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What Is an Ethernet Cable?

Sep 18, 2023

If you’ve ever shopped for home networking, there is an excellent chance you have heard about Ethernet cables. But what are they for, why would you want to use them, and how do they differ?

An Ethernet cable is a cable that you connect between your computer, TV, gaming console, or another device and a router, modem, or network switch. It gives your device access to a local network or the internet. Although Wi-Fi has become a very common way of connecting to the internet, an Ethernet cable can provide a faster and more stable internet connection than wireless currently can.

Ethernet cables typically use RJ-45 connectors on both ends and can be as long as 300 feet. Additionally, there are no upstream or downstream ports in an Ethernet cable, so you can plug whichever end you want into a router or your computer.

As mentioned, Ethernet cables are primarily used to access a local network or the internet. But you can also use them to establish a direct connection between two devices.

The speed of a wired connection depends on several things, such as the router's speed, the Ethernet cable category (more on that later), and the capabilities of your device. That said, most modern Ethernet connections are capable of routinely delivering 1Gbps or higher speeds, faster than common Wi-Fi connections, even Wi-Fi 6.

Additionally, since Ethernet cables provide a direct-wired connection, you get a more reliable and consistent experience than Wi-Fi. You also don't have to worry about distance from a wireless router or the obstacles in between.

Apart from speed and reliability, an Ethernet cable can also reduce your connection's latency, which is critical, mainly if you are playing online games.

Lastly, Ethernet cables can also be better for network security and control than Wi-Fi. As devices are connected using a cable, it's hard for outsiders to access your network or its data without physical access.

Just like any other technology, not all Ethernet cables are made equal. Instead, there are different categories, each with a different level of capabilities and features, but mainly the speed.

While looking for Ethernet cables, you may have noticed that they are labeled Cat-5, Cat-5e, or Cat-6. "Cat" here is short for Category, and the number represents the specification supported by it. Although there have been cable categories from 1 to 4, they are either obsolete or technically not recognized as part of the Ethernet standard. That means you don't have to worry about anything below Cat-5. Even Cat-5 itself is pretty old and not recommended for any fresh installation, but you may still find it in circulation or existing installations.

The Category-5 (Cat-5) cables can support data transfer speeds of up to 100Mbps and have a bandwidth of 100MHz, but they don't come with any shielding. Shielding helps protect the cable from electromagnetic interference from an outside source.

The Category-5e (Cat-5e) cables are an improved version of the Cat-5. It's not an officially-designated category, but the Cat-5e cables can support up to 1Gbps of speed, 100MHz bandwidth, and are built with better resistance to cross-talk. Cat-5e is the most common Ethernet cable you will currently find in the consumer market.

Compared to Cat-5e, a Category-6 cable is a big step up. While they are rated for only 1Gbps speeds over longer distances, you can get up to 10Gbps at shorter distances of up to 37 meters (121 feet). This is possible because of better shielding and the higher 250MHz bandwidth.

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Category-6a is a more advanced version of the Cat-6 specification. It supports double the bandwidth of Cat-6 at 500MHz and up to 10Gbps speeds up to 100 meters.

Category-7 is an outlier. It was ratified as a standard before Cat-6a, but it still hasn't seen much adoption despite supporting speeds of 10Gbps up to 100 meters and a bandwidth of 600MHz. Part of the reason why Cat-7 isn't so popular is its proprietary nature. It was developed by a group of companies and is not an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard. It's also not approved by Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). Additionally, the Cat-7 cables use a proprietary connector.

The Category-7a is an advancement over Cat-7 and supports 40Gbps speeds up to 50 meters, and 100Gbps speeds up to 15 meters. Unfortunately, despite being quite capable, it has suffered the same fate as Cat-7 as it has the same problems, being a proprietary standard.

Among the TIA and IEEE-approved standards, the Category-8 cables come after Cat-6a. Cat-8 cables support up to 2000MHz bandwidth and are rated for 25Gbps or 40Gbps speeds up to 30 meters. It's definitely an improvement, but a Cat-8 cable will usually be more expensive than lower categories.

As you’re considering your options, keep in mind that, with the right tools, you can cut your own Ethernet cables so that you always have exactly the right length for what you need.

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