Ask LH: What’s The Difference Between Cat5, Cat5e And Cat6 Ethernet Cables?

Ask LH: What’s The Difference Between Cat5, Cat5e And Cat6 Ethernet Cables?
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Dear Lifehacker, I finally took your advice and went completely wired on my home network using a bunch of ethernet cables I had lying around. Some are Cat5 and others are Cat5e. Is there a difference? Is one faster than the other? What should I use? Sincerely, Confusing Cables

Picture: tlsmith1000/Flickr

Dear Confusing,

Congratulations on wiring up your home — it’s not always an easy task, but it feels great once you finally do it (especially if you’re using the network to stream video, play games, transfer data between computers and so on).

There is, in fact, a difference between all those network cables. They look very similar from the outside, and any of them will plug into an ethernet port, but they do have some differences on the inside. If you aren’t sure what type of cables you have, look at the text printed on the cable — usually it will tell you what type it is. The differences between each type of cable can get very complicated and have a lot to do with network standards, but we’ll tell you just what you need to know: how they’ll practically affect the speed of your home network.

Cat5: A Little Older, A Little Slower

Category 5 cabling, also known as Cat5, is an older type of network cabling. Cat5 cables were made to support theoretical speeds of 10Mbps and 100Mbps. You may be able to get gigabit speeds on a Cat5 cable, particularly if the cable is shorter, but it isn’t always guaranteed.

Since Cat5 is an older type of cabling, you probably won’t see them very much in the store, but you may have gotten some with an older router, switch or other networking device.

Cat5e: Faster with Less Interference

Category 5 enhanced cabling, also known as Cat5e, is an improvement on Cat5 cabling. It was made to support 1000 Mbps “gigabit” speeds, so in theory, it’s faster than Cat5. It it also cuts down on crosstalk, the interference you can sometimes get between wires inside the cable. Both of these improvements mean you’re more likely to get fast, reliable speed out of Cat5e cabling compared to Cat5.

Cat6: Even Faster, But Not Super Necessary

Category 6 cabling is the next step up from Cat5e and includes a few more improvements. It has even stricter specifications when it comes to interference, and its capable of 10-Gigabit speeds in some cases. You probably won’t use these speeds in your home, and the extra interference improvements won’t make a huge difference in regular usage, so you don’t exactly need to rush out and upgrade to Cat6. But, if you’re buying a new cable, you might as well, since it is an improvement over its predecessor.

So Which Should You Use?

It’s important to note that your network speed is different to your internet speed. Chances are upgrading your cables isn’t going to make a difference in how fast you load Lifehacker or Facebook — your internet speeds are still much slower than speeds on your network. However, if you’re transferring files between computers (say, if you’re backing up to a NAS), using gigabit-compatible hardware can make things move along faster. Remember, you’ll need more than just cables — to get gigabit speeds, you’ll also need a gigabit-compatible router and gigabit-capable network cards in your computers. Most modern routers and cards are already capable of these fast speeds, but if you have any older PCs or routers, they might not be. Google your hardware’s model number to find out.

If you’re happy with the current speeds on your network, then there’s no need to go through the trouble of upgrading everything. However, if you have gigabit-capable hardware already, then upgrading the cables is very cheap. If you’re looking to get the best possible speeds out of your network, upgrading the old Cat5 cables to Cat5e could help. Like we said, some Cat5 cables can reach gigabit speeds, but unless you want to run speed tests and find out — which sounds horribly tedious to me — you might as well just spend a few bucks and get all Cat5e or Cat6. If you’re running these cables through your walls instead of just through your office, though, it’s going to get more costly (and less worth the trouble).

Lastly, remember that when we talk about the speeds of these cables, those are all theoretical. Even if everything on your network supports gigabit ethernet, you’ll probably never see speeds of 1Gb/s. But, your data transfers will be a lot faster than they would on non-gigabit hardware. Also, if you’re running cable throughout your house, you may notice a decrease in speeds if you are using cables longer than 100m.

So, in short, If you transfer lots of data over your network, upgrading your cables from old Cat5 might help, and it’s so cheap that you might as well try it out. But don’t stress over it. For home use, the cables you use aren’t going to be a huge deal.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    • Similar standards also apply to fibre. You can’t magically extract more speed or bandwidth from a fibre cable by just changing the devices at either end. You will still need to move up a cable standard. As with copper cabling, the ratings are mostly for distance. You can quite easily connect a 1 gbps on cat 5 provided its short enough as mentioned.

      On a side note, Ethernet has a standard RJ45 connector which is used regardless of what category cable. 1 connector type. Fibre on the other hand has quite a few, which can be a pain in the butt.

      • Mmmmm not entirely true.
        Cat5/5e and cat6 use different plugs.
        The cat 6 plugs have increased internal space, and thinner copper stamp-downs to facilitate a cradle thats used when terminating the Cat6 pairs.

        Cat5/e doesnt have this. If you try to terminate cat5/e into a cat 6 plug, youll get open pairs because the copper pins wont crimp down onto the cables.

        Conversley, if you try to terminate cat6 into a cat5 plug, you have to throw away the small cable-cradle which positions the pairs in an exact spot within the plug…thus degrading your termination quality.

        Yes, on the outside they are both the exact same form, but the inside of the plugs are entirely different.

        • The connector is still RJ-45 though so it will fit into any Ethernet *socket*. Whether the plug on the end of the wire is Cat5e or Cat6 specific doesn’t change that fact.

          • He’s technically correct, what people (and most websites) refer to as RJ45 is really unkeyed 8P8C.

            What does this matter to you? Pretty much fucking nothing.

          • WOW Jake! What an Arse Hat.

            Guy wants to learn something and even says please and you reply like that!

            Maybe he’s wiring his whole house and want to know the diff in plug specs?
            Maybe he’s a first year apprentice or engineering student….or just an ENTHUISIAST!

            If you meant to say ” But does it matter in the end, not really” or something maybe be a little less aggressive dude!

        • This guy is over thinking things here in a residential type setting you can definitely interchange cat5/6 plugs both ways without any issues as long as you know how to do it properly , unless you spend big bucks on equipment your wasting time with any cabling questions

      • sorry but not true you can simply change the transcievers on fibre for faster speed, I’ve upgraded plenty of installations from 10Mbps to 10Gbps without replacing anyting other than the transcievers and the fly lead between the trancievers and the patch panel. and yes the connectors can be different however theres never an issue getting cables with different ends to suit your needs

        the real reason you shouldnt use fibre is because its dificult to terminate and dificult to run, where ethernet can go on a 90 degreen bend over a wall fibre cannot and would break.

        Fibre should only be used where you want to go over 100m as ethernet is only 99+1

        • My understanding is that even with fibre, its still distance related isn’t it ? Eg, if you installed 50 micron cable it will allow a longer distance at a specified spec over say 62.5 micron cable. I’m no expert but that was my understanding. Something similar with multimode and single mode but related to bandwidth. Isn’t that the premise for OM1, OM2, OM3 and OM4 cables ? I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

          Here’s a link with some information :

        • +1 this

          It’s true of the fibre to some extent, 90% of the line speed in most cases comes down to the optics you use at either end. Witch can be easily upgraded, recently changed SFP’s on a fibre that was installed almost ten years ago, from 1.25Gbps to 40Gbps (granted the optics for that are pretty expensive to suit the fibre I had to upgrade, around $5k).

        • The minimum \bend radius of optic fibre is: 6x the diameter of the fibre. NOT the outer sheath, but the actual tiny glass fibre in the middle. You could probably get away with wrapping optic cable around your finger in a spiral: use 2 fingers-worth of space on a 180 degree bend to be safe.

    • Can already get these, search ebay for ‘media converters’. Course, the cost of fibre through the home is probably nowhere near the benefits you’d see versus Cat5e/6

    • I have fiber running into my laundry room and it gets converted to cat6 from there. I have ran the test and am getting 37 megs DL and 7.4 upload. They told me the only limitations now are in the modem/router itself. Soon I feel we will have fiber ready NIC cards. They just need to make fiber ready routers first.

  • One other point – don’t buy expensive cables from local retailers. $30 for 1.5 meters is a joke. Check your local computer store and see what they have going. Currently you can grab 10m Cat 6 for about $8.

    • This.

      My housemate came back from Dick Smith with a ridiculously overpriced 5m cable. Not only do we have wireless for our laptops, but I then showed off my 25m cable I got a few years back at an independent shop for $25.

  • There’s not much if any difference in cost between Cat5 and Cat6 for the home, (maybe even bigger projects?) so there’s no real cost reason to use Cat 5 any more anyway.

    • Only really true of Cat5e and Cat 6. Unless you’re the Coalition, in which case there’s not much difference between a tin-can phone line and fibre.

      If your cabling is actually Cat5 and you only get 10mbps streaming video and transferring large files will be potentially hours vs minutes using 100mbps or 10gbps

  • Something to bear in mind when cabling, CAT6 cables are harder to bend because of extra shielding inside.
    My entire house is wired with CAT6 cable, my only regret is only doing 2 data points in the living room where my TV is, should have done 6 – 10.

      • To a home theater room you are better off doing more cable runs. A cable for each component you are using plus two extra for data.

        Ethernet is not just used for network data. Ethernet is a great option for routing audio/video throughout your home (hdmi over Ethernet) It allows you to send all your component audio/video to one location so you can route it to the rest of your home… I have 6 ethernet ports to our home cinema for this very purpose

    • When you say “shielding” I think foil or wire braiding (IE conductive). Cat6 doesn’t have that – what it can have is a non-conducting “spacer”.

      Which makes it harder to bend 🙂

      • You can buy shielded or unshielded. You are correct, the plastic spacer is that makes it harder to bend. Shielding is not usually a braid any more, its just thin foil.

    • Study or specific room for computers aside, shouldn’t your TV area be where the most network ports are? I mean, you’re always going to have the most devices there, aren’t you?

  • Timely article. I’m in the middle of planning our new house and was wondering whether to have cabling installed or just go wireless. Still undecided though…

    • Don’t go wireless, it’s bandwidth is finite and there is a limit to the number of devices you can run on it at once.
      I retrofitted a Cat6 backbone through my house and have two wired+wireless access points at either end. I use wired where possible = very fast and low power consumption. Phones and tablets then connect wirelessly.
      Wireless is convenient, but shouldn’t be over-used.

        • Generally you’re best off using wired where you can and wireless for portable devices or those devices in very hard-to-cable areas.

          Wireless connections compete for bandwidth (not just with each other, but with your neighbours as well.) If you’re using a wireless connection to move a large file or stream video you may have trouble with other devices. If you are only using it for Internet access, this isn’t as important as you’re capped by the speed of your Internet link anyway, which is much likely slower than 802.11n or even 802.11g.

          Also: per an earlier lifehacker article, you should probably disable WPS in your router if you want to avoid other people getting into your home network.

    • A standard phone plug [RJ-11] will fit into an RJ-45 socket.

      If you have a patch panel, in the centre of the house, you can have 2 RJ-45’s on each blanking plate in each room. You can then choose to have Phone + Data, or 2x Data, at each. If you get a second phone line, you re-configure the patch panel.

      Assuming a generous 5m loss for patch panel & cabling going up / down wall cavities, the central location gives you a maximum house diameter of 190m [95m in all directions]. That should be enough for most people.

  • don’t go wireless, go wired.

    reason i went wired is:
    4 smart tv’s in the house, 1 in the garage.
    each requires a wifi adaptor which are around $100 each, thats $500 there alone!
    also, the internet connection is in the rear of the house, wifi signals don’t get to the front of the house very well, i can always upgrade to a better WAP, but, with a wired connection, i dont have these issues.

    • I agree… Forget about copying your movies to a flash drive at 2-3MBps. Copy it to a network based plex server at 30MBps and watch your movie in seconds without the hassle of a USB drive!

      It makes a HUGE difference for convenience

  • Sooo… for the n00b, something that wasn’t covered in the article is how to tell these apart. I have a box of network cables at home and it would be great to just go through, know what’s what and use the best cables for the higher end stuff. ie) gigabit router, imac, NAS and media streamer.

    Any suggestions would be great.

      • Well said. i2 – it is possible to test individual cables for their capability, but you need some fancy tools to do it (i.e. Fluke Networks test gear). Cable colour isn’t a good identifier, as anybody can make these in any colour to fit any spec. We import blue, green, orange, yellow, red, white and black with yellow ends (crossover leads, that one) from China, and we’ve bought pink, purple, grey, and white with blue stripe locally.

        Considering the price of these cables new, just get some new ones for any you’re not sure about.

        Leave the others to give away, or if you need a temporary fix.

  • Question, POE (Power over Ethernet) seems to be something that is gaining some momentum, I’m seeing more routers and the likes coming with that option which is GREAT especially if you are looking to install equipment in odd spots out of reach of your normal power outlets, do you specifically need a Cat6 to use POE? Or is that another different CAT Cable Standard?

    • PoE can work on anything from CAT5 upwards, at the IEEE standards. You can get it to work with lower CAT3 cables, but not at the normal power levels (i.e. only if you’re desperate!).

  • One thing you didnt mention. is the fact they all use the same connector!
    So it would have been really great if at the end you just said to use CAT6 if you are buying stuff now, or if you are just setting up your home as its all backward compatible

  • One last thing to mention is that you need to make sure that you’re buying cable that’s been certified to your local government’s standards. Generally speaking, that’s all you’ll buy from large retailers and wholesalers, but don’t be tempted by that too-good-to-be-true price from a guy in the street!

    CCA (copper-coated aluminium) is common in un-certified data cable, along with non-fire retardant PVC on the outside. Regardless of what it will or won’t do to your signal quality, cheap PVC can act more like a candle’s wick in a fire.

  • I just wired up our House with a mixture of Wired and Wireless, We keep the Wireless for portable items (iPhone/iPad/Nexus) and I have fixed items throughout the house (Apple TV/PS3/Mac Mini) so they get the wired Treatment, I have found the system is so much more reliable and faster when transferring data around the house, I wired the House with Cat 6, I didn’t need to go that fast, but I figured I may as well, at least that way it shouldn’t need any upgrades in the near future, I’ve also got 3 spare ports on my switch for planned upgrades down the track.

  • Hi All,

    Anixter was actually the first company in the world to begin developing standards for this type of network cabling 15-20 years ago in their “Levels Program”, which was the precursor to the naming conventions and standards your referring to here.

    We’ve also just opened up an online shop to begin sales direct to consumers rather than through our traditional B2B channel, but it’s all the same Enterprise Class IT products.

    It’s literally just been launched a week ago for Australian customers, so the range should expand over time but check it out if your interested.


    • IEEE released the ethernet standards in 1983, so what you are saying is completely untrue. I know this comment is old but I don’t want you misinforming people. Prior to IEEE standards, Intel and Xerox teamed up to create a standard based on coaxial in 1979. According to your post your company started doing this at the earliest in 1994…11 years after IEEE.

  • Thank you so much! This just sorted things out for me! Very clear, easy to understand…. I am off to buy cat6 cabel!(adding that I have no idea about any of this, but half my house have no wifi, so I was researching how to extend and what to buy this morning)

  • Meeki, actually you can “extract more speed from a fibre cable by changing the devices at either end.” In practice this often done. Single mode fiber optic cable is capable of transmitting data near the speed of light. All that needs to be upgraded is the networking interfaces on either side of a fiber optic connection. This does not apply so much to copper cabling.

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