Cat 5e vs. Cat 6 vs. Cat 6A - which should you choose?

By Steven deSteuben, Nashua Data Solutions -- Arguably this is one of the most common questions we get. Understandably, there is much confusion in the market about which cable is better and why.

Cat 5e vs. Cat 6 vs. Cat 6A - which should you choose?
Cat 5e vs. Cat 6 vs. Cat 6A - which should you choose?

By Steven deSteuben, Nashua Data Solutions -- Arguably this is one of the most common questions we get. Understandably, there is much confusion in the market about which cable is better and why. Some installers even argue against each other, and often strongly define their stance on which cable is best. In fact, we expect we may get a few emails on this post from other cabling providers who feel differently for one reason or the other.

Nashua Data Solutions has installed all three types of cables. If you have a preference for one over the other, we will be happy to base your install on whichever you prefer to work with. That being said, here are some helpful bits of information which can help you to decide which is right for you.

Ultimately all three cables will use an RJ-45 end, which will be able to plug into the same Ethernet jack on your computer, routers, and switches. Each has its proper place, and application, which best suits its design. The first most notable difference from one to the other is price. For budgeting purposes, and for the sake of this discussion, plan on Cat 6 costing roughly 30% more then cat 5e, and Cat 6A 30% more than Cat 6. Plenum adds about 30% over non-plenum, and shielded cabling (STP) also adds roughly 30-40% more over unshielded (UTP) cabling. That means if your Cat 5e install were to be quoted at $10,000, then the same job with Cat 6A might be $16,000. Understandably, cost itself might be the #1 limiting factor when choosing a cable type for many clients.

However, when price is not the only factor, consider the following technical differences:

Cat 5e has been around for over 15 years. At the time it came out, it gave the first glimpse of the 1 Gigabit networks as a possibility, although it was not typical to find hardware reasonably priced that would support those speeds. In the past few years, hardware costs have come down and allowed Gigabit networking to become easier to afford. From our perspective, the absolute minimum network should be a Gigabit network. Cat 5e cables are typically 24 gauge twisted pair wires, which can produce a Gigibit network at distances up to 328 ft., including patch cables at both ends.

Cat 6 cables came out only a few years after Cat 5e. This cable gave the ability to have a 10 Gigabit network. For much of the 2000's, Cat 5e was run to the workstations and Cat 6 was run as a backbone from router to switches. However, the 10 Gigabit network on Cat 6 cables is limited to 164 ft., including patch cables. After that distance, its ultimate speed is the same as cat 5e, i.e. 1 Gigabit.

Beyond the speed/distance factor, Cat 6 has a tighter twist in the cables, which allows for two-way communication on each pair of wires, where Cat 5e does not allow this feature. We have noticed that in certifying our cable installations, Cat 5e cable has a tendency to have a higher delay and skew than Cat 6 cable. That means that even though both Cat5e and Cat 6 can do 1 Gigabit networks, Cat 5e may have a longer delay for the signal to get from one side to the other, which will give the appearance that it runs slower.

The Cat 6 Cable we use is 23 gauge (though there are some Cat 6 cables on the market that are 24 gauge). Sometimes, Cat 6 will have a plastic piece in the middle of the cable that splits the pairs apart, supposedly to further limit crosstalk. In our experience though, we have not been able to prove this plastic separator actually serves any functional purpose. We have installed test cables side by side, some with and some without that center plastic piece. There is not a noticeable difference, on our meters.

Cat 6a, while also being 23 gauge, is considerably thicker then Cat 6, which in turn is considerably thicker then Cat 5. Partly, this is due to the extra-thick plastic around the wires themselves, and partly due to the tighter winding of the pairs themselves, creating more copper per inch. Cat 6a will do 10 Gigabit per second networking for the full distance of Ethernet (328 ft.) Cat 6a also reduces the crosstalk among the pairs, which further reduces the delay in the cables.

Our feeling is this: If you are looking for a cable which will provide for you in the future, Cat 6a would give you the best performance at the full distance. If, however, you have no cables over 120-150 feeet, then Cat 6 will also give you the option for 10 Gigabit networks.

For many of our clients, Cat 5e is perfectly fine. Many companies are placing more and more servers on the cloud. This means that if everything you do is on the cloud, and you require very little internal networking, your limiting factor will not be the type of cable, but the speed of your Internet. Quite likely, Cat 5e will achieve faster connections than your Internet speed, making Cat 5e the choice of most of our clients. Some of our clients have higher demands for internal speed. Applications like video and audio editing/processing, AutoCAD, SQL databases, file transfers, and even roaming profiles on domain controllers will all benefit greatly by having Cat 6A cables with 10 Gigabit networking.

The choices come down to what you will do in the end, how long you will be at your current building, and of course your budget.

An expert in providing data cabling solutions since 2004, Nashua Data Solutions bills itself as a premier IT partner for small to medium sized companies between Manchester/Nashua, NH and Boston, MA, while also serving Charlotte, NC. The above blog was posted on Nov. 19, 2014 on the company's website, and is aimed at prospective customers.

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