Research Hub > Cat5 vs. Cat6 Ethernet Cables - What's Best for You

October 12, 2021

Article
6 min

Cat5 vs. Cat6 Ethernet Cables: What's Best for You?

Learn the differences between Cat5, Cat5e, Cat6 and Cat6a Ethernet cables and find the best type of Ethernet cable for your needs.

You may not have thought twice about the cable that connects your devices to the web. Maybe you’ve taken them for granted! Within the humble Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables lay some significant differences worth exploring before you make a purchase.

“Cat” cables, short for “category”, are used to connect computer network devices such as modems, routers, computers, servers and switches. They are also called network, LAN or Ethernet cables. In this article, we’ll focus on comparing 2 varieties of Cat cable: Cat5 and Cat6, plus their common sub varieties, Cat5e and Cat6a. In addition, we’ll go over what makes each cable unique and which is the best Cat cable for your needs. 

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What is a Cat5 Ethernet Cable?

Cat5 cables contain four pairs of twisted copper wire ending with an RJ-45 connector, which plugs into a standard Ethernet jack. It is the fifth generation of unshielded, twisted-pair (also known as Unshielded Twisted Pair, or UTP) Ethernet cable technology and has been the most popular twisted-pair cable since its introduction in 1995. Cat5 can also be found in the Shielded Twisted Pair variety, or STP, which offers protection against EMI and signal interference.

The Cat5 Ethernet cable paved the way for high-speed internet with an ability to transfer data at 100 Mbps and 100 MHz bandwidth (100BASE-T or Fast Ethernet) but can run up to 2.5GBASE-T at shorter distances.

Cat5 cables can carry data, telephone and video signals and have a maximum recommended length of 328 feet (100 meters). If your PC is hardwired into your network, the standard Cat5 is likely the cable connecting you to the web at this very moment.

What is a Cat5e Ethernet Cable?

A newer Cat5 cable specification came out in 2001 called Cat5e (the “e” standing for “enhanced”), offering support Gigabit Ethernet speeds of up to 1000 Mbps, a bandwidth of 350 MHz and backwards compatibility with standard Cat5 cables. Standard Cat5 cables can support Gigabit speeds but at shorter distances (up to 5GBASE-T).

Cat5e cables are 10 times faster than standard Cat5 and complies with ANSI/TIA-568 standards. For home or small business network cabling, you most likely won’t notice much of a speed difference, but for IT companies or companies dealing with large amount of information (think terabytes), it makes a significant difference.

The Cat5e cable looks identical to the Cat5 physically but contain four pairs of copper wires instead of two, and the text on the cable sheath will indicate it’s a 5e rather than a 5. These cables undergo more rigorous testing than the standard Cat5 to eliminate crosstalk, or signal interference, and are twisted much more tightly. 

What are the Advantages of Cat5 Ethernet Cables?

Cat5 cables offer high-transfer speeds at a low cost and can transfer up to four signals at once. Technically, Cat5 cables can support Gigabit Ethernet, too. These cables are versatile, and can be used in a variety of applications, from networking to telephone wiring. They come in both stranded form for greater flexibility for applications like custom patch cabling, or solid conductor form, for installing in the walls of a home or business, providing better shielding than their stranded form counterparts.

Also, Cat5 cables are easy to install and require no special tools. If you wanted to upgrade your network speed and eliminate crosstalk, you can update your Cat5 cables to Cat5e easily. For their flexibility, low cost and ubiquity, Cat5 cables were the gold standard for several years.

What are the Disadvantages of Cat5 Ethernet Cables?

The main disadvantage of Cat5 cables is the data transfer limitations. They can only have up to 100 Mbps of transfer speed. This is fine for a home or small business but won’t cut it for enterprise networking needs. Also, more home routers support Gigabit Ethernet by the day. If you ever plan on setting up a smart home or simply want to futureproof your home network, you wouldn’t want to use Cat5 cables.

Unshielded Cat5 cables are susceptible to signal noise from wireless devices, which can further reduce data transfer speeds. Cat5/Cat5e cables are generally not recommended for new network installations, but still get the job done for less for many networking needs.

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What is a Cat6 Ethernet Cable?

Cat6 Ethernet cables consist of four twisted pairs of copper wire and 250 MHz of bandwidth, supporting data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps (10GBASE-T) for distances up to approximately 180 feet.

Cat6 cables use the same RJ-45 jack as Cat5 cables and previous generations of Ethernet cables. In fact, Cat6 cables have backwards compatibility with Cat5/5e and Cat3 cables.

When used at 328 feet, the maximum data transfer speed drops to approximately 1 Gbps. They are up-to-spec for applications with substantial data transfer needs, including: Internet of Things (IoT) setups like smart homes, school/enterprise networking setups and data centers. Cat6 cables are now the global standard for Ethernet cables.

What is a Cat6a Ethernet Cable?

Cat6a (the “a” stands for “augmented”) cables have thicker, heavier construction than standard Cat6 cables, and individual pairs may also have metal shielding to reduce interference even further. Cat6a cables support 10 Gbps internet up to 328 feet at a maximum bandwidth of 500MHz, double the bandwidth of Cat6. These cables have stringent cable termination requirements and must comply with ANSI/TIA-568 standards. Cat6a have backwards compatibility with Cat6 and Cat6e cables due to their shared RJ-45 jack.

Cat6a cables shine when it comes to applications outside data and telephony; namely, automation and physical security systems like access control and CCTV. They’re commonly used in networks with heavy data use but not necessarily needing the more expensive fiber optic cables, including healthcare and higher education. 

What are the Advantages of a Cat6 Ethernet Cable?

Compared to Cat5/5e cables, Cat6 cables have stricter performance specifications and significant higher data transfer speeds at greater distances. They are more tightly wound than Cat5 cables, and the cable conductors and cable sheath are thicker as well.

These factors work in tandem to reduce interior and exterior signal/EMI interference to a greater extent than Cat5 cables. This could be a great solution for networking in industrial settings where motors, generators or wireless devices could be causing significant signal interference.

What are the Disadvantages of a Cat6 Ethernet Cable?

Cat6 cables are more expensive than Cat5 cables (usually about 10-20% more than Cat5e) and tend to be more than what most homes need today. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t be needed 5-10 years from now as connected IoT homes become more commonplace.

For networks transferring terabytes of data or experiencing excess signal noise, Cat6 cables are the way to go. If you want a cable with optimal performance and have the cash and want to futureproof your IT infrastructure, go Cat6. Keep in mind if space is limited, the additional thickness and insulation of Cat6 cables may be of concern: the additional stiffness/thickness also makes the cable less flexible and harder to work with. Cat6a cables are around 40-50% thicker and heavier than Cat6 and even more expensive.

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While not the most exciting technology, understanding the differences between Ethernet cable types can save you money and unnecessary effort. They are the veins of your network and important to understanding your network infrastructure. If you have more in-depth networking needs, CDW has the know-how to get you connected from your data center to your desktop.