Picking the right Ethernet cable for your home or business network is important. Not only do cable type and category affect speed and overall performance, but they can have a drastic effect on the quality of your connection. While wireless networks are far more prone to interference than wired ones, the wrong sorts of cables can lead to a connection that is far from optimal in every sense.
Two of the most popular Ethernet cables are Cat5e and Cat6, but which is better? This isn’t always an easy question to answer, as every potential cable buyer’s needs are different. Are you working within a strict budget? Do you need to hit specific performance targets for your network? How important is shielding, in all its various forms? Do you need your cables color-coded a specific way? How future-proofed do you need them to be?
While that’s a lot of questions, don’t fret, you don’t need to answer them all now. But consider them as you learn about the Cat 5e vs. Cat6 debate. Costs are roughly comparable between the two Ethernet cable types, and though both can feature shielding, one has broader and grander options for protecting your network connection quality than the other. They’re both viable candidates. But one will be better suited for your needs than the other.
Here’s everything you need to know about these two popular Ethernet cables.
Which is faster, Cat5e or Cat6?
Cat5e and Cat6 cables are both twisted pair cables that support the same RJ45 end-connectors for home and business networking. That means that they’re made with multiple pairs of copper wiring, twisted together to help segregate the wires to avoid crosstalk, whilst enabling a compact, and robust cable design.
You'll find certain acronyms are commonly used to describe both of them, including "TP" for twisted pair, "S" for shielded, and "U" for unshielded. You don’t need to worry about all of these too much just yet, as they can get a little complicated (and we have a dedicated article all about shielded and unshielded cables if you want to know more) but it's important to keep an eye out for these designations so that you can make an informed purchase. That’s whether you're buying from Cable Matters, or elsewhere.
Taking a look at Cat5e vs Cat6 performance is an intriguing debate because, at their maximum lengths of 100 meters, there isn't much in it. At that length, you’re bumping up against the maximum length of almost any Ethernet cable but both cables can handle that kind of distance with ease, and in fact, at that sort of length, both cable types support 1Gbps transfer speeds, which is more than enough for most home networks and makes the Cat 5e vs. Cat 6 debate feel rather moot.
However, that’s not the whole Cat 5e vs. Cat 6 story. If you're a high-bandwidth user or looking to kit out your office with faster connections, Cat6 does offer greater bandwidth at shorter cable lengths – though they're still far longer than your average HDMI cable, for example.
At anywhere up to 55 meters, Cat6 cables can operate at up to 10Gbps. That’s comparable bandwidth to what you’d be able to manage with Cat 6A cables (although in that case, you can enjoy that additional bandwidth up to 100 meters). For almost all home users, that would be complete overkill, as you’d not only need a reason to be transferring such large quantities of data, but you’d need at least two desktop PCs or other devices, which can support 10 Gbps networking, which few can natively.
That said, if you want that kind of high-end network speed, you can add it to devices that don’t have 10 Gbps networking built-in. There are PCI-Express add-in cards that can give desktop PCs that kind of functionality, and Cable Matters has Thunderbolt 3 to 10 Gbps Ethernet adapters that can do the same job.
If you need a fast and fluid network with plenty of bandwidth for heaps of users transferring data around simultaneously, then Cat6 cables might be the way to go. Just make sure they aren't too long, or you won't be able to enjoy all the performance benefits.
Cat6 is less susceptible to interference, but don't discount Cat5e
With most categories of Ethernet cables, the higher they are, and the newer they are, the faster they are. But that’s not all. Newer and faster Ethernet cables also require additional shielding to make sure that all of that high-speed data is protected against electromagnetic interference and crosstalk. With that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that Cat6 cables typically offer better insulation for their internal wires, alongside their additional enhanced performance. Cat5e improved its shielding over the older Cat5 standard, but Cat6 must adhere to stricter standards for crosstalk and external noise mitigation than Cat5e.
Cat6 cables come with a few different kinds of shielding against interference. One of the most common is the use of a "spline," otherwise known as a pair separator. That is effectively a longitudinal cross-shaped piece of plastic that physically isolates the different twisted pairs of wires from one another, which further protects against crosstalk between the four wire pairs. It also has the added benefit of making Cat6 cables that use a spline more durable, making it harder to damage them when bending or folding the cabling.
However, that does make them more rigid in turn, which can make them more complicated to install, since you can’t manoeuvrer Cat 6 Ethernet cables in the same way as you can in designs without splines. That makes them less well suited to tight cable runs where sharp 90-degree or greater turns are required.
Some Cat6 cables use individual shielding of the internal wires and a shield or foil around the entire wire itself, too, to further improve protections against crosstalk and EMI. This is something you see much more of in higher categories of cables, such as Cat6A and Cat 8 Ethernet patch cables, but the most high-quality of Cat 6 cables can also come equipped with these features.
You’ll find more information about these different types of shielding in our guide to shielded and unshielded Ethernet cables, but the short explanation is that foil shielding is effective, but less durable, while braided shielding is more durable but less effective. A combination of the two – especially when used with a spline as well – is the most effective shielding you’ll find on any Ethernet cable of any generation.
These differing techniques are sometimes used individually, and sometimes in conjunction, for greater and lesser shielding. This is typically denoted by the name or acronym applied to the cable, so look for the "S" in its name if shielding is important to you.
When it comes to Cat5e vs. Cat6, the newer Cat6 standard offers better internal interference mitigation across the board, but some cables are better than others. For maximum performance, look out for Cat6 cables with splines and shielding included, often meeting Cat6a standards.
Cat5e is fine for most, but Cat6 is still better
Whether you're setting up a home network, replacing old cables, or looking to enhance your workplace LAN, Cat6 cables offer more. They can support faster data transfers, are typically more durable, and offer better options for insulation against crosstalk and internal noise. The Cat5e vs. Cat6 debate is one that's easily won by Cat6 if you focus entirely on features and performance – though you’ll need to remember to keep your Ethernet cable runs shorter than 55m if you want to truly take advantage of the benefits of Cat 6 bandwidth.
That said, not all networks can support the higher speed of Cat6 cables. If your devices don't support 10Gb networking, or if your network switches don’t support 10Gbps Ethernet, using a Cat 6 cable won't be any faster than Cat5e. So, if you’re considering switching your Ethernet cabling from Cat 5e to Cat 6, or you’re building a new network with Cat 6 cabling, make sure all of the other hardware can also meet the necessary requirements.
But Cat6 is entirely backward compatible. So even if you can't get the full speed of Cat6, you can still use the cables and just upgrade everything else later, if you prefer. They'll just run at a slower rate. They will still enjoy the improved shielding, though.
So, if you're wondering which to buy, Cat5e vs. Cat6, Cat6 is the better choice, especially if you want to future-proof your network. Even if your network can’t support above Gigabit speeds now, it may in the future. The only real reason to opt for Cat 5e would be if you find Cat 5e cabling to be significantly cheaper, which it might be when buying bulk cable, but be sure to check prices carefully before buying.
Which Ethernet Cables Should I Buy?
Now that you’ve made the decision on Cat5e vs. Cat6, it’s important to consider where to buy Ethernet cables too. Cable Matters carries cables built to both standards in various lengths, colors, and styles for every need – from simple connections between home routers and computers to long-length cables for offices and data centers. There are thin, flat cables for easily routing under carpets, Cat 6 and Cat 5e Ethernet cables that are rated for running through walls, or between floors. There’s even bulk cabling with a selection of RJ45 and keystone jacks for patch panel connection or general Ethernet cabling, so you can make your own to your own specifications.
Cable Matters Ethernet cables are all constructed with pure copper wires, instead of the copper-clad aluminum that you sometimes see from off-brand manufacturers. The Bare copper conductors enhance cable performance and comply with TIA/EIA 568-C.2 specifications for communications cables.
Cable Matters Ethernet cables also include a Snagless boot, so that when you're removing them from behind your desk, gaming station, or any other space where you tuck all your wires, the clips on the connector won't get caught. You can pull them out easily and without frustration.