Which Ethernet Cable Should You Use — Cat5e, Cat6 or Cat6a?

January 23, 2017 Tripp Lite

The decision of whether to use Category 5e, 6 or 6a cables to wire your Ethernet network pretty much comes down to cost, data transfer speed and connection distance. All use RJ45 connectors to patch into your network via server, router, computer or other hardware. As well, all support Power over Ethernet (PoE). Otherwise, each cable has a different standard.

Cat5e vs. Cat6 vs. Cat6a: It's Mostly About Speed

cat5e speed

Cat5e (Max. Speed Up to 1 Gbps)

Cat5e (Category 5 enhanced) is the least expensive, but also the slowest. It supports data transfer speeds up to one Gigabit per second (Gbps) at 100 MHz up to 328 feet. Crosstalk among the wires within the cable is reduced, resulting in less interference and less chance of transmission error. Certainly, it will provide capable performance for most of today’s applications, but Cat5e also leaves less opportunity for upgrading in the future.

cat6 speed

Cat6 (Max. Speed Up to 10 Gbps)

Cat6 is pricier and faster than Cat5e, but also limited by distance. Cat6 supports data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbps at 250 MHz with even less (or no) crosstalk interference, due to the cable’s improved insulation. However, its 10 Gbps speed is effective only up to 164 feet. Despite this limitation, Cat6 cabling is more qualified to handle the fast pace of Gigabit Ethernet networks. It’s likely Cat6 will eventually replace HDMI as the audio/video transmission standard in the future.

cat6a speed

Cat6a (Max. Speed Up to 10 Gbps)

If you’re looking to set yourself up for a successful long-term Gigabit Ethernet network, Cat6a (Category 6 augmented) is the right choice. Yes, it’s more expensive than Cat5e or Cat6, but the hardware you’ll be connecting to your network will only become more sophisticated—not less—as technology grows. Cat6a supports the same 10 Gbps transmission speed as Cat6, but up to 328 feet and at 500 MHz. And, of course, with even less crosstalk than Cat6.

Choosing Cat5e vs Cat6

In a speed test, Cat6 wins every time. While Cat5e will likely provide the necessary performance you’re looking for, data transmission rates double every 18 months. If you expect your cable installation to remain unchanged for a few years, you may decide that future-proofing your network with Cat6 or Cat6a cabling is a safer bet.

It should be noted that network transmission speed depends on all the components being able to operate on the higher speed. The transmission speed rating for each standard is theoretical. So, a legacy device that is incapable of Gigabit speeds won’t be able to attain Gigabit speeds just because you use a faster cable.

Should You Consider a Faster Cable Such As Cat8?

For high-speed switch to switch communications in a 25G or 40G network, Cat8 is an appropriate choice. For all other situations, Cat6 or Cat6a cables will be plenty fast enough. They cost less and are easier to install.

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