Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit Ethernet

You may hear the words Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet thrown around a lot, and it can raise some questions. Which one is faster? Which is better? How can one compare Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit Ethernet? Despite the name, Gigabit Ethernet is faster than Fast Ethernet. Here’s why you need to care about the difference.

Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit Ethernet: Faster than fast

Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit Ethernet
These old 3Com Fast Ethernet cards ran at 1/10 the speed of modern Gigabit Ethernet cards

Rule number one about Ethernet networking is this: Fast Ethernet isn’t very fast. So why do they call it that? Blame the 90s. In the early 90s, Ethernet ran at a pokey 10 megabits (mbps or mb/s), so when a newer standard that ran at 100 megabits came along in 1995, the new transfer rate was in fact fast. Even compared to other standards available at the time.

When I took my first IT job in the mid 1990s, there were several competing standards, and we looked at all of them. We replaced our existing network with Ethernet because it was the emerging standard and it looked like it was going to win, but there were people who weren’t happy about the decision.

Ethernet won because it was an open standard and cheap, and because it did eventually scale to the speeds people need.

Enter Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet first appeared in 1999. It pushed the transfer rate of Ethernet to 1000 megabits per second, or one gigabit, hence the name. I first saw it on a production network in 2001 and it blew me away. I had a box on my desk marked “Gigabit Ethernet Upgrade Fund” for years as a joke. Gigabit was expensive. It wasn’t until 2009 that I worked someplace that could and would give me a Gigabit network connection at my desk at work.

Sometime around 2010, Gigabit Ethernet got cheap enough that enthusiasts could afford to have it at home. New computers came with it pretty much by default at that point, and the switches and cabling started getting cheap.

Cost of Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit Ethernet

Slower Ethernet is always cheaper, until the point when it becomes unavailable. Fast Ethernet is extremely cheap at this point, and if you already have Fast Ethernet-capable equipment, that makes it more cost effective.

That said, the cost of Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit Ethernet is narrowing. At this point they use the same cabling. You can get cheap off-brand Gigabit Ethernet NICs for under $4 if you shop around, and cheap off-brand switches cost less than $10. Many computers already have Gigabit networking in them, so you may just be looking at the cost of a switch.

There was a time when upgrading to Gigabit was an expensive proposition. But not anymore.

10-gigabit is on the horizon, but you’re still looking at $30 per port on the switch side, and $15 per computer if you buy a used network card with a low-tier chipset in it. You can get into gigabit at $1 per port and $4-$15 per card depending on what you’re willing to settle for. Gigabit Ethernet really is the current sweet spot for home networking.

In case you’re wondering about the old standard from the early 90s, there’s no reason to mess with pokey old 10 mbps Ethernet anymore except to network old equipment like a retro DOS machine where a slow transfer rate is better than nothing.

What can you do with Gigabit Ethernet?

Speeds will vary depending on the types of computers involved. But I just copied about 1.75 gigabytes’ worth of data between two computers in 39 seconds. At 100 megabits, it would take several minutes to transfer that data.

With a gigabit network, it becomes much more practical to share data between different computers. It’s not as fast as local storage, but depending on the type of data, you might not notice. I can usually write data to a remote computer faster than I can to a USB flash drive.

The other nice thing about Gigabit Ethernet is that it gives you a very fast, very stable connection. Wireless is much better today than it was even five years ago, but wired connections are still less intermittent than wireless.

Will Gigabit Ethernet make my wireless connections faster?

Gigabit Ethernet can make your wireless connections faster. Recent wireless standards like 802.11n and 802.11ac run faster than Fast Ethernet does. That means a Fast Ethernet wired connection is a bottleneck with recent types of wireless connections. If your routers and access points support Gigabit Ethernet, and you plug them into Gigabit Ethernet switches, it will probably improve your wireless performance.

Plugging some systems into wired ports will reduce congestion on your wireless network. That means a wired connection can indirectly improve your wireless connections. If you have Gigabit Ethernet connections, you’re more likely to want to use them. So upgrading from Fast Ethernet to Gigabit Ethernet can help both directly and indirectly.

Will Gigabit Ethernet make my Internet connection faster?

Installing Gigabit Ethernet won’t make your Internet connection 10 times faster. But it can improve your Internet connection speeds under some circumstances. If your ISP offers a connection speed faster than 100 megabits and your router has a gigabit connection on its WAN port, you’ll get a faster Internet connection. For example, my ISP tops out around 115 megabits. If my router only has a Fast Ethernet connection on it, I leave 15 megabits on the table. If I’m working and my wife and kids are all streaming video, I want that extra 15 megabits.

In some areas you can get Internet connections that are 200 megabits or even faster. In those cases, you need Gigabit Ethernet to take full advantage of them.

To take full advantage of modern Internet speeds–gigabit certainly, but anything over 100 megs–and Gigabit speeds on your local network, you may need a new router. I recommend the Asus RT-AC series.

One advantage with Gigabit Ethernet is that even when you have devices with slower connections, when they access Gigabit-capable devices, the slower requests stack up. So 10 devices communicating at 100 megabits can communicate with a Gigabit device at full speed, without incurring delays.

What does it take to upgrade from Fast Ethernet to Gigabit Ethernet?

Upgrading to Gigabit Ethernet means you need Gigabit-capable cards, cables, and a switch or router.

Gigabit Ethernet network cards

Unless your computer is really old, there’s a good chance it has Gigabit Ethernet built in. I like to install cheap secondhand Intel network cards, but there’s a pretty good chance the card your computer has is good enough.

Gigabit Ethernet cabling

Gigabit requires CAT5e or CAT6 cable to work. Any cable you buy today ought to be capable if it’s manufactured correctly. I bought some super-cheap CAT5e cables that would only connect at 100 megabits. So if you buy cheap CAT5e cable from Ebay, make sure you buy from a seller with feedback ratings that mention the cables worked. Older cabling may work but I recommend replacing your cables, or at least keeping spares on hand. I’ve seen old cables make a system’s networking run slower or even drop it from the network entirely. If you think you might upgrade to 10-gigabit Ethernet when it becomes affordable, buy and deploy CAT6 cables and keystone jacks so you won’t have to pull new cable when you upgrade.

If you have network cards and new CAT5e or CAT6 cables, you just need a gigabit-capable router or a gigabit switch. You can chain a gigabit switch to an older router and it will still work. Your computers will talk amongst themselves at the higher speed as long as they’re all on the switch, and slow down when talking to the router.

If your computers are in different rooms, I have a trick for doing a professional-looking installation without any punchdown tools.

Upgrading to gigabit can require replacing some cabling, but it’s not an overly expensive or time-consuming project. I can install a new cable and port in less than an hour using my methods I outlined above.

Gigabit Ethernet switches and routers

Gigabit-capable routers, like the Asus RT-AC66U, have four gigabit ports on them. If you have four or fewer devices, a router like that is all you need. If you have more than four devices, get a Gigabit switch and chain it. By plugging an 8-port switch into a gigabit-capable router, you end up with 10 available ports (two are consumed by the router-to-switch connection). There are two inexpensive TP-Link switches I can recommend, but I recently bought a Dell Powerconnect switch. If you can find a 16- or 24-port Powerconnect switch for $40 like I did, it’s really worth it.

Buying a 16- or 24-port switch is overkill in some ways. But if nothing else, it gives you enterprise-grade dependability.

Enterprise Gigabit Ethernet vs consumer

Consumer-grade Gigabit Ethernet switches do seem to be more failure-prone than consumer-grade Fast Ethernet switches were. Why pay $30 for a consumer-grade switch that will probably fail in five years when you can buy a used enterprise-grade switch for $40 that will last almost forever?

I also buy Intel- and Broadcom-based Gigabit Ethernet cards for the same reason. I like the drivers on Intel cards a bit better but I also buy Broadcom cards sometimes. People want the Intel brand name. And admittedly, for some really demanding tasks, Intel may perform better. But for most home use you probably won’t see much difference. Broadcom cards are a great way to get enterprise dependability at an off-brand price. It’s pretty easy to find Broadcom cards for under $10, shipped. Used Intel cards run closer to $10-$15.

Here’s a trick to find good prices on Intel cards. Not everyone realizes companies like Dell and HP sell relabeled Intel cards. Search Ebay for an HP NC110T, Dell 0u3867, Dell D33745, Sun 371-2133, Intel EXPI9400PT, or EXP9300PT. This search is pre-sorted to help you find the best price on six different functionally identical cards.

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