Computer data networking is a significant part of my day job, so I can rightfully say I know these things sufficiently well. Having come across so much misinformation amongst end-users, particularly nonsense spouted by salespeople and netizens on community forums, please let me share some facts about computer network cables.
This post is primarily focused on copper unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling commonly used by home users. UTP is used with broadband routers, desktop computers, and other consumer networking devices. Many users are confused about the right type of cables to get for the increasingly higher speed networks that they have at home.
UTP cables are specified against standards like Category 5, 5e, 6, 6a, etc. The bigger numbers and letter suffixes refer to higher, tighter specifications, capable of delivering higher performance. They also cost more.
Many users are being told they need higher specifications cables than necessary for their needs. For example, with fibre broadband connections to the home getting increasingly common nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear users being told that Cat6 cables are required for gigabit ethernet speeds.
I’ve heard countless times people commenting about the need for Category 6 cables. When someone asks about their problem with their slow network speeds, one likely answer will be about changing to Category 6 cables.
Well, do you know what?
Category 5 standard meets the requirement for 1000BASE-T, the network standard for Gigabit Ethernet over copper cables that’s typically used at home. Category 5 was obsoleted in 2001, to be replaced by Category 5e. Today, if you need 1000BASE-T, you only need to get Category 5e type cables. If you already have Category 5 cables, that will suffice too, there’s no need to replace them.
That’s right, get this correctly, there is no need for Category 6 cables to run Gigabit Ethernet.
Category 6 has tighter specifications and improves on the performance of the cable. It is good for Ten Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE), or 10GBASE-T, for up to 37m. You’re probably not running 10GbE at home, so you don’t need Category 6 cables. Category 6a supports 10GbE up to 100m.
Another common misinformation is about the “goodness” of cables. Cables tested to the same standard, such as Category 5e, will perform identically for the purpose that it was intended. For example, Category 5e cable will run 1000BASE-T for 100m. If you use these cables for 1000BASE-T, they will all work equally well, assuming the manufacturer did not cheat on the testing, and that they are not damaged. There is no such thing as some cables being better, faster, more reliable, or less error-prone, than some other cable.
This nonsense is similar to how people are getting conned on expensive HDMI cables. I posted previously about the fuss with HDMI cables. Gold-plating doesn’t make cables better. If a cable is specified for that standard, and assuming there’s no cheating and damage, the cable will perform the same way.
Like HDMI signals, Ethernet is a digital signalling protocol. You don’t need to worry about signal degradation, as long as your use is within the intended design and protocol specifications. Some UTP patch cords may be sold in very pretty packaging and impressive marketing messages about how they work better. Well, all that matters is the standard that it is specified for. If it is a Category 5e cable, it only needs to meet the specifications of Category 5e. Having a “better” cable will not make your Gigabit Ethernet faster or error-free, nor will another Category 5e cable make it slower or error-prone.
It’s easy to find out the cable category, because it is always stamped on the cable itself. Here’s how it looks like:
This is an AMP NETCONNECT branded Category 6 patch cord. Be very suspicious if you cannot find any printed markings on the cable.
Now, in case you’re wondering, the cable markings can certainly be faked. After all, I’m sure you’ve heard of all sorts of faked goods that pretend to be something more expensive or branded. For enterprise users like myself, we are able to independently test the cables using our own test equipment. We don’t depend on the manufacturer to stamp the markings on the cable to determine its standard.
Ordinary consumers, however, wouldn’t have access to test equipment. The test equipment tend to be quite expensive, so it is not practical for individuals to buy, not even if you need plenty of cables or plan to pool resources with many people. The best protection for consumers, then, is simply to buy from reputable sources. On the matter of test equipment, do understand that those $10 or so testers you can find from EBay or Amazon are simply continuity testers. The cable testers I’m talking about, which are more formally known as Cable Analyzers, actually test for standards conformance, and usually cost thousands of dollars.
Now, even though a cable may meet the standards it is specified for, some may possibly be inferior in the sense that they are more easily damaged. Perhaps the plugs are not properly crimped, or the clips on the plastic plug breaks off easily. The best advise I can give is, again, get from reputable sources.
To be clear, reputable sources don’t mean expensive products. For example, a 2m Category 6 patch cord from Monoprice is only US$1.39. It’s the shipping to Singapore that’s most costly, but if you round up a bunch of orders, you could still fetch a pretty good price.
However, I’m not telling you to go buy from merchants overseas. My main purpose is to clear the air of all the misinformation about what kind of cables are needed for what sort of network. So now I hope you know, just what cables you’ll need for your home computer network!