Network Cable Buying Guide

A network cable is a type of cable that is used to connect computer networks. These cables are used to transmit data and information between two or more devices, typically computers, as well as routers, modems, and switches. They are usually made from copper and have 8 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 the patch cable and installation cable.

Cable Categories

In the late 1980s early networking adopters were using either coaxial cable, 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. 
Raising the bar even further, Category 3 cable arrived in the early 1990s. With a frequency at 16 MHz, cat3 cable was able to delivery a throughput of up to 10 Mbps. Cat 3 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 was able to send network data packets up to 100 meters (328 feet) without amplification. This was a big leap forward, compared to what came before, but pales in comparison to what was to come next: Cat5e, or enhanced Category 5 cables. This improved version of cat5 cabling was able to push the data transfer rate to 1 Gbps, and 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), and Cat 7 and Cat 8 still waiting to receive the TIA's blessing.


Cat6 (Category 6)
- Max. Speed Up to 10 Gbps
- Available in Shielded and Unshielded varieties.

Cat6 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 to164 feet (55 meters), so if you need higher bandwidth in your network, Cat6 is the entry-level choice. BothCat5e 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.

|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 328 feet (100 meters) 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 Cat6amodular 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 328 feet(100 meters) — 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 for 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 328 feet (100 meters) or 25 Gbps and 40 Gbps up to 98.5 feet (30 meters) with an impressive 2000 MHz 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 BandwidthShielding
Cat 11 Mbps1 MHzunshielded
Cat 24 Mbps4 MHzunshielded
Cat 310 Mbps16 MHzunshielded
Cat 426 Mbps20 MHzunshielded
Cat 5100 Mbps100 MHzunshielded
Cat 5e1,000 Mbps100 MHzunshielded + shielded
Cat 61,000 Mbps250 MHzunshielded + shielded
Cat 6a10 Gbps500 MHzunshielded + shielded
Cat 710 Gbps600 MHzshielded
Cat 840 Gbps2 GHzshielded

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Different Shielding Types Explained

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

ISO/IEC11801 NameCommon NameOuter Shielding TypeTwisted Pair Shieling 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 seen the differences of different shielding types, and we have broken down the different categories and the respective performance figures. Another differentiator between different types of Ethernet cables lies buried deep inside the core of the cable, more specifically, the copper core itself. The core can be either solid, made of a single, solid conducting wire, or it can be stranded, which consists of multiple strands of copper wrapped around each other. Each of these designs has advantages and disadvantages, and we are going to take a closer look at each of them so you will have a better understanding about when to choose solid and when to choose stranded cables.

 Solid Wire Cable 

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

  • Solid cables are better electrical conductors and provide superior, stable electrical characteristics over a wider range of frequencies, offering lower susceptibility to high-frequency effects and lower DC resistance than stranded cables.
  • Solid cables provide improved electrical characteristics over a wider range of frequencies, as they are better electrical conductors than stranded wire cables. The result is that solid cables offer lower DC resistance and are more resilient against high-frequency interference. 
  • In Power over Ethernet applications, solid cables are the preferred choice in environments that aren’t temperature controlled, like a ceiling. Due to the lower DC resistance, there is less power dissipating as heat, which is a distinct advantage, especially if the cable is longer than 15 feet.
  • Easily punched down onto IDCs (Insulation-displacement connectors) such as wall jacks and patch panels.
Solid Copper Wire

 Stranded Cable 

Stranded cables are primarily used for shorter patch cables, where the higher DC resistance compared to solid cables 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 due to 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 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 the short list about what's good about CCA cables.

  • Due to using Aluminum during the manufacturing process, CCA 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 ISPs 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 highly.

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 a lower electrical resistance (attenuation) compared to Aluminum. Specially 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 to 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 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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