What are the real differences between Cat5e and Cat6 cables?

There are a lot of articles on the Internet about the differences between Cat5e and Cat6 cables and their standards, there are many differences of opinion about where and when you have to use the two cable types. One common misconception is that Cat5e patch cables are not able to run at Gigabit speeds, and Cat6 is required. This is not the case, and most modern Cat5e cables are perfectly capable of running at Gigabit speeds, you will see printed on the outer jacket of the cable that the cable is certified for Gigabit networking.

So you may be asking yourself at this point why bother with Cat6? The main reasons are; extra bandwidth (over twice the bandwidth of Cat5), far less cross talk, and a better long term investment.

There are no hard and fast rules on where to use either cable type. If you are patching a server room then it is probably a prudent decision to use Cat6 patch cords to do so, if you are buying patch cords for workstations in office cubicles it is probably better to use Cat5e patch cords.

So are there any real differences in speed between the two?

As we have mentioned above Cat5e and Cat6 cables are both capable of running at gigabit speed, so you may be thinking what really is the difference? Well thanks to Cat6 cable being able to operate at much higher frequencies than Cat5e, it can also operate at higher speeds, it can be used to power 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

However there are some considerations when using Cat6 cable for 10 Gigabit networking; if the cable is not run in an area where there is the potential for interference and crosstalk (like in a larger bundle of cables) then the recommended distance 180 ft., but if the cable is going to be in a less favorable environment than that, the recommended distance is reduced to 120 ft.

So which one do I choose?

As mentioned earlier, Cat6 is usually used within data centers and corporate offices, where Cat5e is used at home or smaller offices. But there really are no hard and fast rules. Both types are capable of running at Gigabit speed, which is usually more than enough for most applications. In the past Cat6 cable was much more expensive that Cat5e, but the difference in price today is much smaller. One piece of advice to keep in mind when making your decision is not to over think what you need.

If you have a home network that has a combination of wired desktops, laptops, media centers etc. there really is no point in trying to wire the entire network with Cat7 cable, it really, really does not give you anything more than Cat5e, Cat6 or Cat6a. We receive a large amount of inquires asking which cable type is the "best" for a particular application, but there really is no one answer. Some people will always buy the fastest, newest specification because that's what they want to do, usually for peace of mind that the effort that they have put into their installation will be as future proof as possible. That is a perfectly good reason, but not mechanically necessary!

What are the physical differences between the two?

There are no physical differences in the connectors between Cat5e and Cat6 patch cables, both will plug directly into an RJ-45 (8P8C) receptacle on a network switch, laptop, server etc. The quality of that connector is different between the categories, if you are making a Cat6 patch cable and use Cat5e connectors, you do not have a Cat6 patch cable! There is a difference in the internal configuration of a Cat5e and Cat6 connector.

Cat5e connectors usually have the channels for each individual wire in a row where a Cat6 connector are configured in a staggered fashion. Sometimes a manufacturer will use a Cat6 connector on a Cat5e patch cord, so do not rely on the connector configuration to tell what category your cable is.

The individual pairs in Cat6 cables have more twists per inch than Cat5e, earlier Cat6 cables also had an internal plastic "spline" to separate the individual pairs further apart than Cat5e, further reducing crosstalk, as you can imagine this makes the Cat6 cable a little less flexible and a little thicker than its Cat5e counterpart. With advances in technology Cat6 cables are generally available without the need for an internal spline.

There are differences between the "thickness" of patch cables depending on the manufacturer of the cable, this is usually due to the thickness of the external jacket, but can be down to the gauge of the wires inside the cable itself. Cat6 cables tend to be a little thicker than their Cat5e counterparts, but that is mainly down to the fact that there are more twists per inch for Cat6. There is a perception that the "fatter" the cable the faster it can go, this is not the case at all… If you want a cable to perform to a certain standard then you need to buy a cable that is certified for that standard. Two different manufacturers may produce Cat5e certified Patch Cables, one being thicker than the other, but both are certified to the same standard and therefore the same minimum speed.

No matter what the cable is it will have its type and certifications printed on the jacket of the cable itself, this is the best way to tell exactly what cable you have.

What is Cat6a?

Cat6a is the "Augmented" version of Cat6. As described above Cat6 is capable of running at 10 Gigabit speeds, but at a reduced distance compared to the standard of 100 meters. Cat6a is capable of supporting the 10GBase-T standard over the full 100 meter distance. The cable tends to be thicker and less flexible than Cat6 and this has to be taken into consideration when planning an installation. This means that you will be faced with the problem of less cables fitting inside cable ducts or cable trays with Cat6a, another point to take into consideration is that the "bend radius" of Cat6a is larger than that of Cat6. This basically means that you can't bend it as much as you can with Cat6, this may not sound like a big deal but it can mean that existing cable management may not be adequate.

Cat6a follows the same wiring color scheme (T568) as Cat5e and Cat6, and uses the same RJ45 jack style as well, but at Cat6a quality. In reality Cat6a is not as popular as Cat6, it tends to be much more expensive than Cat6, and that extra expense does not generally make it a worthwhile investment for most consumers or businesses.

What is Cat7?

Cat 7 cable is slightly different to the other cables that we have talked about so far. The Cat7 standard (also known as ISO Class F) has each pair individually shielded with foil and all four pairs shielded with a metal braid, this cable construction is referred to as S/FTP (Shielded/Foiled Twisted Pair). Alternatively the outer shield will be foil instead of metal braid in which case it is referred to as F/FTP.

Additionally a Cat7 patch cord can have a different connector type than the usual 8P8C (RJ-45) connector, such as the "Tera" or "GG45" connectors. Cat7 supports the 10GBase-T specification, as does Cat6 and Cat6a, but is designed to go beyond that specification.

The Cat7 standard has more strict specifications for crosstalk and other sources of noise than the other cable classifications we have described so far, this is mainly achieved through the shielded construction we described earlier, the cable being capable of running at 600Mhz.