CAT5, CAT5E, CAT6 & CAT6A - Which Should I Use?
No, we’re not talking about cats here – we’re talking about CATs! Ethernet cable categories – there are quite a few of them, so how do you know which one to choose? Let’s go over the basics of all four categories, so you can choose the best one for your needs.
It’s What’s Inside that CountsIf you look at CAT5, CAT5E, CAT6, and CAT6A cables from the outside, you won’t notice much of a difference between them. All of these cables look very similar, and they all use the same end connector (an RJ-45, the part that plugs into the Ethernet jack). You will notice some differences on the inside of the cables though, including a variation in sheath thickness and the number of twists per wire. These internal factors, along with specific test standards set up for each category, can largely affect the cable’s speed and performance. Each new category adds stricter standards for eliminating crosstalk and adding insulation between the wires. All cable manufacturers must follow the set standards for each category.
Twisted Pair Cabling
When we talk about the “number of twists per wire”, we’re talking about twisted pair cabling. Twisted pair cabling is a type of wiring in which two insulated copper wires are twisted together to reduce electromagnetic interference or crosstalk. Believe it or not, twisted pair cabling was invented way back in1881 by Alexander Graham Bell to reduce interference in telephone wires.
CAT5 vs CAT5E vs CAT6 vs CAT6A
Category 5, or CAT5 cables are an older type of network cables. CAT 5 can handle 10 or 100 Mbps speeds at up to 100MHz bandwidth. Although it was once very popular, CAT5 has become outdated, as new versions are significantly faster. New installations don’t even use CAT5 anymore, you probably won’t see any in stores, and it is no longer a recognized standard.
Category 5 Enhanced, or CAT5E cables are an upgrade to CAT5 and feature faster, more reliable speed, while cutting down on crosstalk, or interference. CAT5E can handle up to a Gigabit Ethernet (1,000Mbs) at 100MHz.
Category 6, or CAT6 cables offer an even higher performance over CAT5E, and have stricter specifications for both crosstalk and system noise. CAT6 can handle up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet at 250MHz, up to 164 feet. After 164 feet, bandwidth will go back down to 1GB (CAT5E). CAT6 cables are backwards compatible with CAT5 and 5E, which means that you can use CAT6 with CAT5 and 5E components (the channel will just achieve the transmission performance of the lower category).
Augmented Category 6, or CAT6A is the latest and greatest of the bunch, and utilizes thick plastic casing that greatly reduces crosstalk. CAT6A can handle up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10,000 Mbs) at 500MHz up to a full 328 feet.
Cutting Down to the Chase
So now that you’re familiar with the basics of each category, how do you know which one to choose? We’d recommend factoring out CAT5 altogether, as it has become completely obsolete due to the much better options that are out there. That narrows it down to CAT5E, CAT6, and CAT6A. For most home network purposes, CAT5E should be more than sufficient, and is less expensive than CAT6 or 6A. If you're networking for professional or business purposes, where performance and speed is of utmost importance, you may want to consider CAT6 or CAT6A.
As technology is constantly changing, it is always a good idea to “future proof” when choosing new cables, which is another reason someone may choose CAT6 or CAT6A over CAT5E. If all your cables are under 164 feet, then CAT6 will still give you a 10 Gigabit Ethernet. If you have longer cables, and you want the absolute best speed and performance, consider CAT6A.
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