Network Cable Buying Guide

A network cable, also known as an Ethernet cable, is a type of cable that is used to connect computer networks. These cables transmit data and information between two or more devices such as computers, routers, modems and switches. They are usually made with copper and have eight pins. Ethernet cables come in a variety of different lengths and colors, depending on the type of cable you need. The most common types of Ethernet cables are patch cables and installation cables.

Cable Categories

In the late 1980s, early networking adopters used coaxial cable, which was composed of insulated telephone wires twisted into pairs for reduced crosstalk and covered in a plastic jacket. This voice-grade Category 1 cable could transmit up to 1 Mbps of data, a limit that was soon raised to 4 Mbps by the short-lived Category 2 cable.

In the early 1990s, Category 3 cable arrived to raise the bar even further. With a frequency of 16 MHz, Cat3 cable could deliver throughput up to 10 Mbps. Cat3 was widely used for 10BASE-T Ethernet applications. Category 4 cables made a brief appearance and increased the performance to 20 MHz and 26 Mbps, respectively. It was mostly used for Token Ring applications.

Cat5e (Category 5 enhanced)
- Max. Speed Up to 1 Gbps
- Available in Shielded and Unshielded varieties.

In 1995, Category 5 cable was introduced. It provided 100 Mbps network speeds with 100 MHz bandwidth and could send network data packets up to 100 meters (328 feet) without amplification. The cable's capabilities were a big leap forward, but they pale in comparison to what came next: Cat5e, or enhanced Category 5, cables. This improved version of Cat5 cabling was able to push the data transfer rate to 1 Gbps — ten times the previous rate. Even though this type of cable is more than 20 years old by now, it is still very popular and widely used. Newer standards have emerged since then, with Cat6 and Cat6a being officially recognized by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), with Cat7 and Cat8 still waiting to receive the TIA's blessing.

Cat6 (Category 6)
- Max. speed up to 10 Gbps @ 55 m (164 ft.)
- Available in Shielded and Unshielded varieties.

Category 6 supports data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbps at 250 MHz along with improved crosstalk protection. The standard only supports the 10 Gbps speed up to 55 meters (164 feet), so if you need higher bandwidth in your network, Cat6 is the entry-level choice. Both Cat5e and Cat6 begin to become part of the bottleneck in your network as we see continuously faster Internet connections in both the home and office environment.

Cat6a (Augmented Category 6)
- Max. speed up to 10 Gbps @ 100 m (328 ft.)
- Available in Shielded and Unshielded varieties.

If your requirement is a 1- to 10-Gigabit Ethernet network, Cat6a is still currently the right choice for most circumstances. Cat6a supports the same 10 Gbps transmission speed as Cat6, but up to 100 meters (328 feet) and at 500 MHz. The cable also further reduces crosstalk.


Cat7 (Category 7)
- Max. Speed Up to 10 Gbps
- Only Shielded

Cat7 never superseded Cat6a since neither of the governing bodies approved the standard. As such, you will see many different claims from suppliers. Further confusion and uncertainty arose when two companies developed their own patented designs for new connectors (TERA developed by The Siemon Company; GG45 developed by Nexans). If you use Cat7 cable with Cat6a modular plugs, you will have better performance. Realistically, Cat6a is your better choice as it is a supported official standard, and you can be assured of quality and data integrity. Cat7 supports the same transmission speed and distance as Cat6a — 10 Gbps up to 100 meters (328 feet) — but at 600 MHz with even less crosstalk.


Cat8.x (Category 8, 8.1 [Class I]and 8.2 [Class II])
- Max. Speed Up to 40 Gbps- Only Shielded

Cat8 is recommended for data-center environments or high-speed switch-to-switch and server communications in a 25 Gbps or 40 Gbps copper network. Cat8 is the best choice unless you want to install a fiber network, too. Due to the design, Cat8, Cat8.1 and Cat8.2 support transmission speeds of 10 Gbps up to 100 meters (328 feet) or 25 Gbps and 40 Gbps up to 30 meters (98.5 feet) with an impressive 2,000 MHz frequency that even better prevents crosstalk. Where Cat8 and 8.1 are backward compatible, Cat8.2 is not since it does not use standard RJ45 connectors.

CategoryMaximum Transfer SpeedMaximum BandwidthShieldingOfficial Standard
Cat 11 Mbps1 MHzunshieldedyes
Cat 24 Mbps4 MHzunshieldedyes
Cat 310 Mbps16 MHzunshieldedyes
Cat 426 Mbps20 MHzunshieldedyes
Cat 5100 Mbps100 MHzunshieldedyes
Cat 5e1,000 Mbps100 MHzunshielded + shieldedyes
Cat 61,000 Mbps250 MHzunshielded + shieldedyes
Cat 6a10 Gbps500 MHzunshielded + shieldedyes
Cat 710 Gbps600 MHzshieldedno
Cat 840 Gbps2 GHzshieldedyes

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Different Ethernet Cable Shielding Types Explained

All standard Ethernet cables are available with or without shielding. Shielding protects the cable from electromagnetic interference (EMI), radio frequency interference (RFI) and can also reduce crosstalk between pairs and adjacent cables.

ISO/IEC11801 NameCommon NameOuter Shielding TypeTwisted Pair Shielding Type
U/UTPUTPNoneNone
U/FTPSTP, PiMF, ScTPNoneFoil Shielding
F/UTPFTP, STP, ScTPFoil ShieldingNone
F/FTPFTPFoil ShieldingFoil Shielding
S/UTPSTP, ScTPBraid ShieldingNone
S/FTPSSTP, SFTP, STP PiMFBraid ShieldingFoil Shielding
SF/UTPSFTP, STPBraid & Foil ShieldingNone
SF/FTPSFTP, STPBraid & Foil ShieldingFoil Shielding

UTP

STP, PiMF, ScTP

FTP, STP, ScTP

SSTP, SFTP, STP PiMF

SFTP, STP

SFTP, STP

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 Solid vs. Stranded Ethernet Cable 

We have described the various categories, seen the different shielding types and gone over their respective performance figures. Another difference in the types of Ethernet cables lies buried deep inside the core of the cable, or more specifically, the copper core itself. The core can be either solid with a single conducting wire, or it can be stranded with multiple strands of copper wrapped around each other. Each of these designs has advantages and disadvantages. We are going to take a closer look at each of them so you will have a better understanding of when to choose solid and when to choose stranded cables.

 Solid Wire Ethernet Cable 

Solid wire, also referred to as permalink cabling, is less flexible than stranded wire. While that is a disadvantage, solid wire cabling provides some key advantages, making them the default choice for horizontal cable runs (e.g., structured wiring within buildings):

  • Solid cables are better electrical conductors. They provide superior, stable electrical characteristics over a wider range of frequencies, lower susceptibility to high-frequency effects and lower DC resistance than stranded cables.
  • In Power over Ethernet applications, solid cables are the preferred choice in environments that aren’t temperature controlled, such as a ceiling. Due to the lower DC resistance, less power dissipates as heat, which is a distinct advantage, especially if the cable is longer than 4.5 meters (15 feet).
  • They are easy to punch down into insulation-displacement connectors (IDCs) such as wall jacks and patch panels.
Solid Copper Wire

 Stranded Ethernet Cable 

Stranded wires are primarily used for shorter patch cables, where the higher DC resistance is less of a concern.

  • Stranded cables are easier to route than solid cables due to their greater flexibility. This makes stranded cables easier to install and less prone to damage from bending.
  • The amount of strands that are used determine the degree of flexibility the cable provides. The more strands are used, the more flexible the cable becomes. On the other hand, the more strands that are used, the higher the manufacturing cost. Therefore the common stranded wire balances the need for greater flexibility and cost.
Stranded Copper Wire

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Copper or CCA Cables

CCA stands for Copper Coated Aluminum. In Ethernet networking, the acronym CCE (Copper Clad Ethernet) is also used. Either term describes the same product: aluminum Patch Cables.

Regular Ethernet cables, both stranded and solid varieties, are made with solid copper conductors.

CCA cables do away with pure copper conductors and instead utilize an aluminum core that is coated with copper.

Advantages of CCA/CCE Ethernet Aluminum Cables

CCA cables are universally maligned in the networking world, and arguably for good reasons. Nonetheless, below is a shortlist of what's good about CCA cables.

  • Due to using aluminum during the manufacturing process, CCA cables are cheaper to make and cheaper to buy.
  • CCA cables are generally lighter than pure copper cables, which reduces the shipping cost, and again makes them cheaper to buy.
  • Although CCA cables do not perform nearly as well as pure copper cables, regardless of which metric you're looking at, they can still represent good value. At the end of the day, these cables work just fine to connect the ISP's cable modem to a WLAN router or a Desktop PC to a SOHO Ethernet switch. In short-distance SOHO applications, CCA cables will get the job done. Any claim to the contrary is simply incorrect. A quick search on Amazon reveals that cheaper CCA cables are rated surprisingly high.

If you think this sounds like a glowing endorsement, you would be wrong. CCA cables have many shortcomings, some of which we list below. However, they are also not the villainous cable that brings about the end of the (networking) world.

Advantages of 100% Copper Ethernet Cables

There are not shortcuts taken during the manufacturing process of these cables. The conductor is made from 100% copper, and it is available in either solid or stranded form.

  • Copper cable is much better suited for longer-distance network connections. That’s because copper has lower electrical resistance (attenuation) compared to aluminum. Especially on longer connections, this can make the difference between a solid connection (copper) and a slow and flaky connection (CCA). 
  • CCA cables lack compliance and do not have a valid safety listing per the National Electrical Code (NEC). The installation of CCA cables in buildings that require CM-, CMG-, CMX-, CMR- or CMP-rated cables is a code violation and thus not legal. Copper cables, on the other hand, are generally compliant with TIA and ISO/IEC standards.
  • Copper cable is much more resilient against oxidation and corrosion. Aluminum oxidizes quickly when exposed to air, which can cause connectivity issues at the connectors.
  • Copper cable is ideally suited for Power over Ethernet (PoE) applications, whereas CCA cable isn’t. CCA cable has a higher DC resistance and leads to undesirable effects. Heat can build up faster in CCA cables, and the voltage can drop over the lengths of the cable. Neither is a good thing, and CCA cables simply have no place in PoE installations.

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What is AWG?

AWG standards for American Wire Gauge. AWG is is a standardized wire gauge system used mostly in North America for the diameters of electrically conducting wire. The thickness of network cables is typically expressed in an AWG## or ##AWG rating.
Though somewhat counter-intuitive, the larger the AWG number, the smaller the diameter of the cable. For example, an AWG30 is a lot thinner than an AWG24 cable.

28AWG and 30AWG type cables are often referred to as Slim Ethernet Cables, or Slim Patch Cables.

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Slim versus Standard Patch Cables

Slim Patch Cables vs Regular Patch Cables

Slim or slim run cables are becoming increasingly popular. Anything thicker than 28AWG or 30AWG cable is considered a standard gauge patch cable (for example, 24AWG).

Advantages of Slim Network Cables:

  • As a slim patch cable is more than 30% thinner than regular cable, it uses less space, which can be an advantage in tight and crowded spaces.
  • Slim patch cable can improve airflow and thus help provide better equipment cooling
  • Slim cables can pass the Fluke test for Cat6, and even Cat8 (shorter cable, that is), and they can be used with PoE applications
  • 28AWG cabling is compliant with ANSI/TIA-568.2-D for lengths of up to 15 meters (49 feet).

Disadvantages of Slim Network Cables:

  • While shorter Slim Patch Cables can indeed pass the Fluke standards network test, 30AWG Slim Patch Cable is not compliant with the ANSI/TIA-568.2-D standard, which requires cables to be 22AWG to 26AWG. 28AWG is only permissible for lengths not exceeding 15 meters (49 feet).
  • Slim patch cables have a higher DC resistance and higher insertion loss, which limits the length to a maximum of 15 meters (49 feet).
  • Slim cables are often more expensive than the regular equivalent cable

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