet wins by a huge margin in terms of speed.

3. Cost of hardware

If you plan to setup a wired ethernet lan network, then you do not need any additional setup or expensive devices. All desktop pcs have a good enough ethernet adapter inbuilt into their motherboards which is sufficient for any gaming setup.

So ethernet is the cheapest.

If you plan to setup gaming on wifi, you should consider a gaming wifi router which can cost you upwards of $200 for a reputed brand like NetGear or Asus. You would also need wifi 6 adapter on your PC or laptop if you don't have it already.

So wifi costs more but is worth it if you want wire free setup.

4. Network Speed and bandwidth

Ethernet connection using ordinary cables and routers will offer better speeds compared to a wifi network, even if the latest router and supporting tech are used in the wifi setup.

An Ethernet connection is dedicated. Unless the connection is split into multiple ports, a single system gets access to the entire available bandwidth.

A wireless network is usually shared by many devices at the same time. The available bandwidth does not change, so the maximum speed available to the gaming system can drop.

Games that require very fast response times may suffer due to mild slowdown in the network speeds even by a few milli-seconds.

Fast response FPS games like Counter Strike Global Offensive, need the fastest possible speed to ensure competitive gaming. A delay of even a few milliseconds can change the outcome in a multi player match.

On the other hand games like Age Of Empires will work just fine even on wifi since an extra latency of 10-20ms would not make a huge difference unless the internet connection is poor.

Wireless Device Sharing

Wireless Device Sharing

Disconnecting all devices except the gaming system from the Wi-Fi network can increase the speed.

Even if other connected devices, such as phones or laptops, speakers or home automation systems, are apparently idle, they can still reduce the available bandwidth for the gaming system.

5. Latency Issues

Both Wi-Fi and Ethernet have latency issues. This is why speeds are never equal to the available bandwidth.

Latency is caused because of the time taken by data packets to be transmitted from and a response received by the user computer or gaming device through the router, then server, often via many network modes and interim systems.

Ethernet has fewer latency issues than Wi-Fi. Local environmental factors and interferences in a wireless setup contribute to more latency in Wi-Fi networks.

Distance
The distance of a device from the Wi-Fi router also plays a role. The farther a gaming system is from the Wi-Fi router, the greater would be the latency.

Ordinary wifi can have a latency anywhere between 2ms to 20ms or even more.

Wireless Network for Distances

Wireless Network for Distances

Ping Command

Latency can be easily checked by a gamer with the ping command on windows or linux. The router would respond within a certain time, usually in milliseconds.

The following is the output of ping command on a Acer Swift 3 (Wifi 6) laptop connected to a Wifi 5 (5Ghz) router.

[email protected]:~$ ping 192.168.1.1
PING 192.168.1.1 (192.168.1.1) 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from 192.168.1.1: icmp_seq=1 ttl=64 time=2.37 ms
64 bytes from 192.168.1.1: icmp_seq=2 ttl=64 time=3.59 ms
64 bytes from 192.168.1.1: icmp_seq=3 ttl=64 time=2.92 ms
64 bytes from 192.168.1.1: icmp_seq=4 ttl=64 time=2.52 ms

As can be seen in the above output, the ping time is upwards of 2ms. In case of ordinary single band wifi routers the ping time may go upto 20ms or even higher, which can make some games unplayable.

An Ethernet connection usually has a latency of 0.1ms to 0.3ms. In case of ethernet cables the ping time does not increase too much with increasing distance upto a certain amount of distance like 10 meters.

So in smaller areas like home networks, ethernet connections provide the lowest latency and fastest ping times.

Latency is also directly proportional to the physical distance between the gaming system and the router. This is true for both Ethernet and Wi-Fi but it is of greater consequence in a wireless network as a wire or cable does not have to deal with local and external interferences.

6. Reliability or Availability

Ethernet is more reliable than Wi-Fi. This is simply owing to the number of influencing factors in the wireless setup.

Unlike an Ethernet connection, a Wi-Fi network has numerous local or environmental factors directly affecting its signal strength, speed, and hence reliability or availability.

Distance from the router, obstructions along the way, multiple devices accessing the same network, interference caused by different systems including electronic and electrical appliances other than computers and phones, all these unavoidable objects can disrupt Wi-Fi speed and availability or reliability.

Interference is especially greater in cities and areas where population density is high. Wi-Fi uses radio frequency, whether it is 2.4GHz with its 11 channels or 5GHz with its 45 channels in the United States.

Radiofrequency is the entire electromagnetic spectrum between radio wave and microwave. All physical objects affect the entire range of radio frequency, and also much of the electromagnetic spectrum.

At a given point in time, a gamer may witness signal strength of -50dBm on a particular channel of either 2.4GHz or 5GHz when there aren’t too many people using it.

If there is a sudden increase in the number of people or devices using the same channel, the signal strength could drop, down to as much as -90dBm. There would be an instant packet drop or loss as a result.

Drop or loss of data packets affects the speed, latency, and availability of the network. Packet drop or loss can also happen due to interference caused by objects within the house of a gamer.

Everything, from the ceilings, floors and walls to the furniture, electrical and electronic appliances, causes interference with Wi-Fi network frequencies. Concrete, metal and plastic cause greater interference. Glass and wood have a less adverse impact.

The Wi-Fi network is affected by Bluetooth connections. Bluetooth also uses radiofrequency, notably 2.4GHz.

Wireless keyboards, mice, cordless phones, and even microwaves interfere with Wi-Fi networks. Then there are wireless monitors and speakers, baby monitors, satellite dishes, and every Wi-Fi network of immediate neighbours.

State-of-the-art Wi-Fi routers these days have smart features. These can switch channels for better signal strength. Most models can easily switch to a frequency that is not being used by too many people in the vicinity.

Despite automatic scanning for better signal strength, switching across channels and toggling between frequencies, a Wi-Fi network is still not as reliable as an Ethernet connection. Repeaters or range extenders do not have any neutralizing effect on interference.

7. Network Security

Wi-Fi is less secure and easier to hack into due to the wireless transfer of data. Wi-Fi security has strengthened over the years, but it is more vulnerable than Ethernet.

WiFi Security

WiFi Security

An ethernet network connection cannot be compromised without physical access to the system which is usually impossible in home environments.

8. Mobility Convenience

Wi-Fi is more convenient than Ethernet for the obvious reason of mobility. An Ethernet cable limits mobility, usually down to a fixed position.

Gamers can certainly use both Ethernet and Wi-Fi, as and when they choose, to enjoy the best of both the worlds.

While Wi-Fi enables gamers to move around within the house, doing so would have a direct impact on speed, latency, and signal strength. There may be packet loss when a gamer walks along the walls, closes a door, and goes up or down a floor.

Many gamers use repeaters, also known as range extenders or boosters, to expand the coverage area of a Wi-Fi network. These repeaters can expand the coverage but not increase the speed. Expanding the coverage actually reduces speed.

Ethernet too poses certain inconveniences, especially if the gaming desktop is quite far from the router. This necessitates longer cables, which would be costlier and there would be slightly more latency. Excessively long and plenty of Ethernet cables for different systems are also difficult to manage.

Conclusion

So now you have a fairly good idea of how wifi and ethernet stack up against each other when it comes to gaming. Each has its own pros and cons.

Wifi has slower speed and more expensive, but provides wire free clean and mobile setup. Whereas ethernet is cheaper, provides faster speed but needs clunky wires and limits mobility.

So choose the one that fits your needs the best, or you could choose both and use whichever one is working best.

If you have any questions or feedback, let us know in the comments below.

Links and Resources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wi-Fi
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethernet
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethernet_over_twisted_pair
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2.5GBASE-T_and_5GBASE-T
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.3
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.11ax-2021
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.11
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEEE_802.11ac-2013

About Silver Moon

A Tech Enthusiast, Blogger, Linux Fan and a Software Developer. Writes about Computer hardware, Linux and Open Source software and coding in Python, Php and Javascript. He can be reached at [email protected].

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