Which Ethernet Cable Should You Choose?

 November 6, 2023 |  4 minute read time

Cost, data transfer speed and connection distance—deciding whether to use Category 5e, 6 or 6a cables for your Ethernet network.

David Posner

Cat5e, 6 and 6a cables all use RJ45 connectors to patch into your network via server, router, computer or other hardware. All also support Power over Ethernet (PoE). Otherwise, each cable has a different standard.

Cat 5e vs. Cat 6 vs. Cat 6a: It’s Mostly About Speed

Cat 5e cables

Cat 5e Speed (Up to 1 Gbps Max.)

Cat 5e (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 Cat 5e also leaves less opportunity for upgrading in the future.

Cat 6 cables

Cat 6 Speed (Up to 10 Gbps Max.)

Cat 6 is pricier and faster than Cat 5e, but also limited by distance. Cat 6 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, Cat 6 cabling is more qualified to handle the fast pace of Gigabit Ethernet networks. It’s likely Cat 6 will eventually replace HDMI as the audio/video transmission standard in the future.

Cat 6a cables

Cat 6a Speed (Up to 10 Gbps Max.)

If you’re looking to set yourself up for a successful long-term Gigabit Ethernet network, Cat 6a (Category 6 augmented) is the right choice. Yes, it’s more expensive than Cat 5e or Cat 6, but the hardware you’ll be connecting to your network will only become more sophisticated—not less—as technology grows. Cat 6a supports the same 10 Gbps transmission speed as Cat 6, but up to 328 feet and at 500 MHz. And, of course, with even less crosstalk than Cat 6.

Choosing Cat 5e vs Cat 6

In a speed test, Cat 6 wins every time. While Cat 5e 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 Cat 6 or Cat 6a 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 Cat 8?

For high-speed switch to switch communications in a 25G or 40G network, Cat 8 is an appropriate choice. For all other situations, Cat 6 or Cat 6a cables will be plenty fast enough. They cost less and are easier to install.