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An Ethernet connection is used for running an Ethernet cable from either your modem or router that hooks directly to your Roku or other media streaming device. This is an alternative to Wi-Fi and gives you a much more stable connection without the limitations which Wi-Fi is prone to.
Wi-Fi even though it's gotten better with each revision is really nothing more than a radio signal. And like any radio signal it is subject to interference. And things like buildings, distance, trees and even too many neighbors all using the same Wi-Fi channel can interfere with the signal and cause drop-outs that can cause pauses or buffering in your video stream.
What is Video Buffering?
A video buffer is like a bucket, when you have more data being used and flowing out from the bucket then is flowing in being filled by your Internet connection or through your home network Wi-Fi connection. This causes the video to stop or pause while the buffering bucket is being filled back up again.
Then once it has filled to a certain level, the data will once again continue to flow and your video will resume playing until the process repeats itself over and over. This can quickly become very annoying.
One way to help with this is by eliminating slowdowns to this data flow by using an Ethernet connection from your media player to your Roku or other Internet streaming devices.
About Gigabit Ethernet
Gigabit Ethernet is the newer standard and allows data to flow at a rate of a gigabit per second (1,000,000,000 bits per second). To take advantage of this new faster standard every component in your home network must support it.
This mean devices like media streamers, Ethernet cable, Routers and Switches must all be rated for Gigabit. Currently, there is no Roku media streamers supports Gigabit Ethernet. They only support the older slower 10/100 networking standard. But this is not yet an issue, because even a 4K video stream still won't exceed a 10/100 network connection.
Both the Apple TV 4K and Nvidia SHIELD support Gigabit Ethernet.
But if building a home network and you want to future proof it. Then you should definitely use CAT 6 Ethernet cable and make sure all your other devices like Routers and Switches will support Gigabit Ethernet. But if you have the older 5E Ethernet cable this will still support Gigabit speeds as well.
How Much Data Is Used For Streaming?
This chart shows YouTube and compares the amount of data used for the various video quality formats. One trick to stop buffering on a slow Internet or Wi-Fi connection is to lower the video resolution. So if watching a 4K video causes constant buffering, using 1080p or 720p can give you a much more enjoyable streaming experience with less buffering.
While this gives you a general idea of how much data is used for streaming. Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and other streaming services may use more or less data depending on the way they encode their video content.
Roku Models That Use Ethernet
Currently, only one standalone Roku streamer uses Ethernet, the Roku Ultra. Past models included the Roku 4, Roku Premiere+ and Roku 3. Also, the TCL 4K Roku TVs have Ethernet.
All these models still work pretty well and if you have one and can use the Ethernet connection you should try it if you are experiencing problems with a Wi-Fi connection.
Sometime simply moving your Roku, Router or Cable Modem closer together can help with Wi-Fi dropouts. Otherwise, try getting an Ethernet cable and use it to see if this does not help make a better streaming TV experience.
Some Routers come with many extra Ethernet ports. If you run out of ports, or if your Roku and TV is too far away from the Router then you need an Ethernet Switch. This is like a multi-outlet strip for Ethernet.
Simply run a single Ethernet wire from your Router or Modem and then hook as many devices to your Ethernet Switch as you have open ports.
Switches can be bought with 4, 8 and even 16 ports or more to allow many networked devices to be attached to a Router or Modem by Ethernet.
So if your Roku or other media streamer has an Ethernet connection and you can use it easily you should. It will give you the best possible streaming TV experience without any of the limitations of Wi-Fi.