The Difference Between Cat5e vs Cat6 Ethernet Cable
Written by Don Schultz, Technical Expert, Fluke Networks Versiv & BICSI INSTC Certified Technician
They appear exactly alike in many ways and have similar performance specifications just to add to the confusion.
Is Cat5e still relevant in 2021?
Watch the short video below so we can start unraveling the mystery.
Cat5e and Cat6 Similarities:
- Both are built to a performance standard set by ANSI/TIA known as a Category, known as “Cat”. The Category defines how the cable will behave, performance-wise, at 328 feet or the maximum distance that any Ethernet cable can be run.
- Supports 1 Gigabit or 1,000 Mb/s speed to 328 feet.
- Used to hook up computers, printers, network switches, routers, and more.
- Comes in different outer jacket varieties depending on where the cable is going to be installed. For example, CMR or riser rated for general indoor use (except the plenum space) or CMX for outdoor UV protection and direct burial use. See more about cable jacket ratings here: Facts About Ethernet Cable Jacket Ratings.
- Available in unshielded (U/UTP) for general use or shielded (F/UTP) for environments like hospitals, factories, or applications where environmental interference can be a problem. Learn more here: Shielded vs Unshielded Cable.
- Use eight wire conductors, twisted into four color coded twisted pairs (see picture below).
- Both Cat5e and Cat6 can be terminated to either T568A or T568B color code standard.
Cat5e and Cat6 Differences:
Pictures will help illustrate this:
- Cat6 has thicker copper conductors, almost always 23 AWG.
- Cat5e has thinner conductors, almost always 24 AWG (as the AWG number goes higher, the copper is thinner).
- Cat6 supports 10 Gigabit or 10,000 Mb/s network speeds to 110 feet, sometimes all the way to 165 feet in situations where interference from other cables is low.
- Cat6 is thicker overall, requiring RJ45 plugs that can accept the bigger outside-diameter of the cable (OD) and thicker, insulated, copper-conductor diameter. This can make connector selection a little more challenging. See here for more: Selecting the Correct Connector.
- Cat5e does not use a “spline” where Cat6 usually does. The spline is a plastic piece in the center of the cable construction that separates the conductor pairs. It is designed to keep the twisted pairs separate in order to increase performance by minimizing what is known as “cross-talk” inside the cable. Splines, for the uninitiated, are a bit more difficult to work with when putting on RJ45 plugs.
Which Should Be Used, and Where?
This is a tough question because both are used in many of the same applications. There are a few general guidelines I recommend to help you with your decision:
- If price is the overriding consideration, and there are no intentions of ever running 10 Gigabit speed, then go with Cat5e.
- If you are willing to spend a bit more, Cat6 will be the better choice for maximum performance. You may ask, “Wait. Didn’t you just say that they both support the same speeds to 328 feet?” Yup, I did. There is an acceptable stated limit of transmission errors on Ethernet cable, well beyond the scope of this blog. It is normal, and expected, to have some tiny percentage of transmission errors. It is all automatically taken care of and fixed for you, and you won’t even notice this occurrence unless something goes seriously wrong. On Cat6 cable, transmission errors are less frequent, especially on longer runs. The end result is slightly higher speeds all the way to 328 feet.
- Cat6 cable is the better choice for PoE or Power over Ethernet, especially on longer lengths.
See the overriding pattern?
On longer runs the primary take-away here is that Cat6 is simply the better built of the two cables, but Cat5e will get the job done in an adequate fashion. Think of it like this: Cat6 is the rockstar, where Cat5e is the local high school band. Both can make music, but the rockstar really nails it.
So, there you have it. If this was a confusing topic for you, hopefully it is no longer. HAPPY NETWORKING!
You can also learn more about the Difference Between Cat6 vs Cat6A Ethernet Cable.
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