Cat5 vs Cat6: Differences Between These Network Cables

The Ethernet cable is a vital component of a network system. The category of the Ethernet cable used in a network system can affect the speed of workflow within the network. The Cat5 Ethernet cable was the gold standard for Ethernet cables from 1995 until the production of the Cat6 Ethernet cable in 2002.

The Cat5 Ethernet cable is capable of speeds of up to 100Mbps at 100MHz. The Cat6 Ethernet cable, on the other hand, is capable of supporting gigabit technologies as it can run speeds of up to 1000Mbps or 1Gbps at 250MHz. The Cat5 Ethernet cable does not have individual shielding for each twisted wire and overall wire shielding while the Cat6 has both.

This article will explain the features of both the Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables. It will also highlight their differences in speed, material, and construction. Lastly, it will explain the features and functionalities of the Cat5e as a middle ground between Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables.

Cat5 Ethernet Cable

cat5 cable

Cat5 Ethernet cables were considered the gold standard before the arrival of the Cat6 Ethernet cable. This category of Ethernet cables can provide up to 100Mbps at a maximum of 100 meters. It can also offer bandwidths of up to 100MHz. 

Inside the Cat5 Ethernet cable are four pairs of twisted 24-gauge copper wires. These wires are color-coded and each pair does not have insulation. The body of the cable itself also does not have insulation. 

Despite having four twisted pairs present, the Cat5 Ethernet cable only utilizes two of the four twisted pairs. Meaning, it may be capable of carrying more data than what its rating indicates. 

The Cat5 Ethernet cable also has two different variants: solid and stranded. Solid Cat5 Ethernet cables are capable of covering longer distances without speed drop-offs. These are usually used in buildings and large establishments. 

The stranded Cat5 Ethernet cables are more flexible than the solid variants and are better used for shorter distances. It is often used as patch cables for connecting computers to each other or into a router or server. 

Today, the Cat5 Ethernet cable is considered obsolete because of its inability to support gigabit network technologies. It is most commonly used today for low-bandwidth services like voice and ATM services. 

It also has low twists per centimeter compared to the minimum standard today. It contains only up to 2 twists per centimeter while the standard for reduced interference and better bandwidth is more than 2 twists per centimeter. 

Cat6 Ethernet Cable

cat6 cable

The Cat6 Ethernet cable has four twisted pairs of copper wires and is capable of speeds up to 1Gbps at 250 MHz at a maximum distance of 55 meters.  

The Cat6 Ethernet cable is the standard for Ethernet cables today because of its capability and compatibility with gigabit technologies. It also has greater minimum bandwidth at 250MHz which allows it to recognize a greater number of frequencies. 

Today, Cat6 Ethernet cables use a braided copper and polymer mesh to provide insulation while retaining the flexibility of the cable. It also improves the near-end crosstalk (NEXT) and equal-level far-end cross talk (ELFEXT) capabilities of the Cat6 Ethernet cable which results in higher transmission rates with fewer transmission errors. 

The Cat6 Ethernet cable also has additional shielding across all of the twisted pairs. This further reduces the susceptibility of the cable to signal interference. Furthermore, the wires are more tightly twisted with over 2 twists per centimeter. 

With the additional shielding in the Cat6 Ethernet cable, it is more rigid and can be difficult to install. However, it is often recommended for newer installations because of its added protection against crosstalk and other signal interferences and its support for gigabit technology. It is more convenient for future-proofing as it avoids costs of future re-installation.

Additionally, it is compatible with older categories of the Ethernet cable. Thus, people with older network infrastructures can shift slowly to gigabit-capable technologies starting with the Cat6 Ethernet cable. 

The newer version of the Cat6 cable, the Cat6A, is capable of even faster speeds of up to 10 Gbps at 500MHz. It can also run up to 328 feet. It provides better shielding than the Cat6 Ethernet cable and is therefore slightly more rigid. The Cat6A Ethernet cable can be 35% more expensive than the Cat6 variant, but the price difference depreciates as more advanced Ethernet cable categories become available. 

Differences Between Cat5 and Cat6

The primary differences between Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables are on speed and crosstalk protection. Cat6 Ethernet cables have tighter twisting than the Cat5 Ethernet cables which produces faster speeds.

Both categories have four pairs of twisted copper wires but the Cat6 Ethernet cable is capable of using all four twisted pairs instead of just two. Thus, the Cat6 is capable of sending more data at a time than the Cat5 Ethernet cable. 

The shielding in Cat6 Ethernet cables reduces the interference from other communication channels. Cat5 Ethernet cables do not have shielding both on the individual twisted pairs and on the cable itself. Thus, it is susceptible to disruptions and packet loss when in a busy environment. 

The Cat6 Ethernet cable is also thicker and more rigid than the Cat5. This is due to the additional individual and overall insulation of the Cat6 that is missing in the Cat5. The reduced capabilities of the Cat5, however, make it cheaper than Cat6. However, as more technologies move towards gigabit support, the Cat5 Ethernet cable might be the bottleneck in the performance of the network. 

The thicker body of the Cat6 cable is also due to the increased airflow within the cables to prevent overheating. Since Cat6 Ethernet cables are more tightly wound, it requires greater airflow to maintain proper temperature across the network. Cat6 Ethernet cables have around 0.25-inch diameter compared to the 0.204 inches for the Cat5 Ethernet cable. 

Still, it can be difficult to distinguish Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables. Both of these cables have similar RJ45 modular plugs with a similar 8p8c connection. Most Ethernet cables, however, have printed labels across the body. 

Cat5e as a Middle Ground

The Cat5 and Cat6 Ethernet cables have drastic differences in terms of speed, crosstalk protection, and price. On paper, the Cat6 provides performance that is 10 times better than the Cat5 Ethernet cable. 

The Cat5e, however, lies in the middle of Cat5 and Cat6 in terms of the factors mentioned above. The ‘e’ in Cat5e stands for enhanced. The Cat5e provides enhanced performance in terms of speed when compared with the Cat5. It uses the two dormant twisted pairs of 24-gauge copper wires in the Cat5 in order to increase speed and bandwidth. 

The Cat5e Ethernet cable is capable of supporting gigabit technologies as it can support up to 1000Mbps, similar to Cat6 Ethernet cables. However, it retains the bandwidth of the Cat5 at 100MHz.

The Cat5e was first produced in 2001 and provided higher frequency support despite retaining the same form factor and number of twists.

In terms of price, the Cat5e is cheaper than the Cat6 despite providing similar gigabit technology support. However, the Cat6 has higher bandwidth than the Cat5e.

It is also possible to integrate the Cat5e and the Cat6 in a single network. The Cat6 can be used to connect computers to routers to take advantage of the higher internet speeds while the Cat5e can be used to facilitate the connection between workstations. 

Final Thoughts

The Ethernet cable is one of the most used network cables. It facilitates the interconnection among computer systems and their access to the internet.

The Cat5 Ethernet cable provided sufficient speed and functionality until the emergence of gigabit technologies. The Cat6 Ethernet cable, with its ability to support gigabit technologies, has become the standard.

About the author

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Corey Knapp

Ever since Corey had a fiber line installed, he's had the networking bug. On APTrio he enjoys writing about his networking experiences and sharing information to help beginners and professionals alike.