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Cat 5e Verse Cat 6 Verse Cat 6A - Which should you choose?

By Steven deSteuben, Nov 19 2014 12:20AM

*** update ***

If you are going to use POE on your computer network we suggest Cat 6 or Cat 6A in order to comply with the new NEC National Electrical Code and NFP Fire regulations. For more details on this please see a newer post on this topic.

Arguably this is one of the most common questions we get. Understandably there is much confusion in market about which cable is better and why. Some installers even argue against each other and often strongly defined their stance on which cable is best. In fact we do expect we may get a few emails from 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 bit 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 suites 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 being roughly 30% more then cat 5e and Cat 6A 30% more then Cat 6. Plenum adds about 30% over Non-Plenum and Shielded cabling (STP) also adds roughly 30-40% over Unshielded (UTP) 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. Understandable, 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 1gb 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 came down and allowed Gigabit networking to become easier to afford. From our perspective, the absolute minimum network should be a Gigabit network. Cat5e cables are typically 26-24guage twisted pair wires, which can produce a Gigibit network at distances up to 328ft, including patch cables at both ends.

Cat 6 Cables came out only a few years after cat5e. This cable gave the ability to have a 10 Gigabit network. For much of the 2000's Cat5e was run to the workstations and Cat6 was run as a backbone from router to switches. However, the 10 Gigabit network on cat 6 cables is limited to 164' including patch cables. After that distance its ultimate speed is the same as cat 5e - 1 Gigabit. Beyond the speed / distance factor Cat 6 has a tighter twist in the cables, which helps prevent cross talk which can cripple a network. Those tighter twist, then, allows for two way communication on each pair of wires, where Cat 5e does not allow this same feature, because it would generate higher Cross talk, then resulting in further rebroadcasting of packacts.

Some other companies have challenged us and disagree with that fact. Some may argue that its the switch and computer that do the two way communication and that the cable is not responsible for this. While that is true to a degree, the cabling is very important to this process. If when the computer is attempting to negotiate its ip address with DHCP and it's link speed with the switch, the speed and performance of the cable is what determine which functions the switch can send. For example if you get a Cat 3 phone cable from the mid 90's and plug it into a gigabit switch and computer, you can not expect that the two way traffic will actually function, give the computer 1gbps speeds on cat 3 cable. The quality of your cabling has everything to do with the quality of your network performance. I have seen computers some how negotiate for a 1gbps link while on cat 3 cabling, but it will never actually do that speed because of many reasons. Just one of those reasons is that the Cat3 cabling had very little if any twist to them, which allowed so much interference on the line, that TCP/IP traffic was very difficult at any speed.

Quality cable is very important.

We have noticed that in certifying our cable installations, Cat5e cable has a tendency to have a higher delay and sku then Cat 6 cable. That means that even though both Cat5e and Cat 6 can do 1 Gigabit networks Cat5e 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. (there are some cat 6 cables on the market that are the 24 gauge) Sometimes Cat 6 will have a plastic piece in the middle of the cable that splits the pairs apart, supposable to further limit cross talk. 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 noticeable difference, even on our meters. Interestingly, cable manufactures have started to remove this part from many of their product lines, as they too have noticed no significant difference.

Cat 6a While also being 23 gauge, is considerable thicker then Cat 6, which in turn is considerable thicker then cat 5. Partly this is due to the extra thick plastic around the wires themselves, and partly do to the tighter winding of the pairs themselves, creating more copper per inch. Also, shielded Cat 6a should have sheilding around each pair of cables and around the whole set of cables, further helping it isolate EMI in your building. Cat6a will do 10 Gigabit per sec network for the full distance of Ethernet (328ft) Cat6a also reduces the cross talk 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' then Cat 6 will also give you the option for 10Gigbit 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 networks, Your limiting factor will not be the type of cable but the speed of your internet. Quite likely Cat 5e will achieve faster connections then 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 the 10Gigabit Networks.

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

We would be happy to explore the cabling options for your current for future projects. Please give us a call or email to talk about what your next cabling project is. Give a chance to price your job out. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised at our highly completive pricing.

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