Beginner's Guide to Network Cables
Written by Don Schultz, trueCABLE Technical Sales Representative & Fluke Networks Certified Technician
Choosing a network cable can be confusing. Which one should you buy and do you need any tools to install it? There are quite a few questions that might come to mind as you shop around. Pull over your shopping cart and read this blog before you buy anything.
Why might you need or want Ethernet cable as opposed to using WiFi? If you are a gamer or stream 4K & HDR content, then Ethernet is the way to go. If you need bulletproof reliability (not including your internet service provider...don’t get me started!) then Ethernet is the way to go.
Network cables, or also referred to as Ethernet cables, come in a huge variety. Consider the following before you make your selection. Here are the basics:
- What are we going to do with it?
The list goes on and on. The above items are the biggest ones to consider for the DIY crowd. We will also cover what to watch out for and why, along with a few things you should know about.
You may wish to start with basic Ethernet cable and networking terms: Ethernet Cable Lingo.
For actual selection, lets first talk about:
It doesn’t matter what color you choose, and I have yet to hear a cable confess an insecurity around this point. Color only matters to you. Pick your favorite color and go. The only caveat here is outdoor cable is almost always black, so you may not have a color choice.
For simplicity, if you require a pre-terminated (patch) cable that is less than 20 feet long, and you are hooking it directly from your router/switch right into your TV or computer, then pick your cable speed with a blindfold on. The speed rating won’t matter for cables this short and in this configuration. Honestly!
Skip right to the Quality Section.
A short patch cable
Now, if your needs are for something more complicated or longer than 20 feet, then we have to start asking the following…
What are you going to do with it?
Will this cable run outside or up into the HVAC (aka plenum) area? Your cable might need a special outer jacket. See Facts About Ethernet Cable Jacket Ratings for more info about which jacket type you may need. Riser rated (aka CMR) is the most common and least expensive jacket type recommended for general indoor-only use. The rules about what you can use and where are hard and fast for commercial structures, as set down by the NEC (National Electric Code) document 800.48 and 800.113.
For residential installations, you may also use CMX rated (outdoor rated) as general indoor/outdoor Ethernet cable as long as you keep to these rules:
- The CMX jacketed Ethernet cable may not exceed 0.25” thickness (OD or overall diameter)
- You may only install CMX jacketed cable in this fashion for residential single family or duplex dwellings
trueCABLE recommends CMR (riser) rated Ethernet cable if your residential installation is indoor only. The reasoning is riser rated strips and terminates a bit easier, has a degree of fire resistance, and usually costs less. That said, you may use CMX if it is impractical to have multiple jacket types and your installation will be both indoor and outdoor in nature.
Is the cable going to be part of a larger system? Do you intend to use cabling in the walls connected to female jacks? In this case, you will have two selections to make:
- Cable type in the wall (bulk unterminated cable)
- What patch cables you will use (pre-terminated with RJ45 plugs)
The cable inside the walls will come in either a pullbox or on a wooden spool. Bulk Ethernet should always be solid copper conductors. Installing this type of Ethernet cable requires tools, patience, and research. For tips and advice around bulk Ethernet, this white paper goes into great detail about a residential installation that might be exactly what you want to do: Free Whitepaper: The Residential Ethernet Network Install from A-Z.
Pullbox vs Wooden Spool
See this blog for more considerations about installing bulk Ethernet: Top 5 Things to Consider When Running Ethernet Cable.
With regards to the patch cables you will use (that being the cable you plug from the female jack into your devices) stranded copper conductor cable is proper. The Category of the patch cable should be the same as or higher than the Category used inside the walls. Speed of the patch cable does matter in this scenario, no matter how short it is.
I used a term above that generally means speed, and that is Category. Category is what speed the Ethernet cable is capable of supporting over distance.
On the packaging or label, you will see something that says “Cat” followed by a number. It can also say “Category” followed by a number. They mean the same thing...the Category the cable was manufactured to. This means the speed the cable can run at. What Category you need is completely dependent on what you intend to plug the cable into.
There are exceptions to every rule (like everything in life except death and taxes), but go with this handy reference:
- If your network equipment supports Gigabit (1,000 Mb/s), then select at least Cat5e as that Category will support that speed with no issues. This assumes you have no big upgrade plans for expensive 10 Gigabit networking equipment.
- If your network equipment supports 10 Gigabit (10,000 Mb/s), then select Cat6A as that Category will support that speed to 328 feet.
Often, it simply makes sense to select Cat6 (a great middle ground) and go. If you are not sure what your network equipment supports or if you will be upgrading, then Cat6 is a safe bet because it supports 10 Gigabit speeds up to distances that are longer than most home users will ever install.
If you get hung up on the differences between Cat6 and Cat6A check out The Difference Between Cat6 vs Cat6A Ethernet Cable.
Here is a helpful blog if you need help deciphering what is printed on the side of a Ethernet cable: Ethernet Cable Identification for Beginners: Reading Print Legends.
This is where you can get into trouble by picking the wrong Ethernet cable. There are plenty of cables you should avoid like an angry honey badger off it’s meds. CCA or Copper Clad Aluminum takes the Gold Award for the biggest thing you should run from. Read this blog about why: Check Your Specs, CCA is Different from Solid Copper Still not convinced? That price tag still entices your wallet? Well, read Copper Clad Aluminum vs Copper: The Ultimate Test on a Fluke Versiv DSX CableAnalyzer.
Suffice to say, you want Ethernet cable that is:
- Pure copper (solid or stranded depending on where it’s being installed)
- Produced according to ANSI/TIA specifications
- Documented with Fluke Certification results proving it performs to the Category stated on the jacket printing
- cETLus Verification or UL Listed (for all intents, they mean the same thing in regards to quality) printed on the cable jacket with an actual Certificate that can be viewed or downloaded
Shielding is a topic that comes up often in the DIY world as well. Shielded must be better, right? No, not really. There are times when you must use shielded, but only install shielded when you absolutely have a need for it. Shielded cable must be installed properly and improper installation could cause you a great deal of problems. If you are curious about shielded Ethernet cable, or think you may need it, then check out Shielded vs Unshielded Cable.
The last part of the primary criteria around cable selection is very near and dear to your wallet.
If pricing is the overriding factor, then Cat5e is going to be (generally) the least expensive option. Just be aware that Cat5e precludes future upgrades if you are making a permanent in-wall installation. Again, the best middle ground would be Cat6. Spending more really does get you more here.
Conversely, you don’t want to overspend on your cable. Cat6A is a great option if 10 Gigabit networking past 165 feet is your current need or in the future. However, don’t purchase more than you need or can foresee. Save that money for any necessary tools and network equipment. In the end, it is your network equipment that will be the largest deciding factor in how fast you go!
As always, trueCABLE is happy to answer any of your questions to help you figure out the right Ethernet cable for your needs. Even if we don’t sell it, we will still help when we can. We don’t have any desire to see you pay any more than what is needed and correct for your situation, and that is why we spend a great deal of time educating with our Cable Academy.
trueCABLE presents the information on our website, including the “Cable Academy” blog and live chat support, as a service to our customers and other visitors to our website subject to our website terms and conditions. While the information on this website is about data networking and electrical issues, it is not professional advice and any reliance on such material is at your own risk.