How to Choose an Ethernet Cable

Figuring out which Ethernet cables will work best for you without overdoing it is difficult, but we’re here to help. We’ve put together a helpful guide that includes a table, glossary, and other buying tips comparing the benefits and issues of different Ethernet cables. Our explainer below is a great way to start figuring out how to choose the best Ethernet cable for your home or work environment.

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Ethernet cable types

Category Armor Maximum transmission speeds The maximum bandwidth
Cat 3 Unshielded 10 Mbps 16 MHz
Cat 5 Unshielded 10-100 Mbps 100 MHz
Cat 5e Unshielded 1,000 Mbps to 1 Gbps 100 MHz
Cat 6 Shielded or unshielded 10Gbps up to 55 meters 250 MHz
Cat 6a Armored 10Gbps up to 55 meters 500 MHz
Cat 7 Armored 100Gbps up to 15 meters 600 MHz
Cat 7a Armored 100Gbps up to 15 meters 1000 MHz
Cat 8 Armored 40 Gbps up to 30 meters 2,000 MHz

The easiest way to select a cable is to choose one with the range and performance you need.

But what do you need?

Start with the speed of your home internet connection. If you have gigabit (1Gbps) internet, an old Ethernet cable will stop it. If you have a slower connection, maybe 10 or 20 megabits per second, you are fine with any Cat 5 or newer.

How to Choose an Ethernet Cable
How to Choose an Ethernet Cable

If you don’t know the actual speed of your Internet subscription, connect your PC directly to the modem and upload this speed test. Doing so will give you an initial idea of ​​what you will need in terms of wired connectivity. If your subscription only supports 50Mbps downloads, buying a 1Gbps Ethernet cable is simply overkill, for now at least.

Next, consider the speed required for your network. This knowledge is irrelevant to most home users. Still, if you frequently move large files between computers or stream extremely high-bandwidth video, a better Ethernet cable can make a big difference. If that’s not the case and you’re just surfing the shallow waters of the internet, you don’t need a fast home network.

As today’s routers get faster and more capable, facilitating faster network speeds, you need more capable cables to get the most out of it. If you are looking for a replacement cable, it is a good idea to choose one of the newer versions to take advantage of the speeds and prepare your setup for the future for years to come. Usually that means choosing a Cat 6a or even Cat 8 cable. On its own, a fast Ethernet cable won’t make a big difference, but a good cable can work alongside other high-end network devices to ensure your connection be as strong as possible.

What is the best Ethernet cable for you?

Close up of a person's fingers on the keyboard of a laptop that has an ethernet cable attached and there is a smartphone next to the laptop.

When purchasing cables, you may notice that they are almost always rated “Cat-5,” “Cat6e,” or something similar. “Cat” simply means “Category”. The number that follows indicates the version of the specification supported by the cable. A general rule of thumb is that higher numbers represent faster speeds and higher frequencies, measured in megahertz (MHz). As with most technologies, newer cables tend to support higher bandwidths and therefore higher download speeds and faster connections.

However, keep in mind that longer Ethernet cables have slower transmission speeds. This is why Ethernet cables tend to have two speed ratings, one at 10 to 30 meters and the other at 100 meters. Since the 100 meter rating doesn’t matter outside of very large professional projects, we suggest focusing on the 10-30 meter numbers.

Below you can see the capabilities of each type of cable.

(We are omitting categories 1, 2, and 4, as they are not technically recognized as Ethernet standards and currently have no application. We also omitted 3 and 5 because they are outdated, slow, and discontinued.)

Cat 5e

The “e” in Cat 5e stands for “improved”. There are no physical differences between Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables. However, manufacturers build Cat 5e cables under stricter test standards to eliminate unwanted signal transfers between communication channels (crosstalk). Cat 5e is currently the most widely used cable, mainly due to its low production cost and support for faster speeds than Cat 5 cables.

Cat 6

Cat 6 Ethernet cable supports higher bandwidths than Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables. They are tightly wound and are usually fitted with foil or braided shielding. Such shielding protects the twisted pairs of cables within the Ethernet cable, helping to prevent noise interference and crosstalk. Cat 6 cables technically support speeds of up to 10 Gbps for up to 55 meters. However, that speed comes at a price, as Cat 6 cable is more expensive than Cat 5 and Cat 5e variants.

Cat 6a

The “a” in Cat 6a means “augmented”. Cables based on this standard are a step up from Cat 6 versions by supporting twice the maximum bandwidth. They are also capable of maintaining higher transmission speeds over longer cable lengths. Cat 6a cables are shielded and the jacket, which is thick enough to eliminate crosstalk, makes for a much denser and less flexible cable than Cat 6.

Cat 7 and Cat 7a

Cat 7 and Cat 7a cables are high performance, but they tend to be useless for most people. Let’s see why:

Cat 7 cables support higher bandwidths and significantly faster transmission speeds than Cat 6 cables by using the newest and most widely available Ethernet technology. Cat 7 cables reach up to 100 Gbps over a range of 15 meters, making them one of the most capable Ethernet cable categories. Cat 7 cables are always shielded and use a modified GigaGate45 connector, which is compatible with RJ45 Ethernet ports.

However, that modified GG45 connector is a proprietary component, and while backward compatibility helped a bit, there are still problems following older Ethernet standards. This led most manufacturers to avoid the Cat 7 standard, which is why it is quite rare today. That difficulty led to the development of the Cat 6a, and a lot of marketing confusion as some vendors started referring to the Cat 6a as the new Cat 7. Always check the specs before purchasing, and when in doubt we suggest you choose Cat 8. instead of.

Cat 7a offers one of the highest specification Ethernet cables you can buy, but it is not widely available and offers only a few options of supporting network hardware. The 7a standard was designed to support 40 Gigabit Ethernet connections up to 50 meters and, like Cat 7, but with an improvement in overall bandwidth, more than 50%. This improvement can be useful in some cases, but Cat 7a cables are much more expensive than any other option. Consider using Cat 7a only in very specific cases.

Cat 8

Although these cables are currently available for purchase, you may find that they are excessive and excessive for regular household use. This standard promises a maximum frequency of 2,000MHz and speeds of up to 40Gbps at 30 meters. That high frequency also requires shielding, which means you’ll never find unshielded Cat 8 cables. Furthermore, Cat 8 supports two connectors. Therefore, it only allows three cables connected with a combined length of 30 meters. Cat 8 cables will cost more than other options, but they have become more affordable these days. You can find options for a 10 foot Cat 8 cable for less than $ 15.

Cat 8 is also the only cable that meets the latest IEEE standards (the aforementioned 40Gbps and 2,000MHz frequency), which is one of the reasons why it is an excellent choice for future testing, despite the significantly higher costs. high. As a bonus, you also skip the Cat 7 connector clutter.

Ethernet Cables Glossary

Close up of four Ethernet cables connected to its ports: two yellow cables and two blue cables.

It is easy to distinguish between the Ethernet cables that exist today. However, it is also easy to get confused by the complex terminology associated with these products. We want to help you. That’s why we’ve outlined some standard Ethernet-related terms and explained what each word means, while giving you a solid idea of ​​what to expect when purchasing each type of cable.

Types of cables

Cat: This term is the short version of “category.”

TP (twisted pairs): These types of Ethernet cables consist of wires that are twisted together on the inside. Twisted pairs are common in the industry. These types are secondary only to fiber optic cables with respect to their maximum length and amount of speed deceleration.

UTP (ORshielded twisted pairs): Unshielded twisted pairs do not have aluminum foil or an interlocking protective covering. This type of design allows them to be increasingly flexible and much cheaper to manufacture. However, it is important to note that UTP cable may lack good signal quality and pose a higher risk of crosstalk.

STP or SSTP (shielded twisted pairs): These dedicated Ethernet cables are protected by robust braided shielding. The jacket of an STP cable is generally made of copper or another type of conductive substance and helps reduce noise and improve the quality of the connection.

FTP or SFTP (foiled twisted pairs): Foiled twisted pairs are another type of Ethernet cable that features an aluminum shield to secure the cables. Many people use these particular cables to reduce noise, improve connectivity, and achieve a better connection.

Ethernet connectors

Ethernet connectors use a specialized design with eight pins that must be locked in place, generally called the 8P8C connector. Ethernet cables have a couple of different types of 8P8C connectors, and knowing the difference will help you understand the different categories of Ethernet more clearly:

RJ45: This is the standard “Registered Jack 45” connector used by Ethernet cables. There are two variations based on wire color and arrangement, the more popular T568B standard and the less common T568A standard (not particularly important unless you’re doing detailed wiring). The RJ45 connector is used in almost all categories of Ethernet, from Cat 1 to Cat 6 and Cat 8.

GG45: For Cat 7 Ethernet cables, the standards briefly changed to a new connector called the GigaGate45 or GG45. GG45 came with several additional drivers for some frequency versatility. It is compatible with RJ45 connectors, but the new connector was largely deemed unnecessary, so Cat 8 switched to RJ45.

EtherCON RJ45: RJ45 connectors are easy to use but not always durable; its built-in plastic clips can break, among other problems. EtherCON is a ruggedized version of the RJ45 connector manufactured by Neutrik and used in situations where the traditional RJ45 connector is too fragile, often with professional A / V work.

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