Choosing an Ethernet cable is for the most part relatively straightforward. However, there are some things to keep in mind if you want to get the most out of your internet connection and local network.
Not All Ethernet Cables Are Created Equal
Wired networks are generally very easy to use. Most of the time, you plug the cable into your computer’s Ethernet port or adapter and you’re good to go. Purchasing an Ethernet cable can seem much more complicated, with many different standards, speeds and specifications to take into account.
Network cables are separated into different categories, with the basic standard being Cat-5. just like 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, usually unshielded.
- cat-5th with a maximum speed of 1 Gbps, available in shielded and unshielded varieties.
- Cat-6 with a maximum speed of 10 Gbit/s for paths less than 55 meters (about 180 feet), available in shielded and unshielded versions.
- Cat-6a with a maximum speed of 10Gbps, shielded.
- Cat-7 uses a proprietary GG45 connector rather than the standard RJ-45 connector seen on other cables for 10 Gbps 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 stated, these standards are generally rated at their stated speeds for a run of approximately 100 meters (approximately 330 feet) and use a standard RJ-45 Ethernet connector. Each generation of cable is designed to be compatible with the generations before it, so it is possible (for example) to use Cat-6a cable with a router that only supports 1Gbps speeds.
Adapt your cable to your network and your use
Let’s say you’re looking to set up a simple wired network setup in your office, a room where you already have your router and computer. You do this because you want the fastest, most efficient network to cover a small distance. You are not using network drives or copying large files over the network between other machines.
The first thing to check would be speed of your internet connection, as well as the router you have and the speeds it supports. If your router is capped at a maximum of 1 Gbps, there’s no point choosing Cat-6 or faster cable since Cat-5e is your router’s maximum speed.
But if you have a router that supports 10Gbps networking and you’re lucky enough to have an internet connection above 1Gbps, you’ll want to buy a Cat-6 or better to pull the get the most out of your hardware and your connection. You should get an idea of your theoretical maximum internet speed from your ISP, and your router is likely to have its maximum ethernet speed written on the box or the back of the device.
In another scenario, you could wire your entire apartment hoping to connect multiple computers and media devices. You are interested by stream high-speed video locally over the network, accessing large project files from a network drive, or other network-intensive tasks. In addition to investing in a heavy-duty router that can handle 10Gbps (or better) networking, Cat-6a or even Cat-8 cable should be considered.
If you want to prepare for the future and upgrade your network equipment later, you might want to use the fastest network cable you can afford (or justify) at that time, because cable replacement at a later date could end up costing you more.
Shielded or unshielded?
You may not have a choice between shielded and unshielded cables, depending on which standard you choose. Most Cat-5e cables come in shielded and unshielded varieties, with pros and cons for each.
Shielded cable is often referred to as shielded twisted pair (STP). These cables are designed for environments with a lot of electromagnetic interferencesuch as power lines, wireless networks, or environments where radio waves are more common, such as universities or television studios.
Due to the strength of the cables, these types of cables are stiffer, thicker and require grounding. It’s also more expensive due to the 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 use, smaller and cheaper to buy and manufacture.
The quality of the cable you buy can also make a difference. Higher quality cables operate at faster speeds and higher frequencies (Cat-5e operates at 100 MHz, while Cat-6a operates at 500 MHz) which are more susceptible to interference. This is one of the reasons why faster cables are more expensive.
Copper Purity and Signal Loss
Ethernet cables transfer a network signal using copper, a highly conductive and common material used for telecommunications since early telephone lines. The quality of copper used is often indicative of signal quality, and this is reflected in the price.
Cheaper cables can only use copper-clad aluminum, which can suffer from a higher rate of signal loss over time, as aluminum expands and shrinks as it heats up and cools down. Pure copper is more stable, durable, and highly conductive, but there are even considerations here.
Oxygen-free copper wire is over 99.95% pure copper, with fewer impurities like oxygen and iron than standard pure copper wire which can “only” be 99.5 pure %. How much of a difference this makes in the real world is hotly debated, especially among audiophiles when discussing speaker wire. While having a purer copper backbone means fewer “blocks” for your signal to pass through, having pure copper wire in the first place is arguably the most important goal to aim for.
Connector gold plating and RJ-45
Gold is frequently used in connectors for all sorts of connections, from 3.5mm stereo jacks to HDMI cables. There is one obvious 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, which means better longevity. This is why most RJ-45 connectors will use gold plating.
Note the thickness of the gold used on the end of the connector, especially if you have to remove and reconnect the cable regularly. Higher quality cables will use thicker gold plating, which will wear more slowly.
This plating is measured in microns, with 50 microns being the optimal thickness. You should ideally look for this number listed on the box or in the item description to ensure your cable is of high quality.
Consider coiling your own network cables
If you’re a handyman, this might interest you. make your own network cables. Having the tools and parts to do this allows you to repair broken connectors, cut off frayed ends, and create cables that are precisely as long as you need them to be. It will cost you more than a standard cable to start with, but will likely work out cheaper over time.
For this you will need a length of the category of network cable you are using (eg Cat-6), modular connectors (RJ-45) and a crimping tool to cut and finish your cable. These are often available in crimping tool kits (like this one) minus the cable. You’ll probably also want to get your hands on a cable tester, just to make sure every cable you ride is set up correctly.
Network Crimping Tool Kit
Don’t Forget Wi-Fi, Too
Even though the wired network is 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.
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