Cat5 vs Cat5e vs Cat6: How Do You Wire Your Network?

By Matthew Braga

Ethernet cabling comes in a couple different flavors, so before you go dropping the big bucks on a giant spool of wire, there's a few things to keep in mind.

While you might be agonizing over your latest Wireless-N purchase, there are still some of us that remain tethered to our desks and routers — yes, with actual wires. Next we'll be talking about 78rpm records and last week's issue of Flash Gordon. But really, some of us old timers still stick by good 'ol Ethernet cabling. If you're looking to build a serious home or office network, Ethernet is the only way to go.

New York Super Fudge Chunk, it pays to know your Category 5 from your Category 5e.

Category 5

As the old standard for Ethernet cabling, you've might have a few of these relics lying around the house. Capable of either 10BaseT (10MBs) or 100BaseT (100MBs), these cables are most often included with older modems, routers and Ethernet adapters. They're decent if you're operating a lower-bandwidth network, but they've been superseded by Cat5e for a couple of important reasons. In fact, we'd be surprised if any modern device still included these cables, though it's worth checking if any legacy devices on your network still use them. 

Category 5e

That extra speed is achieved by using all four wire pairs, instead of the usual two. Also, while crosstalk — interference between wire pairs — is sometimes an issue with Cat5 cabling, Cat5e works to reduce the effect of crosstalk via tighter twists between wire pairs. Packing more twists into a length of wire helps to more effectively cancel out interference between pairs. The maximum length here remains the same as well — up to 100m in length for optimal performance. 

Category 6

Cat6 also bumps the cable's rate frequency to 250MHz, instead of the Cat5 and Cat5e's 100MHz spec. In English, this is what allows for faster and more reliable transfer speeds, especially when combined with Cat6's improved insulating qualities. In fact, these two features combined make both Gigabit and even 10-Gigabit speeds possible, though the maximum cable length is halved to around 55m when using the latter. 
Cat6 is the choice for future-proofing in-wall home networks, since there are plans in place to use Cat6 to replace HDMI as an A/V standard in the near future. What Ethernet cables do you use for your networking needs?

Images via Flickr users splorp, Megan Elizabeth Morris, and pascal.charest.