Not all Ethernet cable is created equally. What’s the difference, and how do you know which you should use? Let’s look at the technical and physical differences in Ethernet cable categories to assist you in deciding which is best for your network.
Ethernet cables are grouped into sequentially numbered categories (“cat”) based on different specifications; sometimes the category is updated with further clarification or testing standards (e.g. 5e, 6A). These categories are how we can easily know what type of cable we need for a specific application. Manufacturers are required to adhere to the standards.
As the category number gets higher, so does the speed and MHz of the wire. This is not a coincidence, because each category brings more stringent testing for eliminating crosstalk (XT) and adding isolation between the wires.
What are the differences between the categories and how can you know when to use unshielded, shielded, stranded, or solid cable?
Cat5e is approved to provide 1000-Megabit (@100Mhz) to a maximum of 100m channel link. This cable is suitable for Gigabit speeds and networks that change frequently. If the network changes frequently or is temporary in nature, Cat5e may be the optimal selection.
Cat6 is approved to provide 1000-Megabit (@250Mhz) to a maximum of 100m channel link or 10Gbps to a limit of 33m channel length. This cable is optimal for extra margin and higher performance. Cat6 cable will support gigabit Ethernet, but will only support 10-Gigabit Ethernet if the total length and loss is low enough. If a project requires a 10-Gigabit Ethernet connection, Cat6A or higher is recommended.
Cat6A is approved to provide 10-Gigabit (@500Mhz) to a maximum of 100m channel link. This cable will support speeds up to 10-Gigabit. If a project requires a single installation solution to support the facility and is intended to stand the test of time, Cat6A will protect the investment and serve as a reliable backbone going into the future.
Cat7 & Cat7A is approved to provide 10-Gigabit (@600/1000Mhz) to a maximum of 100m channel link. This cable will support 10-Gigabit Ethernet with plenty of margin to spare. Cat7 has pair-sharing capability, making it possible to use one cable to power several different devices at the same time utilizing each pair as needed. For the best and most versatile infrastructure Cat7 provides the solution.
Here is a handy chart to help you better understand the differences.
|Length (meters)||10 Mb/s||100 Mb/s||1 Gb/s||10 Gb/s||Power over Ethernet (PoE)||MHz|
Wire twisting and isolation the physical cable helps eliminate interference and allows for faster speeds. This reduces the interference and increases the range. Twisted pair became the basis for all Ethernet cables to eliminate interference between internal wires (XT), and external wires (AXT).
There are two main physical differences between Cat5 and Cat6 cables, the number of twists per cm in the wire, and sheath thickness.
Cable twisting length is not standardized, but typically there are 1.5-2 twists per cm in Cat5e and 2+ twists per cm in Cat-6. Within a single cable, each colored pair will also have different twist lengths based on prime numbers so that no two twists ever align. The amount of twists per pair is usually unique for each cable manufacturer.
Many Cat6 cables also include a nylon spline which helps eliminate crosstalk. Although the spline is not required in Cat5/5e cable, some manufactures include it anyway. In Cat6 cable, the spline is not required either as long as the cable tests according to the standard.
While the nylon spline helps reduce crosstalk in the wire, a thicker sheath protects against near end crosstalk (NEXT) and alien crosstalk (AXT) which both occur more often as the frequency (MHz) increases.
Shielded (STP) vs. Unshielded (UTP)
Because all Ethernet cables are twisted, manufactures use shielding to further protect the cable from interference. Unshielded twisted pair can easily be used for cables between your computer and the wall, but you will want to use shielded cable for areas with high interference and running cables outdoors or inside walls.
There are different ways to shield an Ethernet cable, but typically it involves putting a shield around each pair of wire in the cable. This protects the pairs from crosstalk internally. Manufactures can further protect cables from alien crosstalk but screening UTP or STP cables.
Solid vs. Stranded
Solid and stranded Ethernet cables refer to the actual copper conductor in the pairs. Solid cable uses a single piece of copper for the electrical conductor while stranded uses a series of copper cables twisted together. There are many different applications for each type of conductor, but there are two main applications for each type you should know about:
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