Network and Ethernet Cables

Network cables can be incredibly confusing, especially with names like Cat 3, Cat 5e, Cat 6, and Cat 6a, as well as more generic titles like "ethernet cable." However, if you know the differences between categories, getting the correct networking cable can be easy, and the rapid reductions in cable costs make buying high-performance cables inexpensive.

Cat 5 Network Cable
 
 

Network Cable Types

The are many types of network cables in use today, but the most common cables fall into these 3 categories:
  • Cat 3 - Older networking cables; not commonly used today.
  • Cat 5 / Cat 5e - Newer networking cables; used for ethernet and similar uses.
  • Cat 6 / Cat 6a - Gigabit ethernet networking cables; standard for commercial use.

Category 3 Network Cables

Category 3 network cables, commonly called Cat 3 cables, were the old standard for networking cables during the 1990s. These cables were unshielded, meaning they were not actively protected from interference from other devices. Cat 3 cables fell out of use when the Cat 5 standard was established. Although these cables are not commonly available, they may still be purchased from some wholesalers and legacy computer stores.

Category 5 and 5e Network Cables

Category 5 network cables, commonly known as Cat 5 cables, are twisted-pair cables designed for high signal integrity. These cables come in both shielded and unshielded varieties; shielded cables prevent interference from other devices and generally result in higher performance without a significant increase in price. The Cat 5 specification has been superceeded by the Cat 5e specification, meaning that most newly manufactured cables have more stringent "Cat 5e" specifications, resulting in better quality and performance. Cat 5 and 5e cables have 8 pins on their connectors, as pictured to the right.

Cat 5 Network Cable Connector
 

Cat 5 cables are used for most home networks and smaller office network configurations; they are compatible with most computer networking cards, as well as wired and wireless routers and home networking components. When purchasing cables for these devices, choose shielded Cat 5e cables whenever possible.

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Category 6 and 6a Network Cables

Category 6 cables, commonly called Cat 6 cables, are the standard cables Gigabit Ethernet networks and similar systems. These cables are backwards compitable with Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables, meaning that Cat 6 cables can be used with devices that support Cat 5 cables. Like Cat 5 cables, the Cat 6 standard has been replaced be the Cat 6a standard, resulting in even faster, more-reliable cables. Cat 6 cables feature the same connectors as Cat 5 cables. Although consumers can purchase Cat 6 cables, doing so is generally unnecessary, since most home networking devices, like wireless routers and cable modems, do not operate at a speed that would utalize the capacity of these cabales. In general, Cat 5 cables should be used for home networking to save costs, while Cat 6 cables should be used in commercial-grade setups. Since differences in price are generally minimal, however, some consumers may choose to purchase Cat 6 cables, knowing that network components will eventually catch up to Cat 6 cables in bandwidth and speed.

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