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Although from the outside they all look the same, there is actually quite a variety to choose from when it comes to choosing an ethernet cable.
The main differences between the different types of ethernet cable are the cost to buy, the speeds they can offer, the length in which they can be run, how they are wired and designed, their maximum frequency, and what they are intended to be used for.
In this article, we will take a look at the different types of ethernet cable available, how to identify them, what the differences are between them, and help you decide which may be best for you to use in your home network.
What Are the Different Types of Ethernet Cable?
Before looking at the differences between the different standards of ethernet cables, let’s first get an overview of what they actually are and how they work.
Ethernet is the most popular form of local area network technology which is widely used across the world from the largest of organizations down to individuals at home like you and me.
The very first iteration of ethernet cable was known as Category 3, or Cat3 for short. This along with Cat5 cable has now largely become obsolete as they are simply too slow for most devices; they cannot keep up with the performance that a lot of modern devices are now capable of.
Cat5 cable received its name as it uses the fifth generation of twisted pair ethernet technology. It contains four pairs of copper wires that are twisted together as a way of providing an ethernet connection.
The next standard of ethernet cable developed was Cat5e, also known as Cat5 Enhanced. It is considered to be an upgrade to Cat5 as it utilizes all four pairs of twisted wires to better support the ever-expanding use of gigabit ethernet.
It is also backward compatible with older devices that may support a standard Cat5 connection.
Cat5e cable is built under stricter standards which helps to reduce crosstalk and is still one of the most commonly used types of ethernet cable.
In fact, I personally still use Cat5e cable throughout my own home network.
Cat6 cables are up next which have a slightly different construction to Cat5 and Cat5e cable whilst also supporting higher bandwidths.
The cables are twisted tighter together and will often come with either foil or braided shielding. This won’t be visible from the outside, so you would need to remove the outer jacket of the cable in order to see it.
The shielding is designed to better protect the copper cables inside with the aim of further reducing the chances of crosstalk and other forms of noise interference.
Cat6 cable can support faster speeds than Cat5e cable with a limit of 10 Gbps, but you are limited to a maximum distance of 55 meters. Cat5e cable is limited to 1 Gbps, which is still plenty fast enough for the majority of people, but with a maximum distance of 100 meters for a single length of cable.
Cat6a cable is the next standard of ethernet cable to be introduced, with the “a” standing for “augmented”.
Cat6a cable supports twice the maximum bandwidth of what Cat6 cable can support whilst also being able to maintain higher data transmission speeds over a longer length of cable.
These more modern will always be shielded and the outer jacket is much thicker than that you find on the older standards of cable.
The reason for this design decision was to help reduce crosstalk even further. The sheathing is so thick that it can eliminate crosstalk altogether, but with the caveat being that the cable is much denser and therefore less flexible than the other standards of cable.
This is something you probably want to keep in mind if you are looking to run ethernet cable with a few bends in the way between both devices.
Now as you would expect with Cat7 cable, it supports higher bandwidths and faster transmission speeds than Cat6 cables.
Although limited to just 15 meters when operating at a maximum speed of 100 Gbps, they can make an excellent choice of cable in certain situations.
Even if the cable needs to be run further than 15 meters, they are still capable of delivering incredibly fast speeds which most people won’t even be able to take full advantage of due to being limited by the speeds they receive from their internet service provider.
Like Cat6a cable, Cat7 cable will always be shielded, but actually uses a modified gigagate45 connector. Thankfully, this is still backward compatible with a regular RJ45 port so you don’t have to worry about only being able to use Cat7 cable with compatible devices.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that Cat7 cable can be considerably more expensive than the older standards of ethernet cable, but the outstanding performance it can provide is the justification for the higher price tag.
The most recent standard of ethernet cable to be introduced is Cat8 cable, which once again provides a leap in data transfer speeds compared with Cat7 cable, which is already incredibly fast.
One of the key differences that sets Cat8 cable apart is the shielding that it uses. Each twisted pair is wrapped in foil which is meant to eliminate crosstalk altogether whilst also enabling higher data transmission speeds.
As you would expect, the overall cable is both heavier and thicker, making it rigid and a bit trickier to install in tighter spaces.
How to Identify Different Types of Ethernet Cable
At a quick glance, all ethernet cables appear to be the same, regardless of which type they are and the standard that they meet.
Telling the different cables apart from the color of the outer jacket can be both difficult and unreliable, and all cables will use an RJ45 connector meaning this cannot be used to identify the type of cable either.
You could argue that the thickness of the cable can be used to help identify them as the more recent standards of cable are thicker and more rigid because of the shielding that is in place, but this still isn’t particularly reliable.
The best way to identify the type of ethernet cable is to read the text that should be printed on the outside of the jacket. This should tell you which standard the cable meets and will often also display how much bandwidth the cable is capable of transmitting.
If you have a reel of ethernet cable that comes in a box, allowing you to make your own lengths of cable, you might even find the total length of the cable that is left printed on the jacket too.
If you are purchasing cabling online, as most people do, the product description should clearly state which type of ethernet cable that it is.
What Are the Differences Between Different Types of Ethernet Cable?
Now that you have an overview of these different types of network cabling standards, let’s take a closer look at the differences between them. The four main differences being cost, speed, length, and use.
Just like with any other technology, you can expect to have to pay more for the newer, more advanced cabling, which in this case is Cat8 cable.
You can typically expect to pay around 10% to 20% more for Cat6 cable compared to Cat5e cable, with the price generally increasing as you look at the more recent standards.
Still, the cost for cabling is still relatively low when you consider the other equipment you may want to include in your home network, such as a more advanced router or a rack or cabinet to store all of your networking gear.
My opinion is that a newer standard of cable, but not necessarily Cat8, is worth that little extra investment for the other benefits that it brings, especially if you need a higher data transfer rate for particular devices on your home network.
This brings us on to speed. How much faster is the latest Cat8 cable than the older Cat5e cable that many people are still making use of even today, and is it worth the extra price?
Speed is an important factor when choosing which type of network cabling to use in your home network.
Now you may be wanting to just opt for Cat8 cable as it offers greater speeds than all of the other standards of cable, but just remember that the cable you use should be equivalent to the device you are connecting the cable.
You simply won’t get the full benefit of using Cat8 on a device that can only support 10 Mbps transfer speeds, for example.
|Category of Ethernet Cable||Maximum Transmission Speed (at 100 meters)|
As they are all made of copper wire, it is fair to assume that all types of ethernet cables are all intended to transfer data across a relatively short distance.
Manufacturers recommend a maximum distance of 100 meters, or 328 feet, to get the most out of the speeds that the different standards can offer.
The maximum transmission speed at 100 meters will vary depending on the type of cable you are using, though.
As technology has advanced, the newer standards of cable can extend past 100 meters whilst still maintaining very fast data transfer speeds and frequency.
Most people aren’t likely to have a need for a single length of cable to extend past 100 meters, but it is still nice to know the newer cables can cope with these extended distances if the need does ever arrive.
4. Wiring and Design
Cat5, Cat5e, and Cat6 all use twisted-pair cables made of copper wire. Typically, you find eight individual wires that have twisted together to form four pairs.
As Cat6 has more stringent specifications compared to say Cat5, the wiring inside is slightly different, despite still using the twisted pair mode.
The wires are twisted slightly tighter and a longitudinal separator has been incorporated into the Cat6 design to isolate each of the four twisted pairs.
As a result, Cat6 cable offers significantly less interference and crosstalk compared to both Cat5 and Cat5e.
Crosstalk is a disturbance that is caused by the electric or magnetic fields of one signal affecting another. This can occur when lots of cables are near one another and interfere with each other as a result.
The issues caused by crosstalk include errors and a loss of packets, amongst others.
In addition to the tighter cabling and separator in Cat6 cable, improved shielding is also used in the manufacturing process to help reduce the impact of crosstalk.
|Category of Ethernet Cable||Shielding|
|Cat6||Either Shielded or Unshielded|
Frequency, also referred to as bandwidth, affects the speed of communication. A higher frequency essentially means that more data can be transmitted in the same time span; it is measured in megahertz (MHz) .
This isn’t to be confused with the maximum transmission speed which is measured in Mbps or Gbps depending on the standard of cable.
The maximum frequency of a particular type of cable can also impact the potential noise that is experienced across the cable and the maximum distance in which it is most effective.
There is a direct correlation between the standard of ethernet cable and the maximum bandwidth, with the most recent standard, Cat8, having the highest maximum bandwidth.
|Category of Ethernet Cable||Maximum Bandwidth|
The type of cable used will often be influenced by what you are looking to use the cable to achieve.
For example, Cat5e cable would typically be used to connect devices such as patch panels, routers, switches, a desktop PC, or really any other device that requires an Internet connection.
Cat6 cable could be used with telephones, and Cat7 is well suited for devices that may stream video thanks to its ability to transfer data at a faster rate when higher frequencies are used.
There is a temptation to just use Cat8 all over your home network to cover your bases.
There is nothing wrong with that, but do bear in mind that you will ultimately end up paying more yet may not necessarily get the most out of what Cat8 has to offer, depending on what you are looking to use it for.
Which Type of Ethernet Cable Is Best for a Home Network?
There’s isn’t really a “best” type of ethernet cable that you can use in your average home network, but I do have a few recommendations depending on the situation you find yourself in.
If you are already using ethernet throughout your home, you may be wondering if it is worth upgrading it to a newer standard.
If you are still using Cat5 or older, I would suggest upgrading to at least Cat5e cable. If you are already using Cat5e, I personally do not think upgrading further at this time is worth it.
Cat5e provides substantial improvements over Cat5 which most people will actually be able to make use of with the types of devices used throughout the home, with the big jump in maximum transmission speed from 100 Mbps all the way up to 1 Gbps being the most beneficial.
Cat6a cable and newer do of course support speeds of 10 Gbps and beyond, but most people won’t actually be able to take full advantage of this, so you end up paying more but not getting any further gain from it.
Now if you haven’t used ethernet before and are looking to wire your home for the first time, my recommendation is slightly different.
If you are buying ethernet cable for the first time, I would suggest going for the newest standard that you can afford.
You may not notice the difference between using a newer standard like Cat7 and the older Cat5e standard, but you are least future-proofing yourself and won’t have a need to upgrade again in the near future.
The difference in price between the newer and older standards isn’t huge here, and in my opinion, is worth it.
Wiring your home with ethernet can a time-consuming task, especially if you have a large home and are looking to provide every room with ethernet, so the less often you need to run cable, the better.
By opting for a later standard of cable, you won’t have to worry about the older standard potentially becoming redundant or not quite good enough for your needs and ultimately have to upgrade and re-wire your entire home once again.
To summarize, if you are already using Cat5e cable, I don’t think you need to worry about upgrading at this time as this standard of cable is still perfectly suitable for the vast majority of people, including myself.
But if you are wiring your home with ethernet cable for the first time, I would recommend choosing the latest standard of cable that you can afford. The reason for this is not necessarily for the faster speeds or higher maximum bandwidth, but to future-proof yourself more than anything.
Recommended Ethernet Cables
If you are looking for some Ethernet cables for your own home network, here are some recommendations.
- Monoprice Cat6a Cable – This cable is half the thickness of a regular Cat6a cable and comes in a variety of lengths and colors.
- Vandesail Cat7 Cable – This cable delivers the best performance with speeds up to 10 Gbps and supports a bandwidth of 1,000 Mhz. The flat design is also space-saving.
- Fast Cat Cat5e Bulk Cable – Buying in bulk and making your own Ethernet cables could save you money in the long run and offers more flexibility around the length of cable you need.
If you found this article helpful, here are some others on ethernet cables that you might want to check out: