Cat5 vs. Cat5e vs. Cat6
If you’ve ever looked into the differences between Cat-5, Cat-5e, and Cat-6, you know that the seemingly simple world of Ethernet cables is actually pretty intricate. For the uninitiated, Cat-5/e/6 network cables, often used in computer Ethernet networks, are cables made up of four pairs of twisted conductors usually terminated with RJ45 connectors. Interestingly, these cables have an illustrious history dating back to the late 19th century. Twisted pair conductors were first invented and employed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1881 to improve the transmission of telephone signals. As it turns out, much of what makes Cat-5e perform better than Cat-5, and Cat-6 likewise perform better than Cat-5e, lies in the construction of these twisted pair cables. We’ll talk more about that as well as some other complexities to help you make a more informed cabling choice for your wired network. As you might have guessed, increasingly stringent performance standards separate each tier from the one before it. Cables labeled Cat-5e must exhibit performance qualities which meet or exceed the specs of the Cat-5e standard. Cat-6 cables are held to the more stringent Cat-6 standard. Pretty intuitive, right?
So what affects quality and performance between one tier and the next? A handful of factors contribute to a cable’s performance—among them are the quality of the conductor, whether or not the cable is shielded, and the precision and consistency of the twists—all of these factors affect the quality of data transmission across the cable.
The first consideration should be familiar to anyone who has ever shopped for speaker wire. The gold standard for conductivity is copper. Cables at the lower end of the Cat spectrum employ slightly lighter gauge conductor composed of copper-clad aluminum (CCA) while at the higher performing end of the spectrum they employ heavier gauge pure copper conductor (bare copper or BC). For more on the differences between CCA and BC see the article X. Pretty much what this all boils down to is this: the more copper you have in your cable, the less resistance there is across the length of the run, and the quicker and more accurately a system on one end can communicate with a system on the other.
For the next factor we’ll jump back to Alexander Graham Bell’s twisted pairs (brace yourself for a lot of less-s and more-s). The twists in the wire reduce cross-talk, or interference from one twisted pair to another. More precise and more consistent twists equal less interference; less interference means more efficient transmission of data. In addition, more twists means more copper, which means less resistance as we covered above. Most Ethernet cables rely solely on their twists to counteract electromagnetic interference whether it’s from neighboring twisted pairs, or external electromagnetic force, however, if you’re going to run cables outside, through walls, or in any environment where you suspect electromagnetic interference might influence your network, you should consider getting shielded Cat cables.
One more critical link in the chain
One last thing to consider if you’ll be terminating Cat cables yourself: not all RJ45 connectors are created equal. You’ll need to spring for connectors and jacks of the same rating as your cable because as in most systems skimping on one link in the chain can potentially lower the output of the whole.
When you combine all of these considerations—quality conductor, lots of twists, shielding where necessary, and appropriately rated terminations—you get a really high-performance network cable. If you want to guarantee that your cables exhibit the qualities above, Cat-5e is a good choice with good transfer speeds and respectable bandwidth. Cat-6 takes it up a level with tighter tolerances and higher performance. See the infographic below for a visual breakdown of the differences between these cables.
Now you know what sets one Cat cable apart from the next, but how do you know which cable is going to meet your needs? Consider your bandwidth and speed needs: for the most part Cat5e is a perfect fit for the average residential installation, however, if your network needs to support higher bandwidths and faster transfer speeds between networked computers, Cat-6 might be a better solution. Also, if you’re preparing to set up a wired network in your home or workplace, and you want to be sure that you’ll benefit from advancements in network technology coming down the line, Cat-6 is the best way to guarantee that your wired network will meet the future of networking gracefully. In conclusion, consider your network needs to see which Cat cable offers you the best solution, take the above considerations into account, and remember that each link in the chain is critically important.