You need the right Ethernet cable for your network, but are you using the wrong cord? Here are 6 different types of Ethernet cables and how they work.

If you have ever had Internet installed in your home, you have likely seen and managed an Ethernet cable. You have maybe even had to find a replacement cable at your local computer shop and realized there are several types of Ethernet cables.

Since Ethernet technology is over 40 years old, it is no surprise there are several types. 

In 1973, Xerox PARC, the research arm of Xerox Corporation, developed the Ethernet cable and filed for its patent in 1975. One of the cable’s developers, Robert Metcalfe, wanted to make the Ethernet a standard across the computing industry. 

By 1983, Metcalfe’s standardization efforts took hold with the publication of IEE 802.3 which ultimately paved the way for Ethernet as a standard in home computing. By the early 1990’s, each home computer came standard with an Ethernet port. 

This long history has paved the way for Ethernet to become the standard for Internet installation and will soon cause it to cross the $1Bn threshold for global spending. In this article, you will learn more about Ethernet cables, key vocabulary to know when evaluating them, and the different types of Ethernet cables available on the market.

Vocabulary to Know

Understanding the different vocabulary surrounding ethernet cables will give you a better grasp of how different technical aspects of Ethernet cables will influence their quality and speed.

Ethernet Cables

The most popular type of cable used in the setup of wired networks, like wifi for your home. They connect your modem to a router or local area network (LAN). Ethernet cables also connect your router to your computer. 

Shielded Twisted Pair (STP) & Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP)

In an Ethernet cable, you will find several conductor wires in pairs with each wire coated in an insulator. In STP cables, each pair is wrapped in a shielding material made of aluminum or copper. In UTP cables, there is no additional shielding material.

The purpose of the shielding material is to prevent crosstalk between the pairs of wires in the cable. 

American Wire Gauge (AWG)

Refers to the standard sizing for wires in the U.S. By these standards, the internal wires of Ethernet cables should be no thinner than 22 and no thicker than 24. 

Solid Conductors

Solid conductors have a single solid wire per conductor. The solid wire offers better performance and protects against cross-talk between wires. It is best to use these when the cable will likely be stationary and will unlikely be damaged.

For these reasons, solid conductor cables are best for fixing within walls or a building’s structure. 

Stranded Conductors

Stranded conductors usually contain seven wire strands that are all wrapped around each other, forming a single conductor. If you plan to bend your Ethernet cable into sharp angles or wrap it up and move it around, a stranded conductor cable will be best as it is more forgiving and flexible. 

Types of Ethernet Cables

Luckily, there are no crazy names to remember for the different types of Ethernet cables. Simply category + a number. 

Category 3

Cat3 cables are the oldest type of ethernet cable still in use today. It is a UTP wire with a 10 Mbps data or voice-carrying capacity and can handle a bandwidth of up to 16 MHz. Cat3 cables were standard for computing back in the 1990's, but you can still find them in standard landline phones.

Category 5

Cat5 cables were the first fast Ethernet cables introduced to the market. Like Cat3, they also have UTP wires but can transfer 10/100 Mbps of data. This means the cables could transfer data at a rate of 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps.

Most likely you will find Cat5 or Cat5e cables in your home. Both Cat5 and Cat5e can handle up to 100 MHz, making both faster than the Cat3 cable. 

Category 5e

There are no physical differences between Cat5 and Cat5e cables. The real difference is the standard for testing to reduce cross-talk between wires. Manufacturers also added a 1000 Mbps capability (Gigabit) into the Cat5e cables in addition to the 10/1000 Mbps capacity.

While Cat5 cables are still widely used, Cat5e cables are most prevalently used in new installations.

Category 6

The major difference between Cat6 and Cat5(e) is the difference in speed. Cat6 cables can handle a bandwidth of up to 250 MHz, which is 2.5x better than either Cat5 cable. These cables also had physical upgrades like better insulation and thinner wires. 

Category 6a

Unlike the small difference between the Cat5 and the Cat5e, there was a huge jump between Cat6 and Cat6a. The new Cat6a cables have 10x the data capacity and twice the speed of the Cat6. Because the Cat6a cables are typically STP wired, you have to purchase special adapters to ground them. 

Category 7

Cat7 cables are not much different from their Cat6a predecessors. They feature a data capacity of 1000 Mbps and a bandwidth capacity of 600 MHz. The main difference is Cat7 cables have screened, shielded twisted pairs (SSTP), which makes the cables thicker and requires they be grounded to conduct properly. 

What Kind of Ethernet Do You Need?

There are a few factors to consider if you are looking to invest in new Ethernet cables. Generally, Cat5e will serve all of your needs, particularly in a home Internet setting. 

If you are re-wiring your home and have Cat5 or less, upgrade to Cat5e or Cat6. There's a $2 difference per foot between the two, so do some calculations to figure out how much you will need and the overall cost difference. 

If you have high-priority Internet needs and have the Internet and network speeds to necessitate Cat6 or Cat6e cables, then use either of these categories.

Overall, most experts agree Cat6 and above are unnecessary for home Internet usage, but a must when installing for a business.

Conclusion

Now you know all about the different types of Ethernet cables and can make an informed decision when you make a purchase. Remember, your purchase choice should factor in your home Internet speed, your budget, and the overall experience you want from your Internet.