If you have a home or business network, you likely have some Ethernet cable strung around. The most popular type of cable used in wired networks, Ethernet can connect devices like routers, network switches, and PCs.
From the outside, Ethernet cables pretty much look alike — and they’ll all plug into the Ethernet port on your computer or router. However, what’s inside can make a difference in your ethernet speed.
To maximize the speed and performance of your network, it is important to understand the technical and physical differences in Ethernet cables.
Ethernet cables belong to several categories based on different specifications that are subject to various testing standards. The categories let you know what kind of cable to use for a particular application, and manufacturers are required to stick to the standards.
Category 5 Ethernet cable, also referred to as Cat5, is older and was intended to support speeds up to 10 megabits per second and 100 Mbps. In theory, it is possible to get gigabit speeds with Cat5, especially if the cable is short; in reality, it may or may not happen.
As with many aging technologies, Cat5 is not seen much in stores these days. However, it’s likely you have some lying around; they probably came with an older router or another networking device.
Cat5e, or category 5 enhanced cabling, improved the speed and performance of Cat5. It is intended to support 1000 Mbps speeds and to decrease “crosstalk,” the interference that can happen between two wires inside a cable. Cat5e is likely to deliver faster, reliable speed compared to Cat5.
Cat6 cabling takes a step up from Cat5e and includes some additional improvements. It includes stricter specifications meant to reduce interference, and it can be capable of 10-gigabit speeds under ideal circumstances. In the setting of your home or small business, Cat6 may not make a noticeable difference. However, if you are buying new Ethernet cable, consider Cat6, since it does represent an improvement over Cat5e.
In addition to the various categories, Ethernet cable also comes in two basic forms: solid and stranded. Solid cables provide slightly improved performance and better protection against electrical interference. They are most often used in business networks, with wiring that’s inside office walls or under floors.
Stranded Ethernet cables, on the other hand, are less disposed to cracking and breaking, which makes them more useful for traveling. They are also more commonly used in homes.
Your network speed is, of course, separate and unrelated to your Internet connection speed. So, changing out your Ethernet cables may not have an effect on how fast you can load websites because your Internet speed will be almost always pale in comparison to your network speed.
However, when you are using your internal network, your choice of cables can make a difference. For example, say you are transferring photos from one computer to another on your home network. In that case, a gigabit-compatible network certainly can move things along more quickly.
To get those gigabit speeds, you’ll need compatible hardware — a router and network cards in your computer — in addition to your Ethernet cables. Most modern routers and cards can get these speeds, but older PCs or routers may need upgrading.
If you’ve upgraded your hardware but not your cables to gigabit speed, it may pay to upgrade your Ethernet cables as well. Upgrading your older Cat5 cables to Cat5e may help. While some Cat5 cables theoretically can reach gigabit speeds, upgrading to the more-reliable Cat5e or Cat6 is likely worth the small expense.
One caveat with networking is that quoted speeds are always theoretical. In the real world, your actual Ethernet speed depends on a myriad of factors, and it is possible that you’ll never see gigabit speeds no matter what hardware and cables you use. However, your data transfers certainly will be much speedier than on non-gigabit hardware and Ethernet cables.