What is an Ethernet Cable?
You may have heard about Ethernet cables in relation to an Internet connection, but you might be scratching your head about what they are, what they do, and why they are useful in the first place.
In short, an Ethernet cable is something that will connect your electronic device (computer, tablet, gaming console, etc.) to a network, which, in turn, will allow you to have internet access and interact with shared network resources. Think of it like getting Wi-Fi to your device by manually connecting to the network instead of connecting wirelessly.
The reason that Ethernet cables are used is because wireless connections are not infallible. You may have found that the Wi-Fi can be down or damaged by some interfering factor. It could be something related to the distance between you and the network, an interfering object such as a brick wall, something that is messing up the connection speed, and a host of other problems.
The Ethernet cable gives you the guarantee of being connected to the network (short of an internal problem within the cable’s wiring). Some people swear that being directly connected gives them a faster and more reliable experience. It also provides as a useful backup option when the Wi-Fi is down.
Some networks will allow you the option to connect wirelessly or through Ethernet cable. Other networks, such as local area networks (LANs), require this cable if you want to have access to the router.
One of the great things about Ethernet is that it is an internationally recognized standard in internet technology. Thus, it is supported by all manufacturers of network equipment and it can be used with any piece of hardware.
Another great feature is that Ethernet cables are fairly long, so you will never run out of room when it comes to creating a setup. Between 0 and 100 meters in length, you are not going to see any loss in data. This is useful, given that most safety standards for cables set 100 meters as the maximum permitted length for any kind of network cable.
You should also know that there are different types of Ethernet cables that exist, all of them will fit into the Ethernet port, yet each one is designed to support different network standards and speeds.
For example, Category 5 (Cat5) will support 10-100 Mbps and is considered to be the older (and slower) type of Ethernet cable that is available. You will see this cabling with network systems that have been around for some time. Category 5 enhanced (Cat5e) can support 1000 Mbps and cuts down on intra-wire interference within the cable. Category 6 (Cat6) is the fastest type of Ethernet cable you can purchase, capable of handling 10-gigabit speeds. Cat6 isn’t necessary unless you are dealing with a high power network that requires this kind of speed on a daily basis for regular tasks. If you look at the cables used by most network systems and home users, Cat5/Cat5e is the standard choice.
There are also categories that go beyond this! There’s the augmented Category 6 (Cat6a) that will push the data transmission rate limit to 10 gigabits per second and provide twice the maximum bandwidth that Cat6 does.
Want to go a step further? You can even use Category 7, a fully shielded cable that provides the same speeds as Cat6 but has even more bandwidth. In terms of design, they are the thickest out all the categories and are far more difficult to build. Both Cat6a and Cat7 need to be grounded in order to avoid performance losses that would make them no better than Cat6.
No matter which Ethernet cable you choose, it is important to remember that you have the network cards and the router that are compatible with the cable. The cable is only one part of the system, and it must fit in with all of the existing elements. Contact your local professional and see which one is the best fit for you.
Common Types of Networking Cables
In the 21st century, the ideal goal would be to eliminate the use of networking cables completely and live in a world where everything is managed wirelessly. Without any more cables to trip over, managing servers would be far easier, and we wouldn’t have to waste time labeling and following hundreds of cables.
Until that time arrives, we are stuck with using old-fashioned networking cables to set up our servers, transfer important data, and operate the machinery that is essential for running our businesses. As such, it is useful to have a general understanding of the types of cables that are currently being used and the purpose that they serve in the IT industry.
Twisted Pair Cables
These are the cables that are used most frequently for Ethernet purposes. They are called “twisted pair” because there are pairs of wires in the cable that are twisted together. This is done to prevent electromagnetic interference from outside sources and other wire pairs in proximity.
There are two main classifications of twisted pair cables: The first one is Shielded Twisted Pair (STP) and Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP). STPs have an extra layer of shielding to make them more resistant to outside interference, and, thus, have an improved ability to maximize bandwidth in comparison to UTPs.
The drawback to this is that they are far heavier and cost more, which is why their primary use is within high-end applications where prevention of interference is a top priority.
The second classification has to do with categories that are separated from one another on the basis of data transfer per second. The categories in standard use are Category 5e (1 Gbps) and Category 6 (10 Gbps), as the older categories have become outdated due to performance standards that do not meet the modern-day demands of the IT industry.
For those of you who grew up a few decades ago, you would have seen these cables in use to connect TVs to home antennas and set up the very first Ethernet networks. They work by having a copper wire covered by insulation and other forms of shielding.
In addition to their heavy weight and thickness, their less-than-stellar data transfer rates (10 Mbps) led to them being phased out when twisted pair cables came into use. These cables are outdated in their use, but they are included in this article because some buildings may still use these ancient cables.
Fiber Optic Cables
These cables work much differently from the ones that have been described thus far. A thin cylinder of glass is surrounded by multiple layers of coating that provide protection and prevent interference. Unlike the other cables, fiber optic cables transmit data using pulses of light. While these cables may be more expensive in cost, they can transfer information at extremely fast speeds in high-traffic environments.
There are two types of fiber optic cables that you need to be aware of. One of them is single-mode. Single-mode fiber allows for transmission of data over long distances by using a single ray of light. Multi-mode fiber carries data over shorter distances by using several rays of light at the same time.
Universal Serial Bus (USB) Cables
Although these types of cables are typically used to connect external devices to the computer for personal use, there are special adapters that will allow an Ethernet cable to indirectly connect to a USB port and function normally. These tend to be used as temporary setups in network cabling until a more reliable type of cabling, such as STP/UTPs or fiber optics, can be properly installed.
As you can see, there is little variety in the different types of network cables that are commonly used. The current trend is trying to re-design these cables to squeeze as much performance and speed out of them as possible. Efforts are being made to kill the world of cables and enter a completely wireless world, but it is difficult to say when this time will come.
Do Different Ethernet Cables Affect Your Ethernet Network Speed?
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.
Best Types of 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.
Cat5: The Elder Statesman
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: Middle-aged, But Not In Crisis
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: The Newer Kid On The Block
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.
Solid vs. Stranded
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.
Maximizing Ethernet Cable Speed
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.