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Basic Differences Between Category cat5e, cat6, cat6e and 6a Network Patch Cables

Updated on January 22, 2015
Category 5 through 6e cables look nearly identical for everyday people and at first glance but there are some subtle differences. There are differences that are visible and others that are not.
Category 5 through 6e cables look nearly identical for everyday people and at first glance but there are some subtle differences. There are differences that are visible and others that are not.

Common network cables, also referred to as patch cables, look all so similar to each other. It's very difficult at times to tell them apart and for novice users, it is nearly impossible.

The most important difference between the cables is the speed and distance in which they operate most effectively. Speed and distance have a direct relationship when it comes to network cables and it's these two characteristics that differentiate cabling requirements.

Differences Between Network Cables

They may all similar but there is more to the small little wires inside the plastic cover. The number of twists even make a difference in range and speed based on frequency.

Differences Between Categories of Cables : Design, Characteristics

Maximum Data Rate (1 Twisted Pair)
10 Mbps
100 Mbps
1000 Mbps
10 Gbps
10 Gbps
Maximum Frequency
16 Mhz
100 Mhz
350 Mhz
250 Mhz
750 Mhz
Typical Distance
100 m
100 m
100 m
100 m
100 m
Maximum Distance at Maximum Data Transfer Rate
50 m
55 m
4 Separate Pairs. This is a similarity between the various cables. They all use 4 pairs of wires.
4 Separate Pairs. This is a similarity between the various cables. They all use 4 pairs of wires.

UTP cat5 through cat6a

UTP and Data Rating.

UTP is an acronym for Unshielded Twisted Pair. UTP data speed are expressed in megabits per second, or Mbps. You may have seen MB/s, this expression is mega BYTES per second. Although seemingly a symantec difference, it is not. BYTES with a capitol "B" is used for writing and reading from a storage device such as a hard drive whereas mega bits wit ha lowercase "b" is used during speed or transmission of data over a medium. Category 5 UTP cable up to 100 meters is rated for wire data speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Category 5e is rated up to 1000 Mbps (1000Mbps is 1 gigabit). Category 6 cabling is backward compatible which means it can be used for 10 and 100 Mbps applications and for rated speeds up to 1000 Mbps. Cat 6 can also perform at 10GB for very short distances. Category 6a, which has a speed rating of up to 10 gigabit (or 10,000 Mbps), is beginning to become more common as the price of network cards falls. As such was the case when the shift was from 10 to 100 then 100 to 1 Gbps.

Practical Uses for 10GB Networking

I have deployed 10GB in servers intended for virtualization. Which in short means one physical server can contain many virtual Windows servers . The virtual servers all share the physical network connections on the real physical server so 10GB is very useful in such a scenario. 10 GB on a desktop is impractical and really not worth the expense. 1 GB network cards are more than enough for a single computer.

Construction, pairs or wire count is the same

Category 5, 5e, 6, 6e, and 6a UTP has four pairs of twisted wires (Category 3 as well although it is not used for data and was a phone system standard created long ago before Ethernet was the "standard cabling type". The reason why each pair of wires is twisted around each other is to allow one wire to cancel out any interference in the second wire in the pair. Category 5e and CAT5 have the same basic construction including the wire type and gauge , but with higher standards in manufacturing and installation such as and the number of twists per foot of each pair. Category 6 UTP is a slightly thick wire gauge. #22 instead of the #24 gauge wire for each pair found n 5 and 5e. It contains a contains a physical separator, a plastic separator that runs the length of the cable. It looks like a plus symbol when turned and viewed from a cut side and is the separator between the four twisted pairs to reduce electromagnetic interference between the pairs and reduce data noise.

Speed vs Cost Considerations

Consider the real and not "wish list" data speed requirements of your network. A first re-action is to want CAT6a everywhere as it will provide speeds of up to 10 gigabits. However, it use widely throughout a network is not practical yet and will yield no performance in creases as desktops are still at 1 GB and also at a cost 30 percent more than a comparable CAT5e network infrastructure. Generally as I've seen in many offices and data centers, CAT5e cabling is sufficient to support many 1Gb and 100Mb networks. Especially if the network devices such as switches and routers only support data speeds of 1000 Mbps. It's nearly inconceivable as to why some people don't upgrade but I still see 10Mbps too! - it is horrible.

 Cat 6a STP RJ45 Plug
Cat 6a STP RJ45 Plug

Connectors, Pin assignments

Basic Differences Between Category 5 and Category 6

Connectors for cat5 and cat5e cables are very much interchangeable and actually absolutely identical, but those for cat6 have subtle yet very distict required differences that are not easily visible but can be seen if looked at closely. All connectors are however are of the type RJ45 that we commonly see connected into our desktops and will fit into RJ45-type interface ports and sockets like those on our computers, firewalls, switches, et.. Pin assignments are also unmistakely identical for all of the three cable types and for cabling and patch cords sold as cat6e. The IEEE standards committee would have found a hard sell if pin assignments had been changed because that would have meant special new switches and that would have caused every switch manufacturer to have to design new switch ports. Because of the thicker #22 conductor wiring size, connectors for cat6 cables have slightly larger holes where each of the individual wires enters the connector. More importantly, the conducting connector material (meaning the small copper connectors we see at the end of a cable buil into the plastic connector) and the details of the conductor in each connector arrangement are designed to enhance transmission to match the characteristics of the cable.

Straight-through pin-out RJ45 Ethernet
Straight-through pin-out RJ45 Ethernet

Making your Own Cables, It's Easy, The Wire Crimper is Key

Make Your Own Patch Cables

This is Not for Everyone but for the Handy Types, it can be done.

It's not as hard as it seems and you can save some money too by making your own cables. The cost of wire is bad enough but the cost of patch cables already with ends on them is so very expensive.

The pin-outs below work. I have used them to make cables. The added tool required is a wire crimper. They are not pricey either but they are an additional cost. Borrowing one for a project is better of course.

Ethernet Network Crossover Patch Cable pin-out and Straight Through cable pin-out.
Ethernet Network Crossover Patch Cable pin-out and Straight Through cable pin-out.

Crossover Cables - A Special Case Cable

There are cables that were called "cross-over" cables. They were much more common only a few years to a decade ago. Many, if not all, modern network switches and Ethernet interfaces on routers used in homes and business for Internet access, wireless access points, etc. have built-in cross-over detection. Which means that each port can detect if it needs to change "mode" to cross-over mode.

The need for Ethernet cross-over network cables existed because switches years ago were designed with interfaces for computers, and printers, or other "end point" devices. Simply, devices that had a single interface themselves were not a switch for multiple connections. When one switch was connected to another (actually hub to hub a little further back in time), a cross-over cable was needed because both connecting devices (each switch or hub) had multiple interfaces and were devices for multiple connections.

Cross-over network cables have a slightly different pin-tout. Pins are "crossed" on the transmit and receive. It is not as complicated or hard as it seems and a cross over cable can be made just as a normal "straight through" cable can be made. Special care needs to be taken to cross the correct wires.


Since working with cables requires physically touching and working the wires, connectors, crimping or punch-down tools, it is difficult to get assistance through software for remote desktop control support. Remote desktop control software provides little assistance in a such situations and work that involves nearly all physical presence dependencies.

Other such scenarios are those where new hardware or replacement hardware has to be added to an existing environment and that environment is non-functional until the said hardware is replaced. Such is the case as when a network is experiencing sever outages due to a failure in network switching fabric. Although remote support software is often used for server support, if server or network storage is down because of a drive failure for example, support from the outside over a network is less effective.

There are cable testers that professional cable and network installers use to test continuity and connections. There are testers by Fluke for example that will test the frequencies that are achieved in cabling end to end. They can tell you if they are under par for the category of cable which means there can be single strength lost which translates to the cable run will not meet theoretical speeds and distances. They test all the pairs individually and create PDF reports. I recently had to download data for a cable run test of 250 cables from a Fluke cable analyzer DSP-4300 ( an old model, one of the replacements is the DSX-5000 more information at FlukeNetworks ) . The client was an international consulate who occupied several floors of a high-rise building. The test found 8 pairs of wires for 8 runs that were bad. The pairs were 7 and 8 . From the information about cabling above we see that pairs 7 and 8 are NOT used for Ethernet but are used for power over Ethernet so they had to be fixed.



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    • profile image

      Telxperts 10 months ago from Australia

      Its very informative. Thank you.


    • Bill Cruise profile image

      Bill Cruise 11 months ago

      Quite informative though I would like to add some minor inputs on my end.

      For your first table, we can do away with Cat3 and Cat5 since these are obsolete.

      I do understand where “networkdude” is coming from.

      It is true that there is no licensing organization or body to regulate the quality of network cable – having said that, there are however reputable stores that do ensure that they sell high quality network cables that meet the expected standard which has been noted about (again – first table).

      Since I’m from Australia, I purchase most of my electronic and computer needs at 4Cabling. In case any of you would like to know more about cables and which of these are most suitable for you, it is always good to ask questions first (and always go to reputable companies that really cares about the needs of it consumes).

      See the link below for more info on the different types of computer cables

    • profile image

      Ttsad 19 months ago

      I completely agree with networkdude which is the very first comment. There is no IEEE standard for "cat6e" cabling and according to the standard committee there won't be. Without a legitimate cat6e standard, the cabling manufactures can claim whatever they want. According to Siemon, the leader in structured cabling standards, cable manufacturers did this to push an "enhanced" cat6 cable mimicking the cat5e standard. However, there will not be a cat6e standard. There is a CAT6/cless e but the cable marlins are different. True class e cabling is marked CAT6/CLASS E, not CAT6e.

    • profile image

      networkdude 2 years ago

      I don't understand. WTF is cat6E??? There is no 6E standard

    • profile image

      cablemaker 2 years ago

      not reading every comment but your cable color code is out of date i would suggest that if you plan to maintain and keep people up to date that you update your color code for the make your own. if not that's fine as in home use it won't matter much but for a business person who needs to know how to make cable to the ieee standard then they will need the new color code.

    • pctechgo profile image

      pctechgo 2 years ago from US

      Hi Vishal. As you probably know, the cabling is just one component of the network. The endpoint devices which data traverses also play a huge integral role. The best cabling (i.e. most expensive cabling option) will be limited by the networking devices. For example, if there is a legacy 10 mbps switch or hub on the network the data is passing through, the throughput will be limited to 10 mbps or less. network interfaces along the path the data takes must also be full duplex, half duplexed connections will limit throughput. So it is best to re-examine the hardware that comprises the network it could be the limiting factor - it often is.

    • profile image

      vishal 2 years ago

      i am using rj45 cat5e cable but their trasfering speed only 10mbps please help to improving transfering speed ,please

    • pctechgo profile image

      pctechgo 3 years ago from US

      Thanks WestelCS.

      I used to make cables as needed too and still do. Have the crimper and a portion of a spool or two, plus RJ-45 heads. It will be a while but if there's 10Gb to the desktop as a norm, the cable manufacturers will gain big. I don't see how the ends for 10Gb these cables in their present specs (at least the ones I've seen so far for servers) can be "crimped" by regular people to make cables as needed. I suppose there will be a tool to do it or the ends will be modified to accommodate the need of cablers to manufacture specific sized cables during installations and wiring infrastructure build-outs.

    • WestelCS profile image

      Tim Anthony 3 years ago

      I was hoping to see a hub on selecting networking cables. But, this exceeds my expectation. One can easily understand the contents and the information flow in this hub. Thumbs up from me. this hub is indeed very useful for all levels of computer enthusiasts.

    • pctechgo profile image

      pctechgo 4 years ago from US

      Thank you, cablemanagements. I used to make my own cables often as needed since they are much less expensive than purchasing molded pre-made cables. It helped getting left over spools of CAT cable from actual cables I knew. I've not made my own cables in a while since I have not needed to so this was a nice little "refresher".

    • pctechgo profile image

      pctechgo 4 years ago from US

      Thank you, cablemanagements. I used to make my own cables often as needed since they are much less expensive than purchasing molded pre-made cables. It helped getting left over spools of CAT cable from actual cables I knew. I've not made my own cables in a while since I have not needed to so this was a nice little "refresher".

    • cablemanagements profile image

      S K Sinha 4 years ago from India

      Very technical article, basic knowledge which is a must for everyone even at user level.

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