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Still need the reliability of wired Internet? Here’s how to choose an Ethernet cable

All Ethernet cables serve the same basic purpose — to connect devices to networks, like the internet. Not all Ethernet cables are exactly the same, however. If you’ve ever found yourself in need of an Ethernet cable without any idea which one you should pick, you’re not alone. Ethernet designations, like many things in today’s world of modern technology, can be difficult to interpret and understand. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to find out which cable is right for you and your situation.

More: Latest Ethernet standard will supercharge your home network, eventually

What does “Cat” mean?

If you’ve ever browsed cables online, you’ve probably noticed that they’re nearly always classified as “Cat-5,” “Cat6e,” or something similar thereof. “Cat” simply stands for “Category,” and the following number indicates the specifications to which the cable was manufactured. A general rule of thumb is that higher numbers represent faster speeds and higher frequencies, measured in Mhz. As is the case with most technologies, newer cables tend to support higher bandwidths, and therefore increased download speeds and faster connections.

Keep in mind that longer Ethernet cables will result in slower transmission speeds, though cables bought for personal use rarely exceed 100 meters, where speed dropoff typically begins to occur.

In September, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) unveiled a new Ethernet standard that promises to dramatically improve transmission speeds on Cat 5 and Cat 6 cables. Unfortunately, it might be a few years before the standard is available to the general public, as opposed to enterprise customers. Below, you can see what each cable type is capable of.

Category Shielding Max Transmission Speed (at 100 meters) Max Bandwidth
Cat 3 Unshielded 10 Mbps 16 MHz
Cat 5 Unshielded 10/100 Mbps 100 MHz
Cat 5e Unshielded 1000 Mbps / 1 Gbps 100 MHz
Cat 6 Shielded or Unshielded 1000 Mbps / 1 Gbps 250 MHz
Cat 6a Shielded 10000 Mbps / 10 Gbps 500 MHz
Cat 7 Shielded 10000 Mbps / 10 Gbps 600 MHz

Cat 3 and Cat 5

Both Cat 3 and Cat 5 Ethernet cables are, at this point, obsolete. It’s not unheard of to find Cat 5 cables still in use, but you shouldn’t even think about trying to buy either of these Ethernet cables. They’re slow, and nobody makes them anymore.

Cat 5e

The “e” in Cat 5e stands for “Enhanced.” There are no physical differences between Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables, but 5e Ethernet is built under more stringent testing standards to eliminate crosstalk — i.e. the unwanted transfer of signals between communication channels. Cat 5e is currently the most common type of Ethernet, namely due to its low production cost and its ability to support faster speeds than the original Cat 5 cables.

Cat 6

Cat 6 cables support much higher bandwidths than Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables, though they’re also more expensive. Cat 6 cables are more tightly wound than those of their predecessor, and are often outfitted with foil or braided shielding. This shielding protects the twisted pairs of wires inside the Ethernet cable, helping to prevent crosstalk and noise interference. Cat-6 cables can technically support speeds up to 10 Gbps, but can only do so for up to 55 meters.

Cat 6a

The “a” in Cat 6a stands for “Augmented.” In comparison to the regular Cat 6 cables, 6a cables support twice the maximum bandwidth, and are capable of maintaining higher transmission speeds over longer cable lengths. Cat 6a cables are always shielded, and their sheathing — which is thick enough to eliminate crosstalk completely — makes for a much denser, less flexible cable than Cat 6.

Cat 7

Cat 7 cables utilize the newest widely-available Ethernet technology, and support higher bandwidths and significantly faster transmission speeds than Cat 6 cables. They’re proportionally more expensive than other Ethernet cables, though their performance reflects their premium price tag. Cat 7 cables are capable of reaching up to 100 Gbps at a range of 15 meters, making them an excellent choice for connecting modems or routers directly to your devices. Cat 7 cables are always shielded, too, and use a modified GigaGate45 connector, which is backwards compatible with regular Ethernet ports.

Cat 8

Cat 8 cables are still in development. We can expect them to hit the market relatively soon, however, with faster maximum speeds and higher maximum bandwidths than Cat 7 cables.

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