Dear Lifehacker, Everything is going wireless nowadays. Optical drives are being removed from computers in favour of getting content from the internet, mobile data is becoming fast enough to replace wired connections for the average person, and there are few peripherals I really use anymore. Am I missing out by ignoring the wired world? What's still worth plugging in?
Sincerely, Plugged Out
Photo by 3DStock (Shutterstock).
Dear Plugged Out,
Although Gigabit Wi-Fi is just around the corner and mobile broadband is fast enough for the average consumer, the wired world still matters. Wireless is on the verge of achieving some incredible speeds, but that's only really relevant when it comes to internet connectivity. While I'm a MacBook Air owner and couldn't care less about an optical drive and most peripherals for the computer, that doesn't mean there aren't lots of things that really need to operate over a wire. So what ports do you actually need and what's worth keeping around? Let's take a look.
I'm terribly excited for Gigabit Wi-Fi because wiring up a home can get pretty annoying. That said, without stellar wireless reception and plenty of patience, Wi-Fi just isn't fast enough for a lot of things. Streaming HD video through a wall from my server and router's location to the TV in my bedroom just isn't very reliable over Wi-Fi, and the signal doesn't have to travel very far. The problem is worse for people in houses or large apartments, especially when dealing with several floors. Even when Gigabit Wi-Fi is a reality, reception will still be something of an issue. While Ethernet may not have a place on ultramobile laptops, there are still tons of reasons to use it. Here are a couple that will continue to matter even as Wi-Fi speeds improve.
Back Up Faster Over The Network
Hey, did you know that backing up your data is important? It's also kind of annoying when your laptop is sending gigabytes of data over a good-but-not-great wireless connection while you're trying to work or use the internet. Sure, you can run it at night, but then you have to remember to plug in your laptop and leave it on. If you're dealing with a lot of data, it may not even finish by morning.
Network backups go a whole heck of a lot faster if you just plug in the Ethernet cable. It's also less of a strain on your computer and its battery. So if you can backup over Ethernet, do it. That fast, gigabit connection makes a big difference and, if your network backups are automated, you can just plug it in and let the computer take care of everything in the background much more quickly.
Keep Up with Your Ultra-Fast Internet
Cable internet speeds are rising fast. I'm currently paying the same amount of money for a 100Mb connection as I did for a 3Mb connection 10 years ago. Although 802.11n is theoretically capable of handling high-speed internet, I've found that it tends to cap out around 25-30Mbps in general use. If you love fast internet and want to make the most of it, you need an Ethernet connection. Wireless just can't keep up.
If you want to use Ethernet as your primary network connection but aren't sure of the best way to do it, check out our guide to going completely wired in your home.
USB 3.0 (and 2.0)
USB 3.0 is fantastic. It's super-fast and few days go by when I don't wish my laptop had it. One of the reasons I built Hackintoshes instead of buying official Apple hardware is because I wanted USB 3.0 in my machines. You barely have to wait for most data transfers, the technology uses fewer resources than USB 2.0, and USB 2.0 devices still work just fine. But even USB 2.0 has its place with loads of useful devices available. You already know you can plug in a hard drive and transfers will be faster than if you were copying files over a wireless network, so let's take a look at some of the other cool stuff you can do over USB.
Remote Control Your Camera
DSLR Controller is an app that is enough to justify the existence of Android, as far as I'm concerned. It lets you control your DSLR camera in every possible way directly from your phone or tablet and you can even see what the camera sees. All of this is possible by plugging in your camera directly to your Android device. Most devices do not come with a USB port, but if yours does, you can count yourself exceptionally lucky. If not, you can pay a few bucks for a USB female adaptor for your tablet or smartphone to gain the option. It works exceptionally well and wouldn't if it were wireless. I say this confidently because the iOS option, DSLR Remote, is problematically less responsive as it operates without wires — except not entirely. You still have to wire the app to your computer so your iDevice can access it over Wi-Fi. While it's still a very cool app, in this regard it's the worst of both worlds. Of course, there are plenty of great ways to remote control your camera, both with and without wires, but if it weren't for USB the best option wouldn't be an option at all.
Record High Quality Audio
Audio isn't something you want to hand over to the wireless gods and hope for the best. Mobile phones are the best example of the worst results, but even with plenty of bandwidth for a high-quality recording, you're still dealing with some latency issues. Eventually these kinks will be worked out and there may be some neat wireless audio technologies, but for now USB is the way to go for recording high-quality tracks. Setting up a home recording studio can be pretty inexpensive nowadays, and one of the main components of that cheap setup is the audio interface. Sure, you can get a complex sound card and install it in your desktop PC, but there are lots of great USB interfaces for just a few hundred dollars that sound great and let you hook up at least two mics. You wind up with a really solid recording setup for podcasting, music production or whatever else you want to do. You need a wired connection for this. Wireless just doesn't cut it.
Anything That Can Be Done with a Thumb Drive
Seriously, where would we be without thumb drives? There are so many great uses. Thumb drives pretty much validate USB's existence because they are one of the most useful tools out there. Not unusual or clever, but nonetheless still significantly awesome after all these years. In addition to handy storage, spy drives, recovery disks, portable app drives, an awesome upgrade to the old mixtape and so many more reasons, we wouldn't have the best character on hit TV show Revenge — the USB whale cam — without it.
Charge Your Other Gadgets
Even if you're not using USB as a data connection, it's also a power source for your smartphone and probably several other devices. If you don't have external chargers on hand, the empty USB ports in your computer are suddenly lifesavers. Not only does it mean packing less for travel, but being able to plug in your devices at work or virtually anywhere. You can take less stuff with you, or just have less stuff in general, and that's rarely a bad thing.
Audio and Video Cables
Wireless video isn't great. Wireless HDMI exists and is better than you might expect, but it's still not nearly as good as the wire. You definitely can't expect to hook up a monitor over a wireless connection, and the apps that turn tablets and other computer displays into a wireless monitor still come with a lot of lag. Video conferencing is one of the few awesome things you can do with video wirelessly, leaving so many more reasons to plug in. Here are a few favourites.
Put Your Tablet or Smartphone On Your TV
Whether you've got an Android or iDevice, there's almost certainly an option to connect it to your television with an HDMI adaptor (if it doesn't come with an HDMI port built into it already). Many people ignore this option, but there are a lot of cool things you can do if you're willing to take the time. One of my favourites — which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me — is turning your phone or tablet into a retro arcade and hooking it up to the television. Android is definitely more suitable for this specific purpose because the emulators are better and you can connect all sorts of wireless controllers, but nonetheless you've basically got a portable arcade in a tiny package.
On top of that, you can play any regular games, give presentations and mirror just about anything very easily. While some devices will allow for this over a wireless connection — namely iDevices with AirPlay mirroring support — you can only stream to other compatible devices and the quality and reliability isn't quite as good. Wired gives you many more options here.
Get the Highest-Quality Sound
Bluetooth audio is getting better, and someday it will be good enough for general use, but if you have a high-quality audio source and care how it sounds, you're not going to want to hear it through anything but a wire. If you love music, owning the perfect pair of headphones and speakers make a world of difference, and a lot of that relies on the quality of the signal. Right now you're just not going to get the best sound by going over the air.
PS What wired stuff is still awesome and important to you? Let us know in the comments!
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