You might use Wi-Fi more than wired network connections these days, but that doesn’t mean Ethernet can’t be a great way to connect your devices to a local network and the wider internet. In fact, if you want the absolute best performance, the strongest connection, and the greatest reliability, a wired connection using a quality Ethernet cable is still the best way to go, whether you’re gaming, or hooking up a server for your home or office.
But there are so many different Ethernet cable types, that it can be difficult to know which is the best solution. Should you pay more for one of the latest generation of cables with advanced shielding and higher performance, or can you get away with saving some money on an older design that’s equally good for what you want to use it for?
To answer these questions, we’ll need to look at the different types of Ethernet cables, their strengths and weaknesses, and consider which cables are best for specific use cases. Although there are many Ethernet cable types we could consider for this guide, we’ll be focusing on Cat5e, Cat6, Cat6a, and Cat8. As much as Cat7 and Cat7a are impressive Ethernet cables in their own right, their use of different standards and potential compatibility issues make them hard to recommend.
So, without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about the different types of Ethernet cables.
Ethernet Cables: The Basics
Ethernet cables are a family of cable types used for connecting devices to local area and wide area networks. When first introduced in the 1980s, they used a coaxial cable design, but that was replaced by twisted pair copper cables and fiber optic cabling in later generations to improve reliability, performance, and durability.
Modern cables all use the 8P8C header, colloquially known as the RJ45 connector, and come in a range of different Ethernet cable types. Predominantly, Ethernet cables are split into different generations, known as Categories – shortened to “Cat.” The higher the number, the more recent generation you go, the better performance and often, the better shielding too. So a Cat6 Ethernet cable will typically perform better than a Cat5e, while Cat8 performs better than Cat6.
There are variants of different cable types, too, including flat options for running under carpets, ones rated for passing through walls or between floors, and those with additional shielding and anti-fire protection.
Ethernet cables aren’t used today as much as they once were. Partly that’s because the primary electronic devices people use today, like smartphones and tablets, are built around wireless technology, but it’s also because the latest generations of Wi-Fi can compete on a performance basis with Ethernet fairly well. It’ll never be able to match the reliability, though. As long as the cable’s not damaged, it will work. That’s not always a guarantee with Wi-Fi.
Understanding Ethernet Cables
Ethernet was originally developed internally at Xerox PARC in 1973, with an average speed of 2.94 Mbps. That was upgraded to 10 Mbps with further refinement of the technology over the ensuing years before Ethernet cables were released commercially in 1980. With some collaborative promotion from other technology companies like Intel, and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Ethernet was able to face off favorably with competing technologies at the time.
By the start of the 1990s, with the introduction of twisted copper pair Ethernet cables, it became clear that Ethernet would remain the dominant networking standard for the next decade. This proved to be extremely fortuitous for the standard because as more and more desktop computers were built with networking, and then internet access in mind, Ethernet ports became far more prevalent on consumer and business-focused machines.
In 2023, Ethernet cables still use twisted copper pair and fiber optic technologies to deliver fast networking over short lengths and great distances alike. Cables are produced to a higher standard with greater care taken over the quality of the materials used and their construction. This, as well as more advanced networking protocols, has allowed Ethernet cables to go from handling just a few megabits per second in the 1980s, to hundreds of gigabits per second today. There are plans to extend this further into the terabit per-second range in the future, too.
Common Ethernet Cable Types
Networks all over the world are built using a range of Ethernet cables from many different generations, in some cases. However, while some home networks might still use legacy Ethernet cables like Cat5 or even earlier, enterprises and businesses have largely moved on from this antiquated form of technology, and most advanced home networks use something far newer too.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most common Ethernet cable types you’ll encounter today, skipping over some of the older standards that are either no longer used, or no longer relevant and should be replaced as soon as possible.
Cat5e: This is arguably the most common type of Ethernet cable you’ll encounter today. It’s an advanced version of the Cat5 cable which retained its place as the most popular Ethernet cable for many years, due to its low cost and functional performance. Cat5e, however, is far more capable. It’s been in use since the early ‘00s and offers full support for gigabit Ethernet connections – a high-speed standard that is still very much in use today by desktop PCs. However, it offers limited shielding in its standard form, with only advanced versions offering a modicum of protection.
Cat6: Cat6 represents a big leap in capability over Cat5e, offering support for up to 10Gbps Ethernet over shorter cable runs up to 55 meters. Once you get over that distance, it is still only rated for 1Gbps, although depending on the cable quality it may operate at higher speeds than that. This makes Cat6 cabling a great solution for home networks, as you’re unlikely to run a cable past that length, giving you the additional performance of higher-end Ethernet cables, without paying extra for them. There are some shielded variants of the Cat6 cable available. Look out for the “S” moniker in its name to denote it.
Cat6a: An upgrade over the Cat6 Ethernet cable, the Cat6a standard further cements the performance of Cat6, by offering support for 10 Gbps connections over up to 100 meters of cabling. With more robust options of shielding – including both foil and braided shielding – Cat6a cables are a great solution for important home office networks, and business applications. The added shielding makes them a great solution for running between walls, where additional interference might be prevalent. You can also get cables that are rated for transiting between floors if you need them. Those tend to offer better protection against fire, as well as strong EMI protections.
Cat7: These cables are a unique type of Ethernet cable, in that they are compatible with existing networking hardware, including other categories of Ethernet cables, but they don’t use the same connectors. They aren’t officially recognized by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) or Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA) organizations, and their performance is effectively comparable to Cat6a (a cable designed to replicate and make redundant, Cat7). The more advanced Cat7a design offers greater performance for higher data rates over greater distances than almost any other Ethernet cable type, but its support is almost non-existent. Unless you have a very specific use case where they’re required, you should steer clear of Cat7 cables.
Cat8: These are the most advanced Ethernet cables available today. They support network speeds up to 40 Gbps, making them vastly more capable than even Cat6a cables. However, all that additional performance does come at a cost. They’re not only the most monetarily expensive Ethernet cable, but they also have the shortest supporting lengths. The maximum range you can expect for a Cat8 cable is 98ft – that’s around a third of the maximum range of a Cat6 cable, for example.
Cat8 cables also offer the greatest shielding options of any Ethernet cable. There are foil-wrapped, and braided shielded cables, as well as some limited unshielded options. These are given specialized naming schemes to make it clear which cables have what level of shielding. Most Cat8 cables are built using a solid-core design, where the wires use a solid copper wire within the cabling. Stranded copper cables are a lower quality design and only really operate over shorter distances due to their weaker signal handling capabilities. They do tend to be more flexible, too, so can be useful for short runs through narrow gaps.
For stronger anti-fire protection, make sure to buy a Plenum-coated Cat8 Ethernet cable, as they do not produce toxic chemicals when burned. Standard PVC-coated Ethernet cables do, which can be very dangerous in the case of a fire. If you think there’s any chance of a fire reaching your cables, use Plenum coated designs only.
Choosing the Right Ethernet Cable
Picking the right Ethernet cable is a big decision, especially if you’re building out a large network for an office, or replacing existing network infrastructure that you want to upgrade. But it doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Once we consider your wants and your needs, as well as your budget, we’ll be able to break down what Ethernet cables are best for you.
The first consideration should be the type of network you’re building. If you’re looking to buy an Ethernet cable or two for a home network, connecting a gaming PC, or wiring up a home office for emails and online research, then you don’t need to worry about the super-high-end options with advanced shielding and added fire protection. On the other hand, if you want to build something for a professional setting, where it needs to be semi-permanent, and have added protections in place, you can skip over the older cable designs.
Next, you want to think about performance. Just how much data do you want whizzing around your network? Chances are you’ll want at least Gigabit connection speeds – and we wouldn’t recommend anything older than Cat5e anyway – but what about faster than that? Would you benefit from 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections? If you want to transfer a lot of data between LAN systems or have a very fast modern internet connection, you might do. If you’re building an enterprise server that will serve 10s or even hundreds of clients at once, you’ll want to consider the highest speed 40 Gbps networking options, too.
Cable length is important as well. If you’re running cables over just a few meters, you can use whatever you like. However, if you need to use cables at a length of up to 100 meters, that does rule out the fastest Cat8 cables. If you want to run networking cables over even longer lengths, you’ll have to look at fiber optic cables.
In all cases, you’ll want to consider compatibility with your existing network – there’s no point in adding Cat8 Ethernet cables if your router and devices only support Gigabit networking speeds. Likewise, if you want to take advantage of a 10Gbps supporting router and device, Cat5e just won’t suffice.
Applications and Use Cases
For home networking, Cat6 and Cat6a cables are the best Ethernet cable types for most situations. It can offer speeds up to 10Gbps over the kind of shorter distances you tend to see in home settings, and there are options for shielding if you live in a busy apartment where other cables and devices might otherwise interfere with your network. These cables are available in a range of colors, shapes, and types, with the option for Plenum coatings if needed, as well as ratings for running between floors if you want to send an Ethernet cable up or downstairs through a wall.
For commercial and industrial applications, Cat8 offers the greatest performance and the best shielding options, which can help retain the sanctity of data sent over the network. This can be particularly important when it comes to sensitive information shared by corporations. However, do note the restricted length of Cat8 cables – you might need to use a booster.
For data centers and server rooms, fiber optic cables are likely to be the best solution. They offer performance in excess of what’s possible with standard twisted copper pair cables, and their shielding and maximum cable lengths are far more suitable to the demands of a professional setting. There are also options for multi-mile lengths of fiber optic networking cable, as well as designs with advanced weatherproofing should they need to be able to stand up to rain and other environmental factors.
For IoT edge devices that can’t be readily reached with traditional power cables, consider a Power over Ethernet (PoE) connection, which can simplify your wiring for these distant devices.
The Future of Ethernet Cables
The most recent Ethernet cable standard is Cat8, with support for 40 Gbps bandwidth at up to 30 meters, and is available in Category 8.1 and 8.2 designs, depending on the connectors you need. Fiber optic cables can go beyond that, with bandwidths as high as 400 Gbps in some cases.
However, this isn’t the end goal for Ethernet connectivity. As with all modern technologies, there’s something new and exciting on the horizon, and it’s a big, big advance.
Due to the major demands placed on modern data centers, major technology companies like Meta, Google, and Microsoft, have been pushing for ever greater bandwidth from networking technologies. The non-profit Ethernet Alliance, which markets and helps advance Ethernet technologies, has said they expect 800 Gbps networking to be available for large-scale enterprises by 2025, with some organizations already working on Ethernet that could achieve 1.6 terabits per second Ethernet in the coming decade.
There are a lot of exciting options for modern Ethernet cabling, but you don’t need to feel daunted by the choice. It’s often quite straightforward. For home networking, Cat5e, Cat6, or even Cat6a are great options, with high-speed capabilities for up to 10Gbps networking. For professional settings, Cat6a and Cat8 are best, though watch the maximum cable lengths.
For Enterprise settings like data centers, opt for fiber optic networking. It gives the best performance, the most reliable connection, and the most robust shielding to protect your data.
But keep your eye on the horizon, as there are lots of new and exciting Ethernet cable types to look forward to in the future.