What’s the Difference between CAT5e and CAT6?

What’s the Difference between CAT5e and CAT6?

Black Box Explains

Ethernet cables are upgraded continuously to increase bandwidth speeds and reduce noise, so knowing which to pick can be tricky. In this article we will break down the differences between CAT5e and CAT6, so you can make an informed decision and find the best solution for your application.

What is CAT5e Cable?

CAT5e, also known as Category 5e or Category 5 Enhanced, is a network cable standard ratified in 1999. CAT5e offers significantly improved performance over the old CAT5 standard, including up to 10 times faster speeds and a significantly greater ability to traverse distances without being impacted by crosstalk. CAT5e cables are typically 24-gauge twisted pair wires, which can support Gigabit networks at segment distances up to 100 m.

What is CAT6 Cable?

CAT6, derived from Category 6, came out only a few years after CAT5e. CAT6 is a standardised twisted pair cable for Ethernet that is backward compatible with CAT5/5e and CAT3 cable standards.

Like CAT5e, CAT6 cables support Gigabit Ethernet segments up to 100 m, but they also allow for use in 10-Gigabit networks over a limited distance. At the beginning of this century, CAT5e typically ran to the workstations, whereas CAT6 was used as the backbone infrastructure from router to switches.

CAT5e vs. CAT6 Bandwidth

Both CAT5e and CAT6 can handle speeds of up to 1000 Mbps, or a Gigabit per second. This is more than sufficient for the speed of by far the most internet connections. The chance is small that you currently have an internet connection with which you can achieve up to 500 Mbps speed.

The main difference between CAT5e and CAT6 cable lies within the bandwidth, the cable can support for data transfer. CAT6 cables are designed for operating frequencies up to 250 MHz, compared to 100 Mhz for CAT5e. This means that a CAT6 cable can process more data at the same time. Think of it as the difference between a 2- and a 4-lane highway. On both you can drive the same speed, but a 4-lane highway can handle much more traffic at the same time.

CAT5e vs. CAT6 Speed

Because CAT6 cables perform up to 250 MHz which is more than twice that of CAT5e cables (100 Mhz), they offer speeds up to 10GBASE-T or 10-Gigabit Ethernet, whereas CAT5e cables can support up to 1GBASE-T or 1-Gigabit Ethernet.

CAT5e vs. CAT6 Crosstalk

CAT5e and CAT6 are both twisted pair cables. Both use copper wires, with typically 4 twisted pairs (8 wires) per cable. In the past, the 250 MHz performance provided by CAT6 was often achieved by using a nylon spline in the wiring, which isolated each of the four twisted pairs, making the cable rigid. Nowadays, CAT6 cables are more flexible, using other methods to reduce noise.

Regardless of whether a spline is used, CAT6 features more stringent specifications for crosstalk and system noise. Not only does CAT6 provide significantly lower interference or Near-End Crosstalk (NEXT) in the transmission compared to CAT5e, it also improves Equal-Level Far-End Crosstalk (ELFEXT), Return Loss (RL) and Insertion Loss (IL). The result is less system noise, fewer errors and higher data transmission rates.

CAT5e vs. CAT6 Maximum Length

Both CAT5e and CAT6 offer lengths of up to 100 m per network segment. The maximum achievable speeds will never be met beyond this length. This can result in a slow or failing connection, or even no connection at all. If it is required to cover distances longer than 100 m, the signal can be amplified with repeaters or switches.

When used for 10GBASE-T, the maximum length of a CAT6 cable reduces to 55 m. After this distance the rate drops to 1GBASE-T. To be able to run 10GBASE-T over the full 100 m, it is advised to use CAT6A also called Augmented Category 6 cable.

CAT5e vs. CAT6 Visual Differences

Most of the times, the cable category is printed on the cable. If not, you won’t be able to identify the cable category by colour or RJ45 connector, but CAT6 cables are often thicker than CAT5e cables because it uses thicker copper wires.

CAT5e vs CAT6 Visual Difference

CAT5e vs. CAT6 Cost

Multiple characteristics have an influence on the cost of Ethernet cables, the main elements being length, quality, copper content and manufacturer. In general, you will find that CAT6 cables are priced 10-20% above CAT5e cables.

Conclusion: CAT5e vs. CAT6 Cable

There are numerous considerations when choosing the right cable. What is the required network speed: 100 Mbps, 1000 Mbps or 10 Gbps? What is the amount of users? With a large amount of users, the frequency of the cable (MHz) becomes important. Is the cable for indoor or outdoor use? Does the cable have to be rigid or flexible? Are there possible sources of interference? And so on. In the end, the choice comes down to your application.

It is often argued that it is not worth investing in cables with a higher performance, such as CAT6, since the current hardware in the network infrastructure does not require 10 Gbps speeds. But hardware gets upgraded over time; it is much easier to upgrade hardware than to lay in new cables. The price difference between CAT5e and CAT6 is not high and it is usually a good idea to opt for the better quality cable, thus preparing the network infrastructure and performance for the near future.

The most important consideration however, regardless of your choice for CAT5e or CAT6, is that you always opt for a 100% copper quality cable. The facts show that an inferior cabling system can cause up to 70 percent of network downtime even though it usually represents only 5 percent of an initial network investment. So don’t risk widespread failure by skimping on a cabling system that does not offer guaranteed performance. Always look for a supplier that provides a lifetime guarantee on independently ETL-Verified CAT5e and CAT6 cables, like Black Box.