Not All Ethernet Cables Are Equal: You Can Get Faster LAN Speeds By Upgrading

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 — your Internet connection is the bottleneck. But there is a difference between these cables, and you can get faster local network speeds by upgrading.

Cable Categories

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? It’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 probably have older Cat-5 or Cat-5e cables in your walls.

There isn’t just such a thing as a generic “Ethernet cable.” Cables are standardized into different “categories.” For example, there’s “Category 5,” “Category 5e,” “Category 6,” and so on — shortened 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 just 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 Cat-5, Cat-5e, Cat-6, and Cat-6a cables. Each newer standard brings higher possible speeds and reduced crosstalk, which helps you achieve those speeds — even with longer cables. There are newer types of cable like Cat-7 and Cat-7a — but those really aren’t relevant for home networks.

Is Upgrading Worth It? Maybe Not, But…

The reality is that a Cat-5e cable with its up to 1 Gb/s speed will be fast enough for your Internet conenction. You probably don’t even have Gigabit Internet, so you won’t see any increase in your Internet speed if you switch from Cat-5e to Cat-6 cables. But, 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.

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 — up to 10 Gb/s from 1 Gb/s — by using Cat-6 or Cat-6a cables instead of Cat-5 or Cat-5e cables. The rest of your hardware has to support it, 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.

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 cables are generally thicker than Cat-5e cables, and less flexible — so that’s another easy way to tell if you’ve handled Cat-5 or Cat-5e cables previously.

Most people won’t really care whether they’re using Cat-5e or Cat-6 cables at home. The Internet connection is the bottleneck, and Cat-6 cables won’t help that. Cat-6 can enable faster speeds when transferring files or otherwise communicating between two computers on the local network, but most people won’t 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 Cat-6 for the future-proofing and faster LAN speeds..

Image Credit: Regan Walsh on FlickrDeclanTM on FlickrCollin Anderson on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.