If you are going to purchase an ethernet cable for any, you may have noticed that there are several different types available. But have you ever wondered what are the differences between them? And what you should use for your home network? Does it matter which one you get?

Well, in this article we will take a deep look into the different types of ethernet cables, and how to select the right one for your home network. 

Before diving into that the differences between the Cat5, Cat6, and Cat7, let us take a quick look at types of twisted-pair Ethernet cables that are used in Local Area Networks. 

1. Types of Twisted Pair Ethernet Cables

Twisted pair cables are the Ethernet cables that are used to connect our computers to our routers or modem to have access to the internet. 

Internet twisted pair cables come in two different types. These are:

– Unshielded Twisted Pair ( UTP )

This is by far the most common type of cable that is used today. Unshielded twisted pair has four pairs of color-coded wires which are twisted around each other. These wires are twisted to prevent electromagnetic disturbance or interference known as crosstalk. 

This is the type of network cable most people use in their businesses or homes. An example is a Cat5 cable. 

– Shielded Twisted Pair ( STP )

This type of ethernet cable is very similar to the UTP, however, the key difference is that the STP has a foil shield that covers the wires. This shielding adds an extra layer of protection against electromagnetic interference which can leak into or outside the cable. 

This type of cable is mainly used for industrial purposes, however, some people use them in their homes and businesses. An example is the CAT6a cable. 

Now we know the types of twisted pair ethernet cables, let us take a look at the three main categories of ethernet cables. 

2. Cat5 vs Cat6 vs Cat7: What’s The Difference?

-First, What is the meaning of the ” CAT” Ratings?

Well, for ethernet cables, the word ” Cat” stands for Category. And the different numbers represent different specifications and standards for the cable. So, you can think of them as different versions. 

The good news is, all these cables will typically ” work” since the new versions are all backward compatible. This means that they all use the same RJ45 connector, which is often known as- an ethernet port. 

So What Makes them Different?

Two factors make each ethernet cable different. These are:

  • The rated performance of each. 
  • The demand for material and installation to use within each cable

Let’s dive into how each cable differs from the other:

i. Cat5

The Cat5 is common but these days if you hear someone say Cat5 they are usually referring to the newer version known as Cat5e. But we are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves with that.

A true Cat5 cable is obsolete, and you probably cannot even find them anywhere to purchase. 

Rated Performance:

This type of cable has a 100 Mhz bandwidth which is only rated up to 100mbps at 100 meters maximum length. 

So, only being rated for 100mbps, you are rarely going to see these anymore, because usually, 1 gigabyte is now the minimum. If you’re still using one, then you need to replace it. Because in addition to having a slower speed, it also might be less reliable than the new types we will discuss later. 

Material and Installation:

When the Cat5 cable is cut open, you will see two twisted pairs of copper wires. Each pair is color-coded with no insulation between each pair. Also, the entire cable has no insulation. The design of the material and installation of the Cat5 is what I call- straightforward. 

ii. Cat5e 

The Cat5e stands for Category 5 enhanced. Cat5e are common these days. 

Rated Performance:

The Cat5e has a rated speed of 1gbps or 1000mbps per 100m and bandwidth of 100MHz, as opposed to the original with a rated speed of 100mbps. 

This is made possible due to the improved specs regarding twisting of wire pairs inside, shielding and other improvements which we will take a look at soon. These improved specs reduce crosstalks or the interference of the different signals which will reduce speed. 

Materials and Installation:

Regular Cat5 requires 2 twisted pairs of copper wires, whiles Cat5e uses four. So, it can transfer much more data. 

A Cat5 cable may have 4 pairs of twisted wires but it only requires two. So, an important thing to note is that the rating certifications are for bare minimum specs. So, a cable will likely be capable of carrying much more data than what it is rated for. 

So, for example, a Cat5 cable might be capable of transferring data close to gigabit speed it is a high-quality premium cable, even though it is older. And the same will go for all types of cables. 


iii. Cat6

After the Cat5e came the Cat6. I will then Cat6 is my recommended option if you are not sure of what type of cable you want to purchase. This is because it has a moderate price range depending on where you buy it, and it will future proof your cable for a while. 

Rated Performance:

The Cat6 bumped up the specs from 1 gigabit to 10 Gbps, at 55 meters with a bandwidth of 250Mhz. 

For those of you confused as to what bandwidth means, it means the range of frequencies that the cable can reliably use, which explains how that improves the speed. Its got more space to fit more data in. 

The Cat6 further reduces crosstalks by using tighter wound wire pairs and may also use things like a plastic core through the middle of the cable to better separate the internal wires. 

Materials and Installation:

Most Cat6 cables are flat, making them very handy going through tight corners within the house, for example, the door frames. 

In terms of the installation, you will see that it has 4 twisted pairs, but what makes the Cat6 different from the Cat5 is that the Cat6 has either a foil( insulation) or a plastic core separating each pair of wire as said earlier. This insulation reduces the interference between each twisted pair.

Also, each twisted pair has copper wires, and the purpose of that is to again reduce the crosstalk between each cable, within the twisted pair. 

If you’re not sure what type of cable to buy, Cat6 is a good choice, since it probably wouldn’t be much expensive to buy, depending on where you buy it, and it will futureproof your cable for a while. You’ll probably be able to use it for the near future. 

But this is especially important if the wire cannot be easily replaced as if you’re wiring a house, where it will just be in the walls forever, I recommend you get at least Cat6.

However, if you’re just buying a general-purpose cable for your laptop or something, then I recommend you get the Cat5e. Since I doubt any of your devices is capable of 10gig anyways. 

iv. Cat6a 

Maybe by now, you might be thinking if Cat6 is the best, why then will you need anything more than 10gig, right? Well, you might be right but we are not stopping there. 

Another higher version of the Cat6 is the Cat6a. 

Rated Performance:

The Cat6a is capable of transferring data at a speed of 10gbps, but a longer distance of 100 meters instead of 55 meters. It has a much larger bandwidth of 500MHZ. 

So if you’re looking into creating a 10 gig network, Cat6a will be more reliable at getting your full speed since it has better specs to reduce crosstalk. 


v. Cat7

This is the big daddy of internet cables. As far as I can tell this is the fastest Ethernet cable available. Some cables claim to be category 8, but I do not think they truly are. 

Rated Performance:

The category7 is also rated for a 10gig speed but with a much larger bandwidth of 600MHZ. 

Materials and Installation:

Comparing the Cat7 to other cables, the outside coating is thicker than that of any other cable.

Furthermore, it has the strictest specification for reducing crosstalk, such as requiring shielding between individual wiring pairs, in the cable, as well as mesh insulation for the entire cable. The purpose of the mesh insulation is to improve the durability of the cable, as well as reduce interference from the external environment. 

This seems to be all about improving reliability, and not necessarily improving the speed since it doesn’t improve anything above 10 Gbps. 

However, it is probably capable of higher speeds if you have a switch that is capable of faster than 10gig. 

So, generally, I think Cat7 would be best suited for extreme future-proofing permanent wire installations, for people who are not just satisfied with the best but want the completely unnecessary. 

So, let’s say if you’re wiring a house, and you just want to go all out, then you can get the Cat7. 

Below is a table summarizing all that was said above:

CategoryRated Performance Length Maximum BandwidthCable Type
CAT5100 Mbps
 100 Meters 100 MHz UTP
CAT5e 1000 Mbps
100 Meters 100 MHz
UTP
CAT6 1000/10,000 Mbps 55 Meters 250 MHz
UTP or STP
CAT6a10,000 Mbps 100 Meters 500 MHz
STP
CAT710,000 Mbps 100 Meters 600 MHz
SSTP


3. Does It Matter the Kind of Cable You Buy?

Now, we have learned that there are tons of different Ethernet cables you can use, but does it matter? 

To find out if the kind of cable works, I did a quick test. 

So, I got three different cables, A Cat5e, a Cat6, and a Cat7, all of the same lengths of 7 ft. I wanted to find out if it will make any difference if I used them with a gigabit internet connection since it is the fastest internet connection available to us now. 

Yes, I could have done a local gigabit test, however, I decided to do it this way, since it is more practical that way. 

Procedure:

All I did for this test was to connect my laptop directly to my router using each of the cable types. Also, to make sure there was no limiting factor, I had my router connected to the fiber optic intake with a Cat7 cable, so there is no limiting agent there. 

Results:

So after I tested it these were my results:

CABLE TYPEAVERAGE DOWNLOAD RATE
Cat5e 940 Mbps
Cat6 932 Mbps
Cat7 935 Mbps

So, what was the difference? Well, none at all. As I pretty much expected, with such a short distance of only 7 feet, all the cables were capable of handling the gigabit connection. 

I had also tested the upload speed but it was very inconsistent between tests of the same type of cable, so, I didn’t consider that. 

So, the take away here is that unless you need to worry about futureproofing your connections, it doesn’t matter what type of cable you buy. 

Perhaps if you have tons and tons of cables packed right next to each other and it is electronic noisy and you need that extra shielding, then the improved shielding on the better category will help you. However, in all other cases, it really shouldn’t matter. 

After looking at all these you may be wondering, what is the point of all these cables if it doesn’t matter in most situations. Well, part of it is marketing, since it’s easy to say you need the ” better ” with the higher number, which of course will cost more. But, of course, there is networking hardware out there that is capable of 10 gig ethernet- it is usually commercial equipment though. 

However, we are starting to see some 10-gigabit consumers grade switches out there. An example is the Asus XG-U2008 switch, which has two 10 gigabit ports along with 8 regular gigabit ports.

So, with this, you could hook your computer along with and maybe a network storage device to the 10 gig port, and everything else will go into the regular gigabit ones. That way, even if none of the other devices on the network is capable of 10gigabit, it will allow multiple 1-gigabit data transfers to multiple devices simultaneously. So, the 10-gigabit storage server will be able to provide out that 10 gigabits and it will be leached off by as many devices as you want. Or of course, you could do a full 10gigabit transfer between the two devices plugged in, so between your server and computer if they are both plugged into the other port. 

So, in that sort of situation where you do have 10gigabit capabilities, you would need a Cat6 or higher at least for those two 10gigabit ports. And it’s over any kind of distance then Cat6a would be ideal. for better reliability. 

So, the take away from theses cables is that even the old Ethernet standards have held up surprisingly well. Believe it or not, the RJ45 connector was used in these Ethernet cables was first standardized in 1987. 

At that time, the initial spec was only 3KHz bandwidth, and now it is getting into the Gigahertz. So, I think it is safe to say that the connector probably is here for a while and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon since it seems there is still a lot of room for improvement and expansion. 

Now you know the ethernet cable category you want to buy, how then do you install an ethernet cable?

4. How to Install an Ethernet Cable By Yourself?

If you’re looking to make your custom cables, then typically you would buy a bulk roll of twisted pair cables, and then you need to wire them correctly before you can attach an RJ45 connector to each end. 

Follow these steps below and you would know how to do this correctly:

– To do this, first, you would have to remove the protective shielding at each end of the cable to expose the wire. You can do this by using a cable stripper, by inserting the cable into the cable stripper and then the outer shielding is removed to expose the wire.

– When done, you will insert the cable into a wire crimper and attach an RJ45 connector. 

However, before you attach the connector, the wires in the cable should be arranged in a certain order. That order will vary depending on what you want to do with your cable. 

The most common types of Ethernet cables wiring orders used in a local area network are straight cables and crossover cables. 

Before we dive into these two, two different wiring standards are used. these are:

– 568A 

The 568A is arranged in the following order from top to bottom: white-green, green, white-orange, blue, white-blue, orange, white-brown and brown. 

– 568B 

The 568B is wired in the following order from top to bottom: white-orange, orange, white-green, blue, white-blue, green, white-brown, and brown. 

So, the only difference between the 568A and the 568B standards is that the orange wires are swapped with the green wires. However, it doesn’t matter which standard you use, both standards do the same thing. However, in the United States, most people use the 568B standard. 

So, should you choose either the A standard or the B standard, if both ends of the cable are wired using the same standard, then this is what is known as – a Straight Cable. Which is sometimes referred to as a Patch Cable? 

A straight cable will allow signals to pass through from end to end and this is the most commonly used in LAN networks. 

You should use a straight cable wiring order when you want to connect your computer to a hub, routers, switches or even modems. It is used in the connection of dissimilar devices. 

A crossover cable wiring arrangement, on the other hand, is also used in local area networks. However, it isn’t as common as a straight cable wiring arrangement.

This type of cable is created when both ends of the cable are wired using the two different standards. This means that one end is wired using a 568A and the other end is wired using the 568B standard. 

Crossover cables are used when to connect two similar devices. An example is, a crossover cable can be used when you want to connect two computers directly to each other, without the use of a switch or hub. You may also use this type of wiring arrangement to connect a hub to another hub, or a switch to another switch. So, when you want to connect two similar devices, then you will want to use the crossover cable connection. 

5. Plenum vs Non-Plenum Cables 

Before you go to buy any type of Ethernet network cable, one last thing you need to consider is whether the cable is plenum or not. 

A plenum cable is covered or jacketed with a fire-resistant plastic cover or jacket. Non-plenum cables, on the other hand, may produce smokes together with toxic fumes when burned. This can be harmful to your health when inhaled. 

Plenum cables pass a series of regular testing by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. They ensure that it is up to standard A classified as plenum or non-plenum. 

Why Should You Use a Plenum Cable?

Well, these types of cables can be safely used anywhere, an example of these places include air ducts. It is also required to meet building or fire codes.

So, if you’re looking into running some Ethernet cables through the air spaces of your building, then you might want to consider getting a plenum cable. This is because in case of an outbreak if toxic fumes are to get into the airspace of a building, it would then be distributed throughout the building. So, this is why I highly recommend plenum cables, if you are looking to pass the cable through air spaces. However, if you aren’t using them in any air spaces, you can go in for a non-plenum cable, if you’re on a tight budget. 

So, before you go out there to purchase an Ethernet cable, ensure that you:

  • Know the types of twisted-pair cables
  • Know the various categories and what they offer
  • How to install them
  • And finally, whether you need a plenum cable or not. 

I hope this article was helpful. If you found this article informative, kindly share it with friends. Leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions

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