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Wired vs. Wireless Networking - Which is Faster?

written by: Otto Schlosser•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/21/2009

Which is faster – a wireless network or a wired one? Find out why it's a trick question.

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    When you are first considering how to set up a network for your home or small office, it's natural to ask which is faster – wired (such as Ethernet) or wireless (such as 802.11g). The short answer is “Generally speaking, it really doesn't matter.” Surprised? You won't be if you look at the limiting factors for small networks. Let's go over some common use scenarios.

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    Internet connections are often the source of user frustration - “Why does it take so long?” You might assume that a faster network means faster browsing. Unfortunately, the speed of your network has very little to do with how long it takes for a web page to load or for e-mail messages to display. A low-cost Ethernet network (cabled connections through a switch or router) runs at 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). A cheap wireless setup runs at 12 Mbps. Both of these are more than sufficient to handle anything but the most exotic and expensive broadband connections; DSL or cable modem pipes typically top out at 5 Mbps (and often far less). So even if there was nothing else in the world slowing down your packets (don't we wish!), your network, whether wired or wireless, is very unlikely to be what holds back your internet connection.

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    If you're interested in storing music files on a central server and playing them on individual PCs, the limiting factor, again, is unlikely to be your network. Even the highest quality music streams will not approach the bandwidth limit of low-priced small networks. Video streaming, especially high-definition video, is a different story. A whole lot more packets are required to provide that beautiful picture, so you could conceivably max out an 802.11g wireless network with streaming video. But, as you may know, there is a higher-speed wireless networking standard called 802.11n. In fact, if you are savvy enough to set up your own network media server, you have probably already committed to the new standard if you're interested in a wireless setup. (Most new laptops ship with it as a standard feature). So the bottom line is that your network is likely to have less impact on the performance of your video server than the server and software you choose.

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    File and Print Serving

    Here's a scenario where wired vs. wireless might make a difference on occasion. Straightforward file copying is one task which can really max out a network. If you think you might be doing a lot of that, I would recommend a Gigabit wired setup over wireless. More common file sharing scenarios are less clear-cut, however. If you are sharing files across a network for workgroup collaboration, for example, there are may be times when an 802.11g-based network could be noticeably slower than a switched & cabled setup, but 802.11n should be more than sufficient. The software involved will generally have a lot more to do with how fast your screens update than the network layer. Printer sharing is a similar story, as the printer will typically present much more of a bottleneck than the network connections

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    For most users, the question of “which is faster” is the wrong question to ask, since all modern networks, whether wired or wireless, should be fast enough for most of the things you are likely to do with your PC. After a couple of decades running small networks, I can honestly say that I've never run into a situation where user complaints about how slow things were running could be traced to the network layer. When deciding which way to connect your computers, you'd be far better off to consider other questions, such as security, cost, and convenience. Answering those questions right will do a lot more to ensure that you get a network that works well for you.