When it comes to cable installation and maintenance, questions that we frequently get asked are what’s the difference between the CAT cables, and which cable should I use? Indeed, while the CAT5e, CAT6, and CAT6a may look similar in names, there are key features between the three types of cables that are worth mentioning.
In this post, we will identify these differences to help you figure out how to choose the right cable for your cable installation.
What Is CAT Cabling?
But first, let’s talk about the commonalities between the three types of wiring cables. As you may have already guessed, all three of the cable wiring options are classified under specific categories, with “CAT” being an abbreviation for “categories.”
Categorizing cables was created by the Electronic Industries Alliance and has been upheld by the Telecommunications Industry Associate since 1991. The purpose of categorizing cables is to set well-defined standards for the different types of cables that can be installed at telecommunication sites.
There are 8 categories of CAT wires, with three of those cable categories used widely in buildings for widespread Ethernet and other computer networks: the CAT5e, CAT6, and CAT6a.
CAT5e– Last revised in 2001, this cable is used for Gigabit Ethernet of both 100Base-T and 1000Base-t.
CAT6– An improvement from the CAT5e, the CAT6 has the same specifications, as well as a few upgrades: cables are longer, twisted and bound more tightly, may have a nylon spine for crosstalk reduction, and often have an outer shield to better protect the twisted wires inside.
CAT6a– This cable is a 2008 revision of the CAT6 cable, with the “a” standing for “augmented.” These cables can support far more bandwidth than predecessors, with up to twice the bandwidth of CAT5e cables, and they are guaranteed to have shielded wiring that gets rid of crosstalk. This makes the wires more rigid than CAT5e and CAT6 cables.
How Are the Cables Similar?
There are a few similarities between the cables, which may be helpful to those who are new to cable installations:
- All three cables are able to be plugged into Ethernet jacks on computers, routers, and switches within the building because they all have a registered jack-45 (RJ-45) at the ends of the cables.
- Both CAT5e and CAT6 cable types are able to transfer as much as 1000 Mbps.
- The cables also have lengths of 100 meters (or 328 feet). This is for every network segment, so if you want to extend your cable’s reach, then you’ll need a router between the signals.
- In addition, these three cable categories use unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling, where two twisted conductor wires are used to improve signal quality.
- CAT5e and CAT6 tend to contain 4 pairs of twisted wires, or 8 wires per cable.
What Are the Differences Between the Cables?
Now that we have discussed how these cables are similar, let’s take a closer look at each cable type and talk about the unique features to help you choose the best cable for your needs.
One of the biggest determining factors in whether or not someone uses CAT5e or CAT6 cables is the price. CAT6 cables can cost 15-30% more than CAT5e cables, with CAT6a cables costing up to 20% more than CAT6 cables.
That means that a CAT5e cable installation estimate of $10,000 could be as much as $13,000 for a CAT6 cable installation, and $16,000 for a CAT6a cable installation. This is a huge difference, and one that may weigh heavily in the decision-making process.
While all three cable types are able to handle 1000 Mbps of internet speed, this doesn’t necessarily translate over to the actual bandwidth. What we see here is that the CAT5e can only handle 100 MHz of operating frequencies.
The CAT6 cables are able to handle more than twice that amount at 250 MHz of bandwidth, meaning these cables are better at transferring data. As a result, they can process far more data per second than CAT5e cables, making them more useful for buildings that anticipate high-traffic internet usage.
Since CAT6 cables are able to handle more bandwidth, it’s no surprise that they are also able to support higher Ethernet speeds. While CAT5e cables are able to support a maximum of 1-Gigabit Ethernet per second, CAT6 cables can support speeds of 10-Gigabits Ethernet per second, making it much faster.
There isn’t a huge difference between the appearance of CAT5e wiring and the two types of CAT6 wires. While you can generally find the category type written on the cables themselves, the three cables aren’t distinguishable by color or connector type. Instead, you might be able to see a sizeable difference between CAT6 cables and CAT5e cables, with CAT6 wires appearing thicker.
Crosstalk, or unwanted signals crossing between multiple communication channels, is also a notable difference between CAT5e and the two CAT6 cables. While they all contain copper wires, as previously mentioned, CAT6 cables feature better crosstalk and system noise cancellation.
When you opt for CAT6 cables, you will experience a much lower Near-End Crosstalk during the transmission process than you would a CAT5e cable installation. In addition, CAT6 cables feature better:
- Equal-Level Far-End Crosstalk
- Return Loss
- And Insertion Loss
All of these specifications mean your cable system will be more stable and noise-free.
Understanding the differences between these three popular CAT wires can make a huge difference in how much you spend on a CAT cable installation. Knowing each wire’s unique properties may also be key to installing cables that best fit the needs of those using the Ethernet and computer systems within the building.
To choose the best wire for your installation, it really depends on what you intend to do with the cables, whether or not you plan on staying in that building long term, and whether or not you can afford some of the more expensive cable choices.
Either way, we hope this comparison between CAT5e, CAT6, and CAT6a cable wires helps you make the most accurate decision for your cable installation.