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What Is Ethernet?

Sep 27, 2023

Experts often recommend Ethernet as a quick fix to your Internet speed woes or latency issues at home. But what is it, and how can you use it? Here's a quick primer on what you need to know about Ethernet.

Ethernet (technically known as IEEE 802.3) is a communications technology that is used to connect devices in a local area network (LAN). It defines the rules using which computing devices communicate over a network. Unlike Wi-Fi, which is a wireless networking technology, Ethernet uses cables to transmit data. So when experts talk about using Ethernet, they basically want you to go wired.

Although Ethernet was invented almost 50 years ago in 1973, it's still used widely around the world. One of the reasons 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 up to 400Gbps speeds.

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

Although 10GbE is probably the fastest Ethernet iteration you will currently find in consumer-grade devices, it isn't the fastest Ethernet iteration available. Multiple faster Ethernet standards, such as 40GbE, 100GbE, 200GbE, and 400GbE, have been approved by IEEE. Some of these are also actively being used by data centers, internet service providers, or other similar industries that need the fastest possible data transmission speeds.

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

It's also fully backward compatible. So, for example, even if you are 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 seamlessly. However, the connection's speed will be determined by the slowest connected device.

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

However, Ethernet isn't the most convenient networking technology. If you plan to have Ethernet connectivity throughout your house, you will need to wire each room. This can be more expensive and time-consuming than just 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 hard to locate the source if multiple switches or cables are involved.

Wi-Fi is incredibly convenient, and it's almost impossible to give it up for a complete Ethernet setup. But you can use Ethernet to complement the wireless network in your house. And there are quite a few devices and applications that can benefit from using a hardwired connection to the router. For example, if you use a media server, a NAS, or a shared storage drive, an Ethernet connection will make things much faster than Wi-Fi to back up your data or stream 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 will also make it more stable for a consistent experience.

Moreover, if you work from home and require reliable connectivity to your company's online resources, Ethernet is the best way to avoid any unnecessary connectivity surprises.

If you are thinking of using Ethernet in your home, it's reasonably easy to set up. And there is a good chance you may already have everything needed for an Ethernet connection.

First and foremost, you need devices that support Ethernet. If your laptop, gaming console, streaming stick, or another device doesn't have an Ethernet port but has a USB port, you can use a USB to Ethernet adapter. TP-Link USB-A to Ethernet and USB-C to Ethernet are two excellent adapters, depending on the USB port in 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 enough. The latter is better if you want to be future-proof. Cable Matters offers a highly rated Cat-6 Ethernet cable.

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

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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 aren't enough ports on your router, you will need to buy a different router or a network switch.

Ethernet's simplicity and ability to evolve have allowed it to thrive even after so many years of its invention. And with continuing innovation, it doesn't show any sign of slowing down. If the technology roadmap of Ethernet Alliance is any indication, we will see 800 GbE or possibly 1.6 TbE become official standards by about 2030.