Ethernet Cables: 5, 5e, 6, 7 — Which Do You Need and Where?


Are you hardwiring your new computer to your home network, and wondering if your old Cat 5 or 5e cables are still a good choice for the job?

For DSL or cable Internet speeds under 1Gbps, and for connecting switches to devices, Cat 5e Ethernet cables are sufficient, but not as good as Cat 6 cables. Most home users today can stick with Cat 5e or 6A cables, while serious data centres might choose Cat 8 which offers far greater performance over shorter cable lengths.

For connecting switches, routers, hubs, modems, streaming boxes, gaming boxes (PS3, PS4, X-box), and to connect other high performance networking devices at a distance of less than 100m, opt for a Cat 5e or 6 cable. A better buy for any Internet service today is a shielded Cat 6 cable, capable of transmitting 10Gbps over 100m and preventing nearby lines from interfering with the data transmission.

  • The maximum data transmission speeds for Cat 5e range from 100Mbps to over 1000Mbps (1Gbps) over a cable length of 100m, which is more than adequate for most home networking needs and Internet speeds. If your Internet service speed is 25Mbps-1Gbps, Cat 5e will work just fine.
  • Cat 6 is the minimum cable type to use for fiber Internet speeds (greater than 1Gbps), and to connect similarly capable devices over distances of less than 55 metres.

Ethernet Cable Comparison Chart

The higher the Ethernet cable category number, the faster its transferring speed over a longer length of cabling, and the greater amount of data it can transmit at maximum speed.

CategoryShielding (UTP or STP)Max Transmission Speed (at 100 metres)Max BandwidthUse
Cat 3Unshielded10Mbps16 MHzNot widely used outside of VOIP (Voice-Over Internet Protocol) and other voice solutions. Cat 3 cables have an issue with cross-talk and interference and were quickly replaced with high quality cables as a standard.
Cat 4Unshielded16Mbps20 MHz
Cat 5Unshielded10/100Mbps100 MHzEthernet connections. The way the cable was wrapped changed from Cat 3 to Cat 5 to not allow as many twists per foot. Reduced the amount of interference.
Cat 5eUnshielded1000Mbps / 1Gbps100 MHzWidely used in both homes and business applications for connecting workstations to switches and routers. The most common type of cable sold in stores.
Cat 6Shielded or Unshielded1000Mbps / 1Gbps>250 MHzUnless the network is running at close to full speed, a Cat 6 cable will not show much benefit over a Cat 5e cable. Cat 6 cables have thicker wires than Cat 5e, but are made the same way.
Cat 6aShielded10000Mbps / 10Gbps500 MHzWiring a smart home, better connection protected from signal interference.
Cat 7Shielded10000Mbps / 10Gbps600 MHzUse a proprietary header GG45 connector. Has more power and less voltage drop than Cat 5; has a larger copper cross-section than the CAT 5.
Cat 7aShielded10000Mbps / 10Gbps1000 MHz
Cat 8Shielded10000Mbps / 10Gbps2000 MHzProfessional data centres

Ethernet Cables, Ports and Connection Speed

Ethernet operates at speeds of 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 megabits per second (Mbps), and are designated with the term “Base-T.” Combination ports labeled as 10/100/1000 will allow the systems to operate at the highest speed possible for the application. The term “Gigabit Ethernet” means 1000 Base-T, and “10 Gigabit Ethernet” means 10,000 Base-T.

Older switches and computers from a few years ago have 10Mbps ports — slow compared to the new standard of ten to one hundred times that capability.

Most cables have multiple twisted pairs. Multiple level coding makes it possible for data to be synchronized with a lower Hertz but larger bit rate. Cabling is certified for a maximum frequency, i.e. Cat 5 specifies 100Mhz for a 100-metre length.

Utilizing multiple pairs it is easy to reach up to 1Gbps (two bits per Hz, 125Mhz for each pair, with 4 pairs total = 2 x 125 x 4 = 1000Mbps).

And combining 4 over 5 coding or multi-level coding makes it possible to achieve even better transfer rates over much shorter cables, which is what Cat 6 and 7 are trying to force: 10Gbps.

Port NameMax Port Speed (in bits per second)Ethernet Name
10BASE-T10 MegabitEthernet
100BASE-TX100 MegabitFast Ethernet
1000BASE-T1 GigabitGigabitEthernet
10GBASE-T10 GigabitTenGigabitEthernet
(1,000 Megabits equals 1 Gigabit and 10,000 Megabits equals 10 Gigabits.)

Mixed Ports and Ethernet

Your router or switch might have mixed ports, meaning that some ports support lower standards, and one or two support higher standards of Ethernet.

So, in a mixed port scenario, how fast is data forwarded?

It is not possible to forward data faster than it is received: if a packet is received at 10Mbps then the packet must be received in total before it can be sent on a line that is 100Mbps.

So, routers often wait until a packet has fully arrived before re-routing it.

Early routers could have significant more input than they could route. This was a design spec/feature/flaw, and was fine because data sent to a router would be on a correspondingly much slower Wide Area Network line. Despite modern router hardware improvements made over iterations, routers still have a tendency to have significant faster input over total ports versus the speed in which they route to the network. Hence, router vendors often specify the amount a router can handle given a minimum packet size.

Switches are different; a switch understands that an Ethernet frame begins (after a preamble to synchronize speed) with the destination address. A switch can quickly determine if that data needs to be dropped or needs to be forwarded onto some other port. Since there are usually multiple ports, this means that most ports are left idle.

When To Use a Crossover vs a Patch Ethernet Cable

In brief, a crossover cable connects two devices of the same type: two network adapters, a PC to a PC, or a switch to a switch, without using a network hub or switch as a routing device.

Crossover cables are used to bypass a network hub or router and connect one device directly to another. Crossover cables cannot be used in place of standard (patch) Ethernet cables.

A patch cable connects two different devices to each other — a computer to a switch or a router, or can connect two hubs or switches to each other. Most Ethernet cables in your home are likely patch cables.

How to Identify a Patch Vs a Crossover Ethernet Cable

Category-5, 5e, and 6 cables are assembled according to either the T568A or T568B standard:

  • The T568A standard requires the cable end to terminate the internal coloured wires in this order, as viewed from the top, left to right: green-white, green, orange-white, blue, blue-white, orange, brown-white, brown.
  • The T568B standard requires the cable ends to terminate the internal coloured wires in this order, as viewed from the top, left to right: orange-white, orange, green-white, blue, blue-white, green, brown-white, brown.
T568B standard on the left, T568A standard on the right.

A patch cable is an Ethernet cable where both ends are wired to one of the specifications (either T568A or T568B, but not both). Since both ends are terminated in the same fashion, a patch cable is often called a “straight-through” cable.

A crossover cable is an Ethernet cable where one of the ends is wired according to the T568A specification, whereas the other end is wired according to the T568B specification. This allows the data output pins on one end of the cable to be connected directly to the data input pins on the other end of the cable.

What Affects Ethernet Speed?

Technically, Ethernet cables have no particular speed; the speed of the data transmission is determined by the type and settings of the end devices’ network interfaces (ports, NICs).

The “speed” of an Ethernet link is determined by the capabilities of the devices it connects.

The only involvement of the cable is whether it is intended to carry data at that speed, or not. If the cable is not rated for the speed the devices are trying to maintain, there may be errors in the transmitted data, necessitating retries, thus slowing down the transfer.

Application Protocols and Ethernet Speed

Application protocols strictly define how fast your network is capable of running — this is the application bandwidth.

These application protocols define what speeds your network achieves. For your network to function at the full bandwidth you seek, all components in the chain must support the same or higher application protocol — including your Ethernet cable. Sometimes, even the software in use can hold the transfer speed back.

The speeds and bandwidth supported by each Ethernet cable category

Each category of Ethernet cable has an upper limit of bandwidth, and a category of cable capable of transmitting high speed connections is also backward compatible for lower speeds.

Signs Ethernet Cables Might Be Bad

An Ethernet cable might not carry its data at specified rates if a cable is:

  • too poorly made or installed,
  • contains the wrong components (wire and end connectors),
  • or is properly twisted and constructed but uses components intended for lower bandwidth.
  • If a cable has any of these afflictions, it will have trouble handling higher data speeds. The speed may not be affected but the inferior cable will produce errors or may not work at al. The errors may affect speed due to the network protocol retries. Most network interface software tracks the error rates, and may be worth checking if you notice a transfer slowdown.

Which Ethernet Cable to Use

Cat 5 vs Cat 5e for basic home networking connections?

The Cat 5 cable replaced the Cat 3 version and became the standard for Ethernet cable for several years, but Cat 5 cables are now obsolete and are not recommended for new installations. If you need to connect an old laptop to a router, Cat 5 will work, but do not expect Cat 5 to support the full transfer of fiber Internet data across your network at longer distances.

Cat 5e superseded the Cat5 specification in 2001 to improve maximum bandwidth capabilities and reduce cross-talk, which can negatively affect the quality of a connection. It expanded the theoretical maximum network speed to 1,000Mbps (one gigabit per second) over a distance of less than 328 feet (100 metres).

Cat 5 cables are not the same as Cat 5e. Cat 5 is the older standard and because of that its features and performance are significantly worse. Although it theoretically can support Gigabit Ethernet, this is only at very short distances. As such, it is traditionally advertised to only support 100Mbps Ethernet connections, rather than the Gigabit connection of Cat 5e (or the 10Gbps of Cat 6).

Should I wire my house with Cat 5e, 6, or 6a Ethernet Cables?

Cat6 or 6a is capable is supporting a 10Gbps network, but this will be over-kill in most home setups and for most devices. But if you are wiring your walls while you build your smart home, and want to ensure you have a cost-effective solution relatively future-proof (or at least future-adequate), Cat 6a Ethernet cables are a solid choice.

  • Cat 6 cables adhere more tightly than Cat 5 or Cat 5e, and they have an outer foil or braided shield. Shield protection protects the twisted pair wires inside the Ethernet cable and helps prevent corrosion and noise interference.
  • Cat 6 cables can technically support speeds of up to 10 Gbps, but only over cable of up to 55 metres.

When to use Cat 6 or 6a?

There is a variant of Cat 6 called Cat 6a, which further improves Ethernet performance: 10 gigabits per second at up to 100 metres (as opposed to 55 metres for Cat 6).

Cat 6a has the better shielding and protection from noise interference. With individual wire shielding, shielded Category 6a cables (also available as unshielded – UTP) employ a ground wire to help eliminate any noise interference or cross-talk from nearby cabling.

This additional shielding makes Cat 6a cables an excellent choice for high-noise environments or where data accuracy is paramount, such as in healthcare and education networks. Also a great choice for a wired smart home. Or for a wired home without the surveillance tech.

A shielded Cat 6 Ethernet cable. Shielded cables are more rigid and less susceptible to surrounding radio signal interference.

Cat 5e Speed, Cat 6 Speed, Cat 7 Speed

As you may have surmised, higher numbers correlate with faster frequencies and better wire shielding. 

  • Cat 5e is rated for 1Gbps and bandwidths of 100MHz,
  • Cat 6 offers up to 10Gbps at up to 250MHz bandwidth, and
  • Cat 7 can go as high as 100Gbps with bandwidths up to 600 MHz.

The type of Ethernet cable places a constraint on the achievable data transmission rates. Cat 5 has a maximum speed transmission of 100Mbps, Cat 5e and Cat 6 have a maximum speed transmission of 1,000 Mbps, and Cat 6a has a maximum speed transmission of 10,000 Mbps.

If you need to choose between Cat 5e vs Cat 6, Cat 6 (or 6a) is the better bet, as it will future-proof your network. Few people require more than the 10Gbps bandwidth 6a offers, and that’s unlikely to change in years to come.

Can you use Cat 5 cables for gaming?

You may not get the same performance from Cat 5 cables as from Cat 5e or above, but they are still perfectly acceptable for gaming purposes, and likely superior to connecting over WiFi.

But which are the best Ethernet cables for gaming?

The real contenders for best Ethernet cables for gaming are Cat 5e or Cat 6 (maybe Cat 6a if you also do a lot of heavy data transfers).

Cat 5e and Cat 6 are both good choices for gaming over Ethernet connections. If you have 5e cables already, use those.

If you are buying new cables for gaming, choose Cat 6 cables. Why? Not necessarily because of speed, since 1000Mbps is fine for most gamers, but for the superior handling of signal interference. Cat 6 cables adhere to stricter standards when constructed, and though the methods for achieving those standards vary among manufacturers and individual cables, Cat 6 Ethernet cables are almost always better protected against cross-talk and external noise than even the best Cat5e.

Whereas Cat 5e only has tightly twisted pairs to help reduce signal interference, Cat 6 cables often employ a separator within the cable itself — a “spline” — to divide the individual copper wires of the twisted pair. That makes cross-talk and interference between the wires far less likely, improving the signal quality of the cable further and resulting in a more stable and accurate connection.

A Cat 8 cable is overkill. The Cat 8 cable is designed for professional scenarios and data centres, so it is beyond what is needed for gaming. Cat 7 cables are typically no better than the Cat6a cables, and because they are proprietary, they don’t use the kind of header connections that are commonly found on most gaming PCs and consoles.

WiFi vs Ethernet for gaming: summary

By wiring your home with data cabling you simultaneously minimize signal interference and latency. A Wireless Gigabit network is very fast, but wireless will struggle to dependably and reliably reach the speeds of a wired network.

The latest generation of WiFi, WiFi 6 (802.11.ax) has a maximum theoretical combined speed of 11 gigabits per second, which is comparable, and even slightly in-excess of Cat 6 or Cat 7 Ethernet connections — but that’s in an ideal scenario and is not realistic in a home environment.

So go wired and never look back.

FAQs

Are Cat 6 cables worth it? Does Cat 6 cable increase speed?

Cat 6 cables have been around for only a few years less than Cat 5e cables, primarily as the backbone of networks, instead of as connectors to workstations themselves. For most resident and commercial purposes, Cat 5e and Cat 6 cables are more than sufficient depending on the devices.

Using a Cat 6 cable, users can get 10 Gigabit speeds at 250 MHz. On paper, the Cat 6 will be faster than the Cat 5e cables. However, many people have not switched over, because the cables are only useful if the devices support the enhanced speed.

Cat 6 cables reduce signal interference, but the cables are usually thicker than Cat 5e cables and their installation might not be as easy.

Which is faster: Cat 8 or Cat 6?

Category 8 is the fastest Ethernet cable as of 2021. Its data transfer speed of up to 40 Gbps is four times faster than Cat 6a, while its support of bandwidth up to 2 GHz (four times more than standard Cat 6a bandwidth) reduces latency for superior signal quality over 100 metres (328 feet). But using Category 8 cables is overkill unless you have devices capable of that bandwidth. Most won’t.

Are Cat 7 cables worth it?

Cat 7 cables use a proprietary standard and are not officially supported by any home networking equipment manufacturer. You will be better off choosing a Cat 6 or 6a cable, since Cat 7 cables will be operating as Cat 6 cables due to backwards compatibility.

You probably don’t need Cat 7; use Cat 6 or 6a instead

If you need the kind of network performance a Cat 7 cable offers, Cat 6a is perfectly up to the task. Cat 6a is a widely supported cable standard and has all of the benefits of Cat 7 without the proprietary drawbacks.

If you are running a data center or simply must future-proof your network into the next decade, Cat 8 is an industry standard, is approved by the IEEE and EIA, and has the familiar RJ45-port connectors. Cat 8 is rated for 25Gbps / 40Gbps speeds and offers a more reliable future for high-speed networking than Cat 7.

Are Cat 8 cables worth it?

For cutting edge stability and speed, the Cat 8 Ethernet cable provides an excellent alternative to more expensive fiber connections. The combination of Cat 8 speed and shielding makes the Cat 8 cable a top choice for any data centre or network requiring crazy data transfer rates – within its range limitations.

Category 8 cabling can support transmission of data up to 40Gbps over balanced twisted pair copper cabling. The solution is a shielded solution, therefore, careful attention must be paid to shield terminations when installing the solution.

How far can you run Category 8 cable?

To support 25Gbps and 40Gbps speeds, Category 8 has a maximum Permanent Link Length of 24 metres (78 feet) and a maximum Channel length of 30 metres (100′). Category 8 cabling can support data speeds of 10Gbps and lower at a full 100 metre (328 feet) Channel configuration.

Is it OK to bend Ethernet cable?

Whether flat or rounded, never bend an Ethernet cable to a radius of less than one inch — about the diameter of a quarter. A sharp bend or a kink will harm the twisted pairs and reduce the throughput of the cable. Accordingly, never run Ethernet cords along the floor across a door opening where they can be stepped on. Do not hang anything from a patch cord if you intend to utilize it as such.

Which is better: flat or round Ethernet cable?

The form of round Ethernet cables helps to minimize the heating in the cables due to friction. Filler material within the sheath also protects the cord against outer elements.

Flat Ethernet cables cost more money, are less durable, and require more care compared to round ones. Flat cables are less resilient than the round ones as they lack protective filler. All else equal and depending on your installation constraints, it is better to choose the standard round Ethernet cable.

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