Most middle class homes have multiple mobile devices floating around. From iPod Touches to smartphones, tablets and laptops, the average family has quite a few gadgets relying on its Wi-Fi wireless connectivity to get to the internet and consume social media and streaming content like video and music.
To use Ethernet, you must run a special cable from your internet router (where the broadband enters your home) to any Ethernet-connected equipment you wish to receive wired bandwidth. A networking technology that evolved within the computer world, Ethernet has been around for decades. In its current implementation, it’s extremely fast and reliable. It operates over special cabling called Cat5 or Cat6. Compared to Wi-Fi, Ethernet is considerably faster and more stable. Baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and microwave ovens all compete for the most common variety of Wi-Fi on the same 2.4 GHz frequency. Because it’s hardwired, Ethernet lacks the sensitivity to radio frequency interference that plagues Wi-Fi.
Thus, with bandwidth and reliability being so much better with Ethernet, why is everyone using Wi-Fi for devices that don’t demand it? Wi-Fi should be considered an optimal connectivity option for mobile devices only. Smartphones and tablets that need to move about, tether-free, are why Wi-Fi was created and has become so popular. We’re simply over-utilizing this cool wireless tech due to its low cost and super-simple implementation (and who doesn’t like a lack of obnoxious cables?). Companies selling us stuff love to tout wireless. If wireless data is the path of least resistance, consumers are going to accept what is often the default communications method. Even my Nest thermostat uses Wi-Fi to upload data to the cloud and allow me to control it from any mobile device.
The vulnerabilities of Wi-Fi really wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone wasn’t sucking down so much high-definition video (sometimes with a six-channel surround sound audio track). The irony is that we’re taking the most frail connection technology, Wi-Fi, and taxing it with the most robust and “heavy” data there is, high-definition video.
The good news about Ethernet is that you might not need to purchase new equipment to take advantage of it. Newer AV receivers and Blu-ray players, as well as streaming media boxes like Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV, all feature an Ethernet port (often labeled “LAN,” for Local Area Network). Your Internet router necessarily supports Ethernet. All major media streamers, with the exception of Chromecast (which is Wi-Fi only), support Ethernet. If your receiver and Blu-Ray player do also, it’s a compelling reason to run Ethernet to all of these devices in your home theater.
It should be noted that you (or your installer) will be running a single Cat6 cable from your Internet router to your home theater equipment. However, if you’re like me, you have between two and four devices that need an internet feed, not one. How does a single Cat6 cable accommodate multiple devices on the receiving end? Simple, with a device called an Ethernet switch, also referred to as a gigabit switch (ensure that you purchase one that supports gigabit data speeds). An Ethernet switch simply takes a single input (from your router, possibly on the other side of your house) and splits it into multiple outputs (similar to a USB hub). Fortunately, these devices are affordable, with prices beginning at $35. You can provide bandwidth to as many devices as the switch has ports (models are available that provide between three and eight ports, on average).
Many people have non-mobile, stationary devices that are being fed Wi-Fi. Good examples include AV receivers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, and desktop PCs. In my Kindle books Home Theater for the Internet Age and the shorter version, Understanding Home Theater, I make a case for choosing Ethernet over Wi-Fi whenever possible. If a device isn’t mobile, give it Ethernet. Period.
One big benefit to getting most or all of your non-mobile devices on Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi is freeing Wi-Fi bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need it. Most people are consuming streaming media, specifically high-definition video, on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. They need all the bandwidth they can get. Taking a bandwidth-hungry Netflix video stream and moving it from Wi-Fi to Ethernet frees tons of wireless bandwidth for iPhones and Nexus tablets (which are probably also sucking down their own high-definition video).
If you’re tired of your video buffering on Hulu Plus or the image on your display panel freezing when you’re watching Vudu or Crackle, segmenting your home network bandwidth between Wi-Fi and Ethernet may be just the ticket to alleviating your headaches. Just like how the car traffic on a multi-lane freeway will flow most smoothly if the vehicles are roughly equally distributed among the lanes, home networks that segment bandwidth consumption to avoid competition as much as possible will result in far fewer technical glitches and less frustration. The last time you want to encounter problems is when you’re trying to enjoy your entertainment, not play junior network admin and troubleshoot your router at 10:30 pm after three beers.
While you’re at it, you might want to consider purchasing a high-end internet router, something that could dramatically improve both your Wi-Fi and your Ethernet (a good example and my personal choice is the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 for about $200). Modern “dual band” routers include not one, but two networks, each operating at a completely different frequency (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). This provides you with considerably more bandwidth and segments your devices into logical, device-appropriate networks (older devices that support only 2.4 GHz obviously reside there; newer gadgets that can do 5 GHz always should). Maybe I’ll write a future blog post about the benefits of upgrading to a top shelf router (some models can even automate your backups).
The only problem with adopting Ethernet connectivity for your home theater is that it might not sit right beside your internet router. Thus, you (or an installer) may need to make some cable runs and install some face plates to facilitate the jump from Wi-Fi to Ethernet (costing you some money). Back in 2013, when I was installing a new home theater in a spare bedroom and upgrading an existing theater in the living room, I paid a few hundred dollars to a professional installer to bring Cat6 cabling from my upstairs data closet (tucked nicely in a laundry room) to my downstairs living room media cabinet. The installer wasn’t simply an electrician, but instead a small firm that specialized in security systems and high-end home theaters. They knew what they were doing. Which is good, because they ran into tons of headaches related to the layout and construction of my house, which required them to be tenacious and creative.
So yes, making the leap from Wi-Fi to Ethernet may cost you a few bucks. One nice aspect is that much home theater equipment comes Ethernet-ready (but not all: buyer beware). Newer models are more likely to feature support for Ethernet. If a manufacturer is going to charge extra for something, it will typically be Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. My Pioneer Elite receiver, for example, lacks Wi-Fi, but Pioneer will sell me a ridiculously overpriced Wi-Fi dongle for $130. I’d rather give that money to a pro installer and forever rid myself of the need to primitively provide bandwidth to my home theater using Wi-Fi.
As I discuss in my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, there is a middle-ground option when it comes to providing bandwidth to non-mobile devices in your home called a powerline adapter. While not as fast or reliable as Ethernet, powerline adapters are brother and sister pairs that plug into power outlets (one beside your router, the other beside the devices you wish to feed broadband) to deliver a relatively fast internet signal. Powerline adapters are cost effective (typically under $100) and very easy to install. They’re plug-and-play and almost never require attention. I use a powerline adapter to deliver broadband to my upstairs home theater and have experienced smooth streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube.
Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle: Home Theater for the Internet Age ($9.95), Understanding Home Theater ($4.99), Understanding Personal Data Security ($4.99), Understanding Cutting the Cord ($4.99), and Understanding Digital Music ($4.99). You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, on Instagram at curt_robbins, or read his Flipboard magazine Middle Class Tech.