Wired connections, which use Ethernet cables, are generally faster and have lower latency than Wi-Fi connections. But, just as modern Wi-Fi hardware has advanced, modern Ethernet cables are capable of communicating at faster speeds.
For a typical home network, this isn’t a really big deal, since your Internet connection is the bottleneck. If you’re getting, for example, 90 Mbps download speeds from your ISP, the Ethernet cables in your home won’t make a bit of difference for your Internet speeds—you’ll still only be getting 90 Mbps. However, you can get faster local network speeds by upgrading your Ethernet cable. And faster LAN speeds can help when transferring data from one device to another on your local network. This includes things like backing up and transferring data between computers, streaming games from a Windows box to your Shield or Steam Link, or streaming local video from something like a Plex or Kodi server.
Did you recently pick up a new Ethernet cable, or did you use an Ethernet cable that came bundled with a modern router or other piece of equipment? If so, that cable’s probably recent enough that you don’t need to worry.
But, if you’re still using older Ethernet cables that have been sitting in a closet somewhere, you may want to look at upgrading them. If you long ago wired your house with Ethernet cables—perhaps you strung them through the walls and under the carpets to expand wired Internet access to every room—you might have older Cat-5 or Cat-5e cables in your walls.
Ethernet cables are standardized into different categories. For example, you’ll see cables rated as Category 5, Category 5e, Category 6, Category 7, and so on. We usually shorten these names to Cat-5, Cat-5e, Cat-6, and so on. Each cable with a higher number is a newer standard. And yes, these cables are backwards compatible. They are just built to support communicating at faster speeds if you have modern devices that support it. The connector type is the same, so you can plug a Cat-6 cable into a device created back when Cat-5e was the hot new standard and Cat-6 hadn’t be released yet.
We’ve run down the differences between Ethernet cables. Each newer standard brings higher possible speeds and reduced crosstalk, which helps you achieve those speeds even with longer cables. The above table highlights the specifications of each category.
Is Upgrading Worth It? Maybe Not, But…
The reality is that a Cat-5e cable with its up to 1 Gb/s speed is fast enough for your Internet connection. That 1 GB/s speed supports anything up to a Gigabit Internet service, so you won’t see any increase in your Internet speed if you switch from Cat-5e to a higher category cable.
However, if you do a lot of transferring data between computers on your local network, upgrading may be worth it. And, if you’re buying new cables or wiring your home right now, you should at least use Cat-6 instead of Cat-5e cables. If the price difference isn’t too much when you wire your home, you might even go for Cat-7 cables. Just be aware that working with Cat-7 cabling requires a little more finesse that working with Cat-5e or Cat-6 cables—mainly because it’s easier to damage the foil shielding when bending Cat-7 cables.
Category 5 (Cat-5) and Category 5 enhanced (Cat-5e) are actually basically the same. Nothing changed physically in the cable itself. Instead, Cat-5e cables are tested more stringently to ensure less crosstalk (electrical interference). In other words, only some of those old Cat-5 cables are good enough to be Cat-5e cables.
Cat-6 and Cat-6a cables are more interesting. If you have a modern router and modern Ethernet-enabled devices, you can get faster speeds—10 Gb/s for Cat-6a instead of the 1 Gb/s for Cat-6. The rest of your hardware has to support it, too, but you won’t get those above 1 Gb/s speeds unless you have good enough cables. If you plug all your great new network hardware into old Cat-5e Ethernet cables that you ran through your home’s walls years ago, you won’t get the full speeds.
Cat-7 cables really don’t offer too much advantage over Cat-6a, at least not for the home user. They use a little better shielding, which can help maintain better speeds at longer distances, but it’s nothing remarkable. If the price difference is small, and you’re having someone wire your home, consider going with Cat-7 just for some extra future-proofing. Otherwise, Cat-6a should be just fine for new installations.
This doesn’t mean you should rip your home’s walls open to replace Cat-5e cable installed years ago, especially if you don’t have a need for faster local network speeds. But not all Ethernet cables are equal.
How to Tell What You’re Using
On most cables, you should be able to look at the cable itself and find the label printed on the outside surface of the cable. That’s your best bet. Cat-6, 6a, and 7 cables are generally thicker than Cat-5e cables, and less flexible—so if you’re used to handling Cat-5e cables, that’s another easy way to tell.
Most people won’t really care whether they’re using Cat-5e, 6, 6a, or 7 cables at home. The Internet connection is the bottleneck, faster cables won’t help that. Using a Cat-6, 6a, or even 7 cable can enable faster speeds when transferring files or otherwise communicating between two computers on the local network, but the truth is most people won’t even notice.
Still, there is a difference! If you’re wiring your home with cables that will be stuck there a while, you should definitely go for the highest category cable you can afford for the future-proofing and faster LAN speeds.