As an end user you probably don’t put a ton of thought into the cables you see connected to the hardware in your office, assuming your connectivity remains steady that is. The cables we are talking about are called ethernet, sometimes referred to as LAN cables. There are multiple types of ethernet cables on the market but today we are going to be discussing the difference between Cat5 and Cat6. “Cat” stands for category, and these cables are used to connect computer network devices such as laptops, routers, servers, modems, and switches. There are some significant differences between these two types of cable, even though they seemingly complete the same tasks.
How do you know which is the best type for you? What about Cat5e and Cat6a? These are questions we hear daily, and hopefully we can clear some things up here as we define these cable types, their advantages, and their disadvantages.
What is a Cat5 Ethernet Cable?
Cat5 is the most popular twisted-pair cable and has been since it was introduced in 1995. This type of cable paved the way for high-speed internet due to its data transfer speeds of 100Mbps and 100MHz bandwidth. Cat5 cables consist of four pairs of twisted copper wire with an RJ-45 connecter (aka the part that plugs into the ethernet jack you see in your wall). This type of cable is great for indoor use carrying telephone, video, and data signals. If you see an ethernet cable coming out of your laptop or workspace, it is most likely a Cat5 cable.
Cat5 cables have a recommended maximum distance of 328 feet (100 meters). Using this cable for longer distances can result in interference, data loss, inconsistent or loss in connectivity.
What is a Cat5e Ethernet Cable?
Cat5e cables are almost identical to Cat5 cables structurally but differ quite a bit functionally. The “e” stands for enhanced, and this cable type was released in 2001. The main differences between these two cable types are bandwidth and speed. The Cat5e cable supports speeds up to 1000Mbps and a bandwidth of 350MHz. So, this cable can support speeds around 10x faster than the Cat5 cable. For a home office or small business, you most likely wouldn’t notice a difference, but for large companies or buildings dealing with a lot of information (terabytes) it will make a huge difference.
The Cat5e cable has the same recommended maximum distance of 328 feet but has undergone more testing than a Cat5 cable to eliminate any signal interference. Interference or crosstalk is largely eliminated due to the copper wires in the Cat5e cable being twisted more tightly.
The Pros and Cons of Cat5 and Cat5e Cables
Cat5 cables are low cost and offer high transfer speeds. They are extremely versatile and offer flexibility for patch cabling, wall moves/changes, and don’t require special tools for installation. It is also easy and cost friendly to upgrade your network from Cat5 to Cat5e cabling where needed. These cables have been the most popular ethernet cable used for 25 years for a reason.
The main con of Cat5 cabling is the speed limitations. 100Mbps is perfectly fine for the home office but it will not support enterprise network functionality. We do not recommend Cat5 cabling for those looking to “future proof” their spaces since our network connected device count continues to skyrocket – especially with smart home technology becoming mainstream. Cat5 is also susceptible to interference or crosstalk which can impact your data speeds. The Cat5e cable was an improvement on this issue, but Cat6 is still a better option if this is a concern.
What is a Cat6 Ethernet Cable?
The Cat6 cable contains four twisted pairs of copper wire. It offers 250MHz of bandwidth and can support data speeds of up to 10Gbps for up to 180 feet. It uses the same RJ-45 jack as a Cat5 or Cat5e cable and has backward compatibility with both cable types. Using a Cat6 cable over 180 feet will not necessarily increase the odds for interference, but it will reduce the transfer speeds. For example, running a Cat6 cable 328 feet will lower the maximum transfer speed to 1 Gbps (which is still extremely fast).
Cat6 cabling is perfect for any use requiring high transfer speeds such as IoT setups in smart homes, school or enterprise networks, and large data centers. Cat6 is currently considered the global standard for ethernet and is recommended for use to “futureproof” your network.
What is a Cat6a Ethernet Cable?
A Cat6a (“a” stands for augmented) cable has a thicker and heavier construction than a Cat6 cable. There is more metal shielding around the twisted pairs preventing interference and cross talk. This cable type has strict cable termination requirements that must comply with ANSI/TIA-568 standards. Cat6a support speeds of 10 Gbps up to 328 feet and a maximum bandwidth of 500MHz (double the bandwidth of Cat6).
The Cat6a cable is the gold standard when it comes to applications requiring more than simple data or telephony transfer. Automation, physical security systems, CCTV, and smart building technology generally require the speeds and bandwidth offered by a Cat6a cable. They are commonly used in large enterprise networks where there is heavy data use, but not enough to warrant full fiber optics.
The Pros and Cons of Cat6 and Cat6a Cables
Cat6 and Cat6a cables have strict performance standards to adhere to in comparison to Cat5 or Cat5e. They offer much higher data speeds at longer distances and are more tightly wound and shielded than Cat5/Cat5e. All these factors together make Cat6/Cat6a the best choice for enterprises and buildings where there are a lot of internet of things (IoT) devices.
On the flip side, Cat6 cables are around 10-20% more expensive that Cat5e and are usually more than what is needed in homes today. However, within the next 5 years the average internet device count per household is expected to triple, meaning that Cat6 or even Cat6a may be required, even in a home setting. Cat6a will offer the absolute best experience, but it is important to keep in mind that these cables are 40-50% thicker and heavier than Cat6. This makes them more difficult to work with while also taking up a lot more space in your network closet or data center. Be sure to discuss the size of your space with your provider before selecting cable type.
Which Cable Type is the Best?
The answer to this question is “it depends.” It depends on how large your facility is, how many users you have, what kind of data you are transferring, whether you have a lot of motors/generators/electrical equipment that could cause interference. In many cases, a combination of cable grade can be used. If you are looking to “future proof” your space and want to make sure your cabling will support any device or data needs for the next 10 years, Cat6a is the way to go. If you are cabling your small office of 3 people, Cat5e may be sufficient. Any reputable provider will be able to help you make an educated decision on cable type.