Choosing an Ethernet cable is, for the most part, relatively straightforward. However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to get the most out of your Internet connection and local network.
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Not all Ethernet cables are created equal
Wired networks are generally very easy to use. Most of the time, you plug the cable into the Ethernet port or adapter on your computer and you’re ready to go. Buying an Ethernet cable can seem much more complicated, with many different standards, speeds, and specifications to consider.
Network cables fall into different categories, with the base standard being Cat-5. Just like the different Wi-Fi standards, different categories of Ethernet cables are capable of different speeds. The different categories available are:
- cat-5 with a maximum speed of 100 Mbps, normally unshielded.
- cat-5e with a maximum speed of 1 Gbps, available in shielded and unshielded varieties.
- cat-6 with a maximum speed of 10 Gbps for runs of less than 55 meters (about 180 feet), available in shielded and unshielded varieties.
- cat-6a with a maximum speed of 10Gbps, shielded.
- cat-7 uses a proprietary GG45 connector instead of the standard RJ-45 connector seen on other cables for 10Gbps speeds, shielded.
- cat-8 with a maximum speed of 25 Gbps (Cat-8.1) or 40 Gbps (Cat-8.2) at a distance of about 30 meters (about 100 feet), shielded.
Unless otherwise noted, these standards are typically rated at quoted speeds for a run of about 100 meters (about 330 feet) and use a standard RJ-45 Ethernet connector. Each generation of cable is designed to be backwards compatible, so it’s possible (for example) to use a Cat-6a cable with a router that only supports 1Gbps speeds.
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Match your cable to your network and usage
Let’s say you’re looking to set up a simple wired network setup in your study, a room where you already have your router and computer. You are doing this because you want the fastest and most efficient network to cover a small distance. It does not use network drives or copy large files over the network between other machines.
The first thing to check would be the speed of your internet connection as well as what router you have and what speeds it supports. If your router has a maximum limit of 1 Gbps, there is no point in choosing a Cat-6 cable or faster, since Cat-5e matches the maximum throughput of your router.
But if you have a router that supports 10Gbps networks and you’re lucky enough to have an Internet connection that exceeds 1Gbps, then you’ll want to buy a Cat-6 or better to get the most out of your hardware and connection. You should have an idea of your theoretical maximum internet speed from your ISP, and your router will likely have its maximum Ethernet throughput written on the box or back of the unit.
In another scenario, you could be wiring your entire apartment in hopes of connecting multiple computers and media devices. He is interested in streaming high-bandwidth video locally over the network, accessing large project files from a central network drive, or other network-intensive tasks. In addition to investing in a heavy-duty router that can handle a 10Gbps (or better) network, Cat-6a or even Cat-8 cable should be considered.
If you want to future-proof and upgrade your network equipment at a later date, you may want to run the fastest network cable you can afford (or justify) at the time, since replacing the cable at a later date could end costing you more.
Shielded or unshielded?
You may not be able to choose between shielded and unshielded cables, depending on which standard you choose. Most Cat-5e cables are available in shielded and unshielded varieties, with advantages and disadvantages to each.
Shielded cable is often referred to as shielded twisted pair (STP). These cables are designed for environments with a lot of electromagnetic interference, such as power lines, wireless networks, or environments where radio waves are more common, such as universities or television studios.
Due to how tight the cables are, these types of cables are stiffer, thicker, and require grounding. It is also more expensive due to additional materials and processes.
Unshielded cables, or unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables, are more suitable for environments with less crosstalk or noise. This includes most homes and small businesses. These cables are more flexible and easier to work with, smaller, and cheaper to buy and manufacture.
The grade of cable you buy can also make a difference. Higher-quality cables run at higher speeds and frequencies (Cat-5e runs at 100 MHz, while Cat-6a runs at 500 MHz), which are more susceptible to interference. This is one of the reasons faster cables are more expensive.
Copper purity and signal loss
Ethernet cables transfer a network signal using copper, a common and highly conductive material that has been used for telecommunications since the earliest telephone lines. The quality of the copper used is usually indicative of the quality of the signal, and this is reflected in the price.
Cheaper cables may only use copper-clad aluminum, which can suffer from a higher rate of signal loss over time, as aluminum expands and contracts as it heats up and cools down. Pure copper is more stable, durable, and highly conductive, but there are still considerations within this realm.
Oxygen Free Copper Wire is made from over 99.95% pure copper, with less impurities such as oxygen and iron than standard pure copper wire which may be “only” 99.5% pure. How much of a difference this makes in the real world is the subject of heated debate, particularly among audiophiles when talking about speaker cables. While having a purer copper backbone means fewer “roadblocks” for your signal to travel, having a pure copper cable in the first place is possibly the most important goal to aim for.
Gold plated and RJ-45 connector
Gold is frequently used in connectors for everything from 3.5mm stereo jacks to HDMI cables. There is one clear advantage that gold has over other metals: a low rate of oxidation. While silver may be more conductive, gold will oxidize at a slower rate, meaning greater longevity. This is why most RJ-45 connectors will use gold plating.
Something to keep in mind is the thickness of the gold used on the end of the connector, especially if you are going to be removing and reconnecting the cable on a regular basis. Higher quality cables will use a thicker gold coating, which will wear at a slower rate.
This coating is measured in microns, with 50 microns being the optimum thickness. Ideally, you should look for this number on the box or item description to ensure your cable is of high quality.
Consider coiling your own network cables
If you like to DIY, you may be interested in making your own network cables. Having the tools and parts to do this ensures that you can repair broken connectors, trim frayed ends, and create cables that are exactly as long as you need them to be. This will cost you more than a standard cable to begin with, but will probably work out cheaper over time.
For this, you’ll need a length of whatever category of network cable you’re using (for example, Cat-6), modular connectors (RJ-45), and a crimping tool to cut and terminate your cable. They are often available in crimping tool kits (like this one) without the wire. You’ll probably want to get your hands on a cable tester, too, just to make sure every cable you wrap is set up correctly.
Network Crimping Tool Kit
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Don’t forget Wi-Fi too
While wired networks are the most reliable and easiest way to connect many devices to the Internet, the modern smartphones and tablets that have taken over many of our daily tasks rely heavily on Wi-Fi.
Make sure your wireless network is up to the task and that you are using a high-quality wireless router to meet all your needs.