One aspect that is crucial to fast data throughput is the Ethernet cable. Much like any other component in the Ethernet ecosystem, it has gone through several iterations to keep up with the changing phase of Ethernet. From Cat1 through the latest iteration, Cat8, the Ethernet cable has had many different improvements in terms of bandwidth, frequency, type of materials, and shielding used. All these cables share in common the four twisted copper wires that they are made of; the reason why they are also called Twisted Pair or copper cables.
Among the many categories that have already emerged, only a few have survived. Earlier categories can no longer keep up with the faster speed that this generation requires. Cat 5e, Cat 6, Cat 6a, Cat 7, Cat 7A, and Cat 8 are the different categories available for Ethernet, telecommunication, and other networking applications. The higher number signifies greater performance and a higher transmission rate. What other characteristics distinguish one cable from another? Which one is considered to be the best? To answer these questions, it’s important to understand the different cable types.
Cat 5e (Category 5 Enhanced) superseded Cat 5, the now obsolete Ethernet cable. It physically looks just like the Cat 5 cable; you won’t be able to tell the difference unless you look closely at its label. It is tested to a higher specification to meet the higher data throughput it was designed to achieve. Cat 5e is a 100MHz standard and supports both 100Base-T and 1000Base-T (Gigabit Ethernet) standards. It comes in both unshielded and shielded forms and uses an RJ45 connector.
Just when everybody thought that 1 Gbps is the fastest speed the internet can get came the 10 Gbps standard. Along with it came the cable that can support it, but with limitations. Cat 6 can support 10 Gbps but only until 164 feet; beyond that, the speed decreases back to 1Gbps. Aside from supporting a much faster speed, Cat 6 cables have thicker copper conductors than Cat 5e, and it uses a spline to separate the twisted pairs to reduce crosstalk. It has higher bandwidth of 250 MHz than Cat5e thus has a faster transmission rate. The ends of the cable are sealed in an RJ45 connector, and it’s backward compatible with the previous cables. Additionally, it features more twists and better shielding than its predecessors. Just like Cat 5e, it comes in both unshielded and shielded twisted pairs.
Cat 6a or Cat 6 “Augmented” is the faster version of Cat 6 operating at up to 500 MHz and is designed for the 10Gbps Ethernet, maintaining top speed for the full 328 feet (100 meters). Cat 6A adds two more twists to the copper wires and has additional shielding built into the cable structure, making it more robust and more resistant to most forms of crosstalk. The ends are terminated with an RJ45 connector, offering backward compatibility to its predecessors. Cat 6A used to be thicker and heavier than Cat 6, which has been a disadvantage during installation. Its thickness was reduced to 20% to make it more flexible, and it’s now a sought-after cable for future-proofing the network infrastructure.
Among the Ethernet cables, Cat7 is the odd one out in terms of appearance. Unlike the other cables, Cat 7 is using the GG45 connector. The GG45 connector, although different, is still compatible with RJ45 and TERA connectors. Cat 7 operates at 600 MHz, a slightly higher operating frequency than that of Cat 6A. It can deliver speeds of up to 10 Gbps over 100 meters and is the first Ethernet cable to do so. However, Cat 7 is not as popular as the other cables because, aside from using a different connector, it is not TIA/EIA approved. Although this doesn’t affect its functionality, it’s still not as widely supported as the other cables. When it comes to blocking interferences, Cat 7 has comparable specifications to Cat 6A. Cat 7 only comes in the shielded form.
Cat 7 “Augmented” is almost identical to Cat 7 except for the higher frequency it operates at, which is 1000 MHz. It supports the 10GBase-T network as well but with no improvement in the distance covered from its predecessor. Cat 7A is as unpopular as Cat 7 despite its enhancements since it is also not approved by TIA/EIA, nor does it have many IEEE applications.
Cat 8 is the newest Ethernet cable developed to support the highest connectivity speed of 25 Gbps or 40 Gbps. Not only that, it offers the highest frequency of up to 2000 MHz. This great performance, however, is only limited to a distance of 30m. This and its thickness (22AWG) and rigid structure make it ideal for connecting network equipment within close proximity to each other, like switches in data centers and server rooms where 25GBase T and 40GBase T networks are common. Like Cat 7, Cat 8 only comes in shielded cabling. Crosstalk and EMI/RFI noises are greatly reduced in Cat 8 because it’s using Shielded foiled twisted pair (S/FTP) construction and braiding around the group of pairs. Like most of its predecessors, it uses the common RJ45 connector, offering backward compatibility with the other cable categories.
Which Ethernet Cable is Best?
With all the Ethernet cables available in the market today, it could sometimes be confusing which cable to get for your network. Cat 8 may be the latest and offers the greatest performance, but it is an overkill to some. Its support for ultra-high-speed internet, shorter distance, and rigid construction are not the characteristics ideal for home or even office networks but are perfect for connecting equipment within short distances like switches and routers in very high transmission rate environments.
Cat 6A, though not the latest, is capable of supporting high-speed internet, approved by TIA/EIA, and can go for a longer distance of 100m. It surpassed Cat 5e’s and Cat 6’s performance by greater leaps with twice the bandwidth of Cat 6. Cat 6A offers a more reliable connection as well, and it’s fast enough to meet the speed requirements of most networks, be it at home or in offices. If you want to minimize crosstalk, you can opt for the shielded variety.
Cat 6A is the perfect cable for both home and corporate networks. Although it’s not the newest type of Ethernet cable, it remains an ideal choice to future-proof your networks with its support for 10GBase-T standard and a considerably high operating frequency. It may also not be the fastest cable, but its high transmission rate, reliability, flexibility, and lower cost than its successors make it the best Ethernet cable overall.