Difference Between USB vs Ethernet

USB and Ethernet are both connectivity technologies that are heavily used in modern day computers; almost all computers include at least one of each port within its design. USB and Ethernet are physical connectors that can connect multiple computers or devices and utilize a specific protocol to govern how messages are sent and received over the network or bus.

While they both are similar in this aspect, they also have different purposes and are preferable for certain applications. For instance, Ethernet is almost exclusively used for wired networking, while USB is most often used to connect computers to USB peripherals that include mice, keyboards, cameras, etc.

In this blog, we will discuss the differences between USB and Ethernet, their own capabilities and qualities, and when they are favored in specific use cases.

What is USB?

USB, or Universal Serial Bus, is a serial protocol used to transfer data and power between devices, typically a host computer and a peripheral device (input/output devices). USB was created to establish a universal standard for connecting computing devices together, helping to replace the existing mixed-connector system with a simpler architecture and reduce the number of cables and different connection types used within the setup.

White USB cable and connector Photo by Srattha Nualsate

To make this possible, all USB devices share some key characteristics. For instance, all USB devices are self-identifying on the bus and offer plug-and-play capabilities. Once a peripheral device is connected to the host computer, a sequence of steps known as the enumeration process is performed to allow the host to quickly learn about the device and how to interact with it. Through the USB standard, the devices can communicate back and forth. Additionally, some devices can draw power from the USB which eliminates the need for extra power adapters.

Today, millions of devices today have adopted the USB standard, including many we use daily, from keyboards, mice, cameras/webcams, USB flash drives, audio devices, and much more. By standardizing this connection and port, USB has made it possible for consumers to seamlessly connect various peripheral devices with their computer.

What is Ethernet?

Ethernet, on the other hand, is a high-speed networking protocol that connects devices over a wired network like local area network (LAN) or wide area network (WAN) using an Ethernet cable connection. While Ethernet is commonly used to create a hardwired Internet connection between a computer/device and an Internet router, it can also be used to connect other devices together; for example, desktop to desktop, desktop to laptop, computers to printers, and other commonly used peripherals in the home or the office.

Blue Ethernet cable and connector Photo by Pixabay

Once a connection between the computer and device is established, the Ethernet port will automatically configure itself with the appropriate settings and will be ready to send and receive data.

In some cases, the port must be configured with an IP address. This address is used to identify the device on the network.

Comparing USB and Ethernet

Both USB and Ethernet can be used to connect computers to devices, but knowing various aspects can help determine which is best for certain applications. Below are various comparison factors to help distinguish the two and some of their advantages.

USB vs Ethernet Power Capabilities

USB can provide a small amount of power to computing devices. Some devices will only even draw power from the USB port but will not interface with the processor. This can occur in peripheral devices such as a USB-powered fan or light.

On the contrary, Ethernet can only transfer data. The devices at both points need to have their power source.

USB vs Ethernet Cable Length

When it comes to comparing the maximum length a USB and Ethernet cable can support, Ethernet cables typically exceeds USB.

Generally, a USB cable has a maximum length of 5 meters to still be considered reliable at sending/receiving data.

Ethernet cables can be up to 100 meters long – significantly longer than USB.

USB vs Ethernet Transfer Speed

Depending on the cable specification, a USB or Ethernet cable can both support high data transfer speeds. In general, for the fastest speeds, USB is capable of surpassing that of Ethernet.

USB transfer speeds typically range from USB 1.1 at 12 Mbps, USB 2.0 at 480 Mbps, USB 3.2 at 10 Gbps, and the latest USB4 up to 40 Gbps.

Ethernet network speeds typically range from standard Ethernet at 10 Mbps, Fast Ethernet at 100 Mbps, Gigabit Ethernet at 1000 Mbps, and up to 10 Gbps using 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

USB vs Ethernet Applications

USB is generally the better option for transferring data between a computer and peripheral devices, including a desktop, laptop, smartphone, and keyboard. It is also optimal for powering devices as needed.

Ethernet is best used for connecting a modem or router with your computer. Because Ethernet uses a LAN to transfer data, it doesn’t need to share bandwidth with other devices, unlike with USB.

What is “Ethernet Over USB”?

USB and Ethernet standards generally operate separately, however, there are situations where they can be used together. “Ethernet over USB” can suggest a few ways in which the Ethernet standard can interact with USB technology. For instance, one of these includes using an external device or dongle that can be plugged into a USB port to provide a computer or other device with an Ethernet port connection. Through this, users can take advantage of “plug and play” Ethernet capabilities if not readily available.

In a different sense of the meaning “Ethernet over USB”, this can also refer to the use of the Ethernet protocol over physical USB cables and connectors. This can allow two devices to be networked through the use of widely-adopted cables most people own. It is also a way to provide a wired network connection for devices that lack an Ethernet port. Because this is not a standard use of USB or Ethernet technologies, specific software often needs to be installed on both computers or devices networked in this manner.

I2C and SPI Debugging Tools with High-Speed USB and Ethernet Connectivity Capabilities

Total Phase offers various debugging and development tools to allow embedded engineers to gain special insight into their embedded systems. Our line of host adapters includes the Promira Serial Platform, an advanced serial device that provides best-of-breed features for I2C and SPI programming, system emulation, and prototyping.

One of these features includes its high-speed connectivity capabilities. This device offers two connection ports that allow users to quickly interface with their systems including a High-Speed USB port and Ethernet port.

The High-Speed USB port allows users to interface with the Promira platform over a direct USB connection at up to 480 Mbps. This connection also features a pipelined architecture for queuing of commands for gapless shifting. Both of these abilities together allow for a fast interaction between the host computer and Promira platform.

The Ethernet port allows users to connect the Promira platform to a LAN network for remote access to the tool. This option can also be useful when the host PC has a limited number of ports available or if users want a cleaner setup with fewer cables.

To learn more about the advantages of the high-speed connectivity options of this tool, please read the full blog here.

Conclusion

USB and Ethernet are both connectivity technologies that are used universally for connecting computing devices together. While both allow for data transmission over bus or network, these two are generally favored for certain applications: USB for connecting peripherals to host computers and Ethernet for connecting devices over a wired network. However, there are a multitude of other applications where they can be used. Each offers its own capabilities and strengths, so it is important to recognize these when deciding which to use in your own design.