There are three main types of network cabling available today. But which should you choose and why?
Cat is short for 'Category' and essentially, as the number implies, higher number means a newer revision of the standard.
The main differences between the three are the way they handle network support, crosstalk and bandwidth.
Available since around 1995, Cat5 is the oldest standard of the three. Back then it was defined as TIA/EIA-568-B. The standard supports 10BASE-T and 100BASE-T network standards, which means it can handle speeds of up to 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps depending on surrounding equipment such as switches, routers and network cards.
Cat5 uses two cable pairs, twisted inside it's shielding to minimize crosstalk between the pairs. Crosstalk is the bleeding of signals between different cabels, caused by induction. It might cause packet loss which in turn slows network transfer speeds.
The bandwidth of a cable means it's capacity to carry information. Greater bandwidth essentially means a faster network. The bandwidth of Cat5 cable is rated to 100Mhz, and a maximum cable segment length of 100 meters.
Category 5e is an enhanced specification of the Cat5 standard. and was introduced to the market in early 2001. The main improvement was to make sure the network can handle gigabit speeds - 1000BASE-T or 1000 Mbps.
To achieve this, better noise reduction and signal interference was implemented, and four twisted pairs needs to be used which means utilizing all eight connectors.
Cat5e can operate in gigabit speeds in lengths of up to about 50 meters per segment, and 100 meters in lower speeds. Cat5e is fully backwards compatible with Cat5.
Only a year after Cat5e was introduced, a new standard was born. Logically named Category 6, or simply Cat6, it required thicker wire and increased shielding to be capable of transmitting at up to 250 Mhz or higher.
Cat6 cable also has more pair twists per inch to reduce the crosstalk between the pairs. The result is a cable with up to twelve times less interference than Cat5e cable, allowing for less package loss which means greater speed.
For lengths up to 50 meters, Cat6 cable will guarantee transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps, and 1 Gbps for up to 100 meters. Cat6 cable is also backwards compatible with Cat5 and Cat5e equipment.
Basically, while Cat5e is able to handle Gigabit speeds, Cat6 cable is certified to handle it.
Cat6e and Cat7 Cable
Although not yet formal standards, some manufacturers produces cable designed to operate in transmission frequencies of 500 Mhz and higher, and wrapping it inside grounded foil shielding.
With this cable, 10 Gpbs speeds can be reached in lengths of 100 meters and higher. There are also plans for cables supporting speeds up to 100 Gbps, these are often referred to as Cat7.
So which should I choose?
In most countries, Cat5 cable is no longer available with resellers, so the choice is made a little simpler.
For most people, Cat5e cable delivers more than enough performance for most applications. In fact, many home networks and computers still only support up to 100 Mbps anyway, and even if they do support gigabit speed Cat5e cable is sufficient anyway.
So unless you plan on utilizing the full Gigabit speed, and have everything else prepared for it there is no need to replace current Cat5e cabling.
However, the added cost of Cat6 cable is quite small so if you're setting up a network today you might just as well future-proof yourself and get Cat6 cable.