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Ethernet Switch vs. Hub vs. Splitter: What’s the Difference?


Do you have many devices that require a physical Internet connection? That’s where Ethernet cables can help. However, you’ll also need a special class of networking equipment to “split” your Ethernet connections. It’s usually a choice of Ethernet switch vs. hub. You can also use splitters for point-to-point connectivity. We examine Ethernet switch vs. hub vs. splitter and the differences between them.

1. What Is an Ethernet Switch?

An Ethernet switch is a multiport networking bridge that uses packet switching to simultaneously receive and forward data in a LAN. This qualifies it as a “full duplex” device, as it intelligently receives and transmits the data packets at the same time, resulting in a faster network. Ethernet switches have played a vital role in the expansion of wired and wireless communication.

Each Ethernet switch has a predefined number of Power over Ethernet (PoE) ports, to which the Ethernet cables can physically connect. Those cables link with separate Ethernet-compatible computers and are assigned a MAC address automatically. The switch uses its own “MAC address table” to forward data to connected devices.

One of the eight ports in an 8-port Ethernet switch connects it to the main Wi-Fi router via Ethernet, while the remaining ports can connect other computers, printers, IoT devices, and so on.

When to Use an Ethernet Switch

It is almost always. Whenever you’re designing a network at your home, office, or school, and you don’t know the number of physically connecting devices, an Ethernet switch is the best option. When you need very high-speed data transfers for many devices, nothing comes close to an Ethernet switch.

These devices aren’t always expensive. For example, this NetGear 5-port switch, GS305 only costs $15.99. Each port supports a 1-gig connection. But there are the enterprise-class switches, such as the Cisco Business CBS250, with a whopping 48 ports and 48 Gbps bandwidth.

Ethernet Switch vs. Router: What’s the Difference?

The Ethernet switch vs. router choice is important, as they both split the network bandwidth but have different purposes.

Essentially, a router sits at the top of the network topology (OSI Layer 3) and is responsible for directing traffic flow, minimizing traffic load, and connecting a wide range of devices. It assigns a single IP address to multiple connected devices. A majority of routers have just one WAN port (Wi-Fi network) and three to four LAN ports (for Ethernet).

Why a switch is better than a router: an Ethernet switch is responsible for creating additional networks within the core network. Unlike a router, it also does actual thinking and just knows where to send data based on that internal MAC table that it keeps track of. Essentially, one Ethernet port becomes multiple ports.

When a router sends packets to a destination, it doesn’t sort them according to priority. However, switches are different. If data goes into one port, the switch quickly learns where that has to go and sends it out accordingly.

Also read: what is the difference between a modem and a router? Learn all about these two similar networking devices.

2. What Is an Ethernet Hub?

Next is the Ethernet hub, which has been pretty much outmoded by the switch. It is a multi-port, networking hardware device that allows multiple Ethernet devices to connect and exchange data.

The Ethernet hub is a half-duplex, unintelligent device, which doesn’t store MAC addresses, nor does it process or forward data. It just serves as a common point of contact for all devices within a LAN. When data packets arrive at a PoE port, they will broadcast to all the other ports to ensure they reach the destination.

Think of a hub as a huge echo chamber filled with network traffic, where packets go in and shout to find the devices they’re trying to connect to. Data goes in one port, and the hub just amplifies that out to all the other devices that are connected to it.

When to Use an Ethernet Hub

Almost never! An Ethernet hub uses a no-frills data management system, which is an extremely cheap way to broadcast the data packets within a computer network. It may theoretically be used when you have 4/8 or 12 computing devices, as any requirements beyond that would require you to upgrade to a switch.

However, as Ethernet hub devices have become largely obsolete, you’re unlikely to find them on Amazon or other sites. Their use may, therefore, be restricted to older installations or very specific applications.

Ethernet Switch vs. Hub: What’s the Difference?

Generally, hubs cannot allow devices to send and receive data at the same time, which is called half-duplex communication. This results in data holdups and collisions, hogging precious bandwidth and causing network slowdown, particularly when using multiple devices simultaneously.

In contrast, switches are supportive of full-duplex communication between devices, which means data can be sent and received simultaneously. Although switches and hubs have the same purpose, switches are much more intelligent and capable than ordinary hubs. Therefore, in Ethernet switch vs. hub, you should always go for the former.

Note that Ethernet hubs look much like switches, so don’t make the mistake of buying a hub when you really want a switch.

Also read: is your Ethernet speed capped at 100 Mbps in Windows? We can help.

3. What Is an Ethernet Splitter?

An Ethernet splitter looks pretty unassuming. It’s a small gizmo with three Ethernet ports: two on one side and one on the other. If you have a surplus of short Ethernet cables, but only one or two long cables, this is where a splitter comes in handy.

The way it works is very simple: use an RJ45 splitter connector at one end, and on the other, connect two computers, enabling two devices to connect simultaneously to the LAN.

Note: an Ethernet splitter doesn’t actually increase the number of devices you can connect via Ethernet, and you will need a splitter at the other end to “unsplit” the connection back into two cables, so two Ethernet splitters will be required each time.

When to Use an Ethernet Splitter

For some limited situations, Ethernet splitters are a good option. However, it’s almost always better to opt for an Ethernet switch or hub.

In the past, a splitter was slower. It could not transmit data faster than 10 to 100 Mbps, the intended use of an Ethernet cable. That’s about all a splitter could handle. However, that’s changing. For example, this Gigabit splitter can work simultaneously to deliver 1000 Mbps to each device.

In a simple scenario, where Ethernet splitters can be useful, a typical home router is in one room and your desktop PC and gaming console in the other. However, you want to connect both to Ethernet, but there’s only one Ethernet port in each room. You can run two cables from the router, plug them both into a splitter, plug the splitter into the wall, and reverse that on the other side with another splitter that plugs into both of the devices you want to connect.

Ethernet Splitter vs. Switch: What’s the Difference?

The biggest difference when examining an Ethernet switch vs. a splitter, is that the former can accommodate multiple devices, supporting as many as 48 or 50 PoE ports. In contrast, splitters can only work with two devices at the same time.

Switches are intelligent devices that can plan and route the data in the network. Splitters are just a piece of hardware that holds two cables in their position. A major downside of one is that it reduces the number of utilized wires in a Cat 5e Ethernet cable and reduces the data throughput from 1000Mbps to 100Mbps, barely on par with most home Internet connections.

Each of these solutions has something different to offer, so before purchasing any gadget, it’s important to identify which one has the most to offer you.

There’s another option, though. With the recent arrival of the Wi-Fi 7 standards, routers can scale to cover hundreds of devices, which is unprecedented. Still, you may want to check out our guide on connecting two computers with just an Ethernet cable.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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Sayak Boral

Sayak Boral is a technology writer with over eleven years of experience working in different industries including semiconductors, IoT, enterprise IT, telecommunications OSS/BSS, and network security. He has been writing for MakeTechEasier on a wide range of technical topics including Windows, Android, Internet, Hardware Guides, Browsers, Software Tools, and Product Reviews.

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