FireFold Blog

What Are the Differences Between Cat5 and Cat5e Cables?

When it comes to using network cables for setting up, whether for a home setup or a complicated multi-machine configuration for a prestigious IT company, people like to bicker and debate about using the right cables. As every single element of an IT system can make or break the difference between average and peak performance, there is a legitimate reason behind this debate.
However, sometimes it can get to the point where the discussion is very counter-productive. One of the reasons these discussions happen to go nowhere is because the context is not properly defined before the debate begins. People will go into multiple directions and nobody will remember what the debate was about in the first place.
Anyone who has spent a considerable time working in the IT industry knows that there is no such thing as one right answer to any question. The answer will always be some variation of “it depends,” taking multiple variables into account. The answer that will be appropriate for a single individual may be the wrong answer for a 100-person team.

The answer that works for IT-related things in one industry might not work in another industry. The answer that works for one piece equipment may end up destroying another piece of equipment. Being flexible is the key to having a productive discussion.

One of the things that comes up in debates is whether to use a Cat5 (Category 5) cable or a Cat5e (Category 5 enhanced) cable for setting up an IT network across multiple machines. These cables can plug into the same ports, which is made possible by RJ-45, the end piece that allows them to connect to an Ethernet jack if it is available on the device that it is connecting to.

Despite this similarity, however, there are some subtle yet very important differences that can change which one you will end up using. You don’t need to know every single difference between these two types of cables, but there are a few important ones that are worth noting.

Before we begin, it is important to mention that Cat5 is the older type of network cabling that used to be the industry standard before the newer Cat5e cabling came along 15 years ago. This means that Cat5 is widely considered to be an outdated technology that is no longer relevant in the IT industry. As you read each of the differences between the two cables, the reasons for this will become apparent.

PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES

One of the interesting things about Cat5 and Cat5e is that they are virtually identical in their physical appearance. You cannot tell them apart based on thickness, color, or the material used. The only way to identify them is to look at the text that is printed on the cable and see for yourself. With that being said, some manufacturers have gone out of their way to improve the durability of the PVC protective jacket on the Cat5e cables. This makes them better suited for frequent use over a period of several years, if not decades.

An alternative and unneeded way to tell the two apart would be to cut open the cables and inspect the wiring inside. In general, the wires in Cat5e cables are twisted far more tightly than those in the Cat5 cable. This is what allows Cat5e cables to be more resistant to crosstalk, as you will discover in the next section.

 

CLASSIFICATION OF CABLING

Believe it or not, Cat5 and Cat5e are identical in the way that the cabling is arranged. There are two types of classes that these cables fall under: stranded and solid.

Stranded cabling consists of several thin strands of copper wiring, which gives it a flexible property that allows it to be functional when it is bent out of shape. The tradeoff with this arrangement is that you experience lower performance when using these types of cables. Solid cabling consists of rigid copper wiring that can only be bent so much before it begins to break. The upside to this is that it offers greater performance across larger distances in comparison to stranded cabling.  

 

CROSSTALK

For those of you who might not know what this word means, crosstalk can be defined as the interference that occurs between cables via the emission of electromagnetic signals when they are close to one another. This leads to errors in data transmission that can prove to be fatal when it comes to the transmission of important and sensitive information.

This is relevant because Cat5e was specifically designed to have a reduced amount of crosstalk compared to Cat5 cables. It should be noted that crosstalk can still occur in the Cat5e cables, but it is very rare, and most of the time it does not result in any serious compromising of data.

 

COMPATIBILITY

One of the unique features about the Cat5 cables is that they are backward compatible. This means that they interact with older data and systems. This is what makes the transition from Cat5 cables to Cat5e cables a smooth and inexpensive one. Cat5, on the other hand, lacks this backward compatibility and works with a limited number of interfaces.

 

NETWORK SUPPORT

Cat5 cable is able to support networks that are running at 10-100 megabytes per second, while a Cat5e cable is able to support networks that run up to 1 gigabyte per second (1000 megabytes per second).

To extrapolate this to the real world, you aren’t going to notice a significant difference if you are transferring information within your own home network. However, for an IT company that deals with several terabytes worth of information, this is a significant upgrade. It is for this reason that Cat5 is largely considered to be an outdated standard that will be phased out over time as older companies that use them start to go out of existence.

 

BANDWIDTH

Bandwidth is the rate of data transfer – in other words, the capacity of a system to carry information from one place to another. A higher bandwidth means that it can push data across a network at a faster speed. The bandwidth of the Cat5 cable is 100 MHz, while the bandwidth of a Cat5e cable is 350 MHz. It is thanks to this greater bandwidth that Gigabit Ethernet can be supported by Cat5e cables.

 

PRICE

Keep in mind that the price can vary considerably, depending on the manufacturer that makes them and the length of cable that is ordered. With that being said, Cat5 is cheaper than Cat5e when they are placed side-by-side with respect to price per foot of cable. The higher price for Cat5e cables is due to the greater performance that they provide.

With all of these differences taken into consideration, you might be wondering which network cabling will be best for your IT applications. Overwhelmingly, the consensus on this issue is that you are better off spending a few extra bucks to get the Cat5e cables.

Keep in mind that having Cat5e cables that support Gigabit Ethernet is only one part of the picture – you also need hardware that can handle gigabyte speeds (network cards, routers, etc.). That means that applying Cat5e cables to your decade-old desktop computer system or IT setup will give you a negligible change in the speed of data transfer.
You also have to be cognizant of the fact that cable length has an effect on the speed of data transfer. It is a known fact that both types of cables are not to exceed 100 meters in length. As you go beyond this length, you start to experience slower and less reliable data transmission. You can remedy this problem by using fiber-optic cabling, but it is an extremely expensive addition that should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

If you are still using Cat5 cable, you are probably good to go. With that being said, you should be aware that Cat5 technology is already obsolete and no longer in use by the majority of IT companies. In fact, if you go to most online IT stores, you will find that they are no longer selling Cat5 cables for purchase.

Furthermore, keep in mind that, due to Cat5e’s old age, it is not the fastest-performing network cable on the market. With the innovation of Cat6, Cat6a, and Cat7 cables, Cat5e cables may soon meet the same fate as Cat5 cables. The newer cables can handle 10+ gigabytes of data per second, have improved resistance towards crosstalk, and operate at higher frequencies (500+ MHz).

They also have a new arrangement of the inner wires that is known as shielded twisted pair (STP) cabling, where each individual pair of copper wires is coated with metal shielding to protect them from crosstalk and screened shielded twisted pair (SSTP) cabling that adds an additional layer of metal shielding to cover all of the shielded wire pairs.

With the need for faster networks in the near future, Cat6 cables and above are beginning to turn from novel advancements in network cable technology into the industry standard. The only thing that stops them from reaching this stage right now is the fact that they are rather expensive. It will take a few years before the cost can be mitigated by something that is more affordable.

Additionally, they can only operate at maximum speed when they are roughly half the length of Cat5e cables (55 meters), which makes them somewhat impractical from an IT design standpoint. Add on the fact that they are not entirely flexible, and you run into the problems that were discussed during the comparison of stranded and solid cabling in the Cat5 and Cat5e cables.

Therefore, you can put aside any concerns you have about removing Cat5e cabling from your setup in exchange for more expensive cabling. The majority of setups that are used in the IT world rely exclusively on Cat5e cabling, and it would take a major overhaul of all the machinery in order to make a switch to Cat6 cabling necessary.

Even then, Cat6 cabling and all of the iterations that have been made since its creation are also backward compatible. By the time that you have to make the switch, it will be as effortless as switching from Cat5 cabling to Cat5e cabling.