What is Ethernet?

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Experts often recommend Ethernet as a quick fix to your internet speed issues or latency issues at home. But what is it and how can it be used? Here’s a quick introduction to what you need to know about Ethernet.

The wired connection

Ethernet (technically known as IEEE 802.3) is a communications technology used to connect devices on a local area network (LAN). Defines the rules by which computing devices communicate over a network. Unlike Wi-Fi, which is a wireless networking technology, Ethernet uses wires to transmit data. So when the experts talk about using Ethernet, they basically want you to get connected.

Although Ethernet was invented nearly 50 years ago in 1973, it is still widely used throughout the world. One reason for this is its ability to keep pace with evolving network needs. While the first official iteration of the technology was only capable of 10Mbps data transfer speeds, most modern Ethernet connections can reach gigabit speeds. And the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has already ratified Ethernet standards capable of speeds up to 400 Gbps.

Ethernet types

Ethernet cables on a network switch
cable issues

Ethernet has seen multiple iterations since its public debut in 1983, when the first Ethernet standard was approved. Each iteration is known by a different name, and as of 2022, three of the most common iterations are Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE). While Fast Ethernet supports speeds around 100 Mbps, Gigabit Ethernet can go up to 1 Gbps. And 10 Gigabit Ethernet, as the name suggests, supports data transmission speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

While 10GbE is probably the fastest iteration of Ethernet you’ll find in consumer-grade devices today, it’s not the fastest iteration of Ethernet available. IEEE has approved several faster Ethernet standards such as 40GbE, 100GbE, 200GbE, and 400GbE. Some of these are also being actively used by data centers, internet service providers, or other similar industries that need the fastest possible data transmission speeds.

Advantages and disadvantages

Ethernet continues to be a popular networking technology as it offers several benefits. More importantly, Ethernet is faster than other networking technologies, including Wi-Fi. And because it uses a cable to transmit data from one device to another, it can provide consistent speed and reliability. Plus, you don’t have to worry about network interference or physical barriers, something wireless networks often have to deal with.

It is also fully backward compatible. So, for example, even if you’re using a newer Ethernet cable with an older network switch or an older cable with a new router, you can expect the connection to work without a hitch. However, the speed of the connection will be determined by the slowest connected device.

Another benefit of using Ethernet over Wi-Fi is security. Breaking a wired connection requires physical access to the device or cables, which can be more easily restricted than securing a wireless connection.

However, Ethernet is not the most convenient network technology. If you plan to have Ethernet connectivity throughout your home, you’ll need to wire every room. This can be more expensive and time consuming than simply using a wireless router.

The wired nature of Ethernet also limits movement. And lastly, if a problem arises with your network, you may find it difficult to locate the source if multiple switches or cables are involved.

Using Ethernet in your home

Person connecting an Ethernet cable to a laptop.
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Wi-Fi is incredibly convenient and almost impossible to give it up for a full Ethernet setup. But you can use Ethernet to supplement your home wireless network. And there are quite a few devices and apps that can benefit from using a wired connection to the router. For example, if you use a media server, NAS, or shared storage drive, an Ethernet connection will make things much faster than Wi-Fi for backing up your data or streaming from the media server.

Similarly, if you play a lot of online games or use cloud gaming, Ethernet will not only reduce the latency of your connection, but also make it more stable for a consistent experience.

Plus, if you work from home and need reliable connectivity to your company’s online resources, Ethernet is the best way to avoid unnecessary connectivity surprises.

What do you need for an Ethernet connection?

If you’re thinking of using Ethernet in your home, it’s reasonably easy to set up. And chances are good that you already have everything you need for an Ethernet connection.

First of all, you need Ethernet compatible devices. If your laptop, game console, streaming stick, or other device doesn’t have an Ethernet port but does have a USB port, you can use a USB to Ethernet adapter. TP-Link USB-A to Ethernet and USB-C to Ethernet are two great adapters, depending on the USB port on your device.

You will also need an Ethernet cable. There are different categories of Ethernet cables on the market. But for a home connection, a Cat-5e or Cat-6 Ethernet cable is sufficient. The latter is better if you want to be prepared for the future. Cable Matters offers a highly rated Cat-6 Ethernet cable.

Cable imports Cat 6 cable

This Cable Matters Cat 6 Ethernet cable is reliable and supports data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps. You can buy it in various sizes.

Another key component is a router. It acts as a central point and you will connect all your devices to it. Your wireless router likely has multiple Ethernet ports, and you can simply connect your devices to it. But if there are not enough ports on your router, you will need to buy a different router or network switch.

Brilliant Future

The simplicity and scalability of Ethernet have allowed it to thrive even after so many years of its invention. And with continuous innovation, it shows no signs of slowing down. If the Ethernet Alliance technology roadmap is any indication, we’ll see 800 GbE or possibly 1.6 TbE become official standards around 2030.

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