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Did you know the plain old Ethernet cable you use for connecting your cable modem and WiFi router is but one of several types?
Ethernet cables have in fact come a long way since the 1980s and keep evolving to carry greater volumes of data at higher speeds. But yes, there are several different categories (or, “cat” for short) of Ethernet cable and one doesn’t just differ from the other because its technology is newer.
In fact, different categories have certain features that are worth mentioning. Which means they’re optimal for certain use cases.
But before diving into Ethernet terminology and learning about the different cable types, let’s first cover some basics about Ethernet cables.
- Ethernet Cables: An Introduction
- Advantages of Using an Ethernet Cable
- Disadvantages of Using an Ethernet Cable
- Types of Ethernet Cables
- Is Cat8 the Best Ethernet Cable?
- Can I Plug A Cat8 Cable Into A Cat6 Jack?
- Are There Any Cabling Standards Apart from CAT5e, CAT6, and CAT8?
- Final Thoughts
Ethernet Cables: An Introduction
Ethernet cables are the preeminent network cable in use for physical cable (i.e., wired) connections between devices in your home and office. Ethernet provides fast and consistent data transfer speeds, which means if you surf the Internet with an Ethernet cable connected to your cable modem and laptop, you’ll likely experience less drops and faster downloads.
This especially goes for multiplayer gaming over the Internet.
Usage of Ethernet cables at home has gone down dramatically since WiFi became prevalent, but you’ll find them fully in use in other places, like at data centers for connecting servers and networking devices.
Running data over an Ethernet cable makes it more secure than over WiFi, which is why Ethernet is often found in offices for financial services companies for instance.
Advantages of Using an Ethernet Cable
Sounds good so far? As mentioned, these days WiFi is ubiquitous and there are plenty of reasons to prefer wireless over wired connections, but here are a few more reasons that make Ethernet stand out as a choice of connection mode:
The Need for Speed
Ethernet offers speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, which is much faster than WiFi (but when WiFi 6 comes out this speed will be matched). The reason why Ethernet is so much faster is because of the interference that affects the radio frequency waves that WiFi uses for transmission.
By the way, these are like the radio frequency signals used by broadcast television although WiFi broadcasts at much higher frequencies.
Like I said above, Ethernet connections are necessarily more secure than wireless connections despite the latter offering encryption like Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). A hacker doesn’t need to be in the same room as you to hack into your WiFi network, whereas with Ethernet the hacker needs to interfere with the cable itself, which requires their presence and makes them easier to detect.
Although it can take time to nicely set up multiple Ethernet cables you can’t deny its reliability afterwards. This is in contrast with WiFi, when all of a sudden interference could potentially show up and spoil the party.
Using physical cables like Ethernet rather than wireless connections requires far less energy and thus your electricity bill will thank you.
Disadvantages of Using an Ethernet Cable
Everything’s two sides of the same coin as they say, so let’s keep in mind some of the disadvantages of using Ethernet cable.
Interference is a Factor
Running through an Ethernet cable is solid core of metal, namely copper. Whether that core is “solid” or consists of wires stranded together, it’s usually copper. And though copper is a great, conductible material for data transmission, it’s heavily prone to electromagnetic interference from outside.
Which is why cables always have a plastic sheath around them (often made of polyethylene or plastic) to help block potential interference, as well as to physically protect the metal strands inside. It’s also why, the longer the cable run, the less efficient data transmission becomes due to interference, which eventually imposes a maximum length for Ethernet cables of around 328 feet (100 meters).
Adding cables to your home or office IT setup quickly becomes a messy affair if you don’t do anything to organize and try to hide them as much as possible. It requires work and effort, for instance, to run a cable along the baseboard of your office wall rather than to just run it across the middle of the floor.
Types of Ethernet Cables
When searching for these types of cables, you’ll see they always have a version number, like Cat5, Cat6, Cat7, etc.
When talking about the kinds of Ethernet cable you can purchase, we really start with Cat5e cable. Everything before that (Cat1 – Cat5) is either obsolete or no longer recommended for home or office use.
So we’ll start with Cat5e.
What is Cat5e Ethernet Cable?
Cat5e stands for Cat5, “enhanced.”
While there are no discernable physical differences between the original Cat5 Ethernet cable and the newer Cat5e Ethernet cable, manufacturers built this newer version with more stringent standards in mind.
The idea was to ensure that this newer, more enhanced option would eliminate unwanted signal interference and transfers that resulted in crosstalk between communication channels.
As Cat5 fades into obscurity (it’s currently rated as obsolete), Cat5e is one of the most popular Ethernet cables in the telco industry.
This is mostly thanks to its rather low production costs, which ensures its affordability. That, and the fact that it suffers from no crosstalk issues and can support much faster speeds when compared to its predecessor—Cat5.
A typical example of Cat5e cable:
It’s 100 feet long and works best with a host of devices, including your laptop, desktop, router, switch, modem, DSL, Hub gaming consoles (Xbox, PS2,3, and more).
It has four pairs of stranded twisted network cables that can carry data signals at speeds of up to 350MHz.
What is Cat6 Ethernet Cable?
A general rule of thumb is that the higher the cat numbers go, the faster the speeds that the Ethernet cable can support.
A Cat6 Ethernet cable can therefore support faster speeds than Cat5e.
Cat6 Ethernet cables are tightly wound and typically outfitted with braided shielding or foil, which is designed to help protect the twisted pairs of wires that can be found inside the cable itself.
Additionally, it helps protect the cable from unwanted interference and crosstalk.
While Cat6 Ethernet cables can support impressive speeds of up to 10Gbps, they can only do so for a limited length of about 180 feet (55 meters).
A typical example of Cat6 cable:
Designed to be compatible with RJ-45 connectors, it’s just as easy to install and use as the other cable types.
There’s a reason why having an Ethernet cable that’s compatible with RJ-45 connectors is important. It’s mostly because these connectors support up to 250 MHz and are the most popular connectors in the industry.
This particular Cat6 Ethernet cable has a plastic core that keeps it from bending too tightly, increasing its durability.
You can also buy it in various lengths from about 3 feet to well over 50 feet. Since that happens to be well within the 328-foot (100 meters) limit, this Cat6 Ethernet cable won’t give you any latency or interference issues as far as speed is concerned.
Designed to support most home network needs, this cable is perfectly fine for home office use or even in small commercial office settings.
What is Cat6a Ethernet Cable?
Like Cat5 Ethernet cable, Cat6 also got an upgrade.
In this case, Cat6a (“a” here standing for “augmented”) is a better cable than the original Cat6 and is also capable of supporting twice as much bandwidth as Cat6.
Much like their predecessors, Cat6a cables are shielded, except that their shielding is made out of much denser and less flexible material than that used on Cat6 cables.
This makes Cat6a Ethernet cables a bit less flexible and more secure as far as crosstalk and interference are concerned.
A typical example of Cat6a cable:
Cat6a can be used on a LAN (local area network) with printers, servers, VoIP phones, network media players, routers, modems, switch boxes, and so many other devices connected to it.
What is Cat7 Ethernet Cable?
As is the norm, Cat7 Ethernet cables are designed to support higher bandwidths and speeds than their Cat6 counterparts.
That also means they’re a bit more expensive than Cat6 Ethernet cables, though they more than make up for that price difference in performance.
Capable of reaching up to 100Gbps at a rather short range of 50 feet (15 meters), Cat7 Ethernet cables are perfect for those who want to connect their routers directly to their laptops at such short distances.
Unlike their Cat6 counterparts, however, Cat7 Ethernet cables use modified GigaGate45 connectors; thankfully, these are backward compatible with your regular Ethernet ports.
A typical example of Cat7 cable:
Compatible with its predecessors (Cat5, Cat5e, Cat6, and Cat6a), this cable is ideal for use with a host of network devices, including modems, ADSL, Hubs, gaming consoles, and so much more.
What is Cat7a Ethernet Cable?
The thing about Cat7a (augmented) Ethernet cables is they currently offer the best specs on the market today.
Unfortunately, they aren’t readily available everywhere, and what’s worse is they only support a few networking hardware options.
To compound these issues, the transmission speeds offered by these Ethernet cables aren’t that much better than what you can get with typical Cat7 cable.
They do, however, offer a much higher bandwidth overall (at least 50% more).
While that improvement can be rather useful in some cases, these cables are so much more expensive than their Cat7 counterparts that they’re hardly worth the purchase.
Couple that with the fact they aren’t really compatible with your run-of-the-mill networking hardware, and their appeal begins to wane.
What is Cat8 Ethernet Cable?
Cat8 Ethernet cables are just now beginning to penetrate the market. As an emerging technology, they aren’t widely used, though they offer incredible bandwidth and speeds over much longer distances than their predecessors.
This standard of Ethernet cables promises a maximum frequency of about 2,000 MHz with impressive speeds of about 40Gbps at a range of about 98 feet (30 meters).
The cable is designed to support two connectors, which means you can have up to three connected cables giving you a combined length of 98 feet (30 meters), without losing speed or suffering interference.
A typical example of Cat8 cable:
As a quadruple-shielded Ethernet cable, it’s designed for heavy-duty use, making it ideal for outdoor or buried connectivity.
Couple that with the fact it’s both weatherproof and UV resistant, and you have the kind of cable that telecommunications companies love to use.
Is Cat8 the Best Ethernet Cable?
If cost were no object then Cat8 would be the perfect choice today. It’s freer from interference and cross-talk, and offers faster data transmission speeds than Cat6 and Cat6a.
These days Cat8 can be found in data centers where quality and transmission rates matter, and where operations typically involve quick loading and operations on large files. Cat8 is expected to eventually replace the Cat6 and Cat7 versions and it’s compatible with today’s hardware.
Can I Plug A Cat8 Cable Into A Cat6 Jack?
Yes you can plug a Cat8 cable into a Cat6 jack. The only limitation will be the performance of the port into which you’re plugging the cable into. The maximum speed that a Cat6 jack can achieve is 10 Gbps, while a Cat8 cable can transmit up to 100 Gbps.
Are There Any Cabling Standards Apart from CAT5e, CAT6, and CAT8?
The specifications and use cases for Cat5e, Cat6, and Cat7 are well suited to home and office use. But for large corporations with billions of gigabytes of sensitive data, Cat7e and Cat8 cables more appropriate.
The latter offer better bandwidth and improved security and reliability, and are less prone to interference.
If you simply must choose a cable for your home networking needs, then you don’t have to go beyond Cat6a.
Although, technically speaking, Cat5e is a more popular option because it performs pretty well (good speeds and bandwidth).
It has shielding, which protects it from crosstalk interference, and most importantly, it offers you all this at an affordable rate.
Of course, if you’re going for something a bit more specialized, then you might want to consider higher alternatives, with the Cat8 Ethernet cable topping the list.