Ethernet cables are used to connect a computer to a network such as the Internet. Before the introduction of WiFi, Ethernet cables were the only way to connect your computer to a network. They can also be used to connect two computers together in order to allow direct data exchange between the machines. Let’s take a closer look at these important components in our digitally connected world and find out how Ethernet cables work.
If you are looking for the Ethernet cable facts, you will find 10 tips in our Ethernet Cable Hacks Guide.
Table of contents:
- Definition - What is an Ethernet Cable?
- WiFi vs Ethernet
- How do Ethernet Cables Work?
- How to Choose Ethernet Cables
- Types of Ethernet Cables
What is an Ethernet Cable?
An Ethernet cable is a specially constructed cable that is used for data transfer. There are two main types of Ethernet cables:
- Straight-through Ethernet cables are used to connect a computer to a network router or switch.
- Crossover Ethernet cables are used to connect two computers that do not have modems to enable them to exchange data directly.
An Ethernet cable is not the same as a phone cable. Computer Ethernet cables are thicker than phone cables and are distinguished by the internal wiring of the cable. We will look more closely at Ethernet cable wiring in the next section of the article.
You may have used a phone cable to connect your computer’s modem to a phone line to create a dial-up connection, but you cannot plug an Ethernet cable into a phone line. The connections at the ends of the cable are different for Ethernet and phone cables. Since they are wired differently, you can’t use a phone cable in place of an Ethernet cable.
WiFi vs Ethernet: What network connection is the best
Currently, the two primary means of connecting a computer to a network are to use Ethernet cables or a WiFi connection. While both of these methods will allow you to create network connections there are some differences between the two methods. There are benefits and drawbacks associated with both WiFi and Ethernet cables. The factors that distinguish the two types of connectivity are:
- Enables mobile connectivity without the need for a cable allowing more flexibility in the use of the connected device.
- Some machines, particularly older ones, may not be capable of using a WiFi connection.
- WiFi connections can be subject to interference and are not always as reliable as using a cabled connection.
- Wired network connections are generally more reliable and stable than WiFi connections.
- Connecting via Ethernet cables necessarily require a wire and limits the mobility of the connected device.
- Higher throughput speeds can be achieved by using a high-speed Ethernet cable than with a WiFi connection.
- The length of an Ethernet cable can impact data loss during transmission.
Benefits of Using an Ethernet Cabled Connection
One of the questions users have when deciding which type of connection to use is whether an Ethernet cable is faster than WiFi. Using cables can offer more speed as well as some other advantages over a WiFi connection that may help you make your decision.
The speed that can be achieved with a cabled network connection is much greater than that which can be attained by using WiFi. The IEEE standard for WiFi tops out at speeds of 866.7 Mbps. Currently, Cat5e and Cat6 Ethernet cables provide speeds of 1 Gbps. Cat6a and the next generation Cat7 cables enable transmission of up to 10 Gbps. If your only concern is speed, a network created with Ethernet cables will far outperform a WiFi installation.
Signal quality can be a problem with WiFi connections. You have probably experienced the frustration of losing connectivity for no apparent reason when connected to a WiFi network. As more devices, such as those in the Internet of Things, are introduced it will only make this more of a problem in the future. Using at least Cat6 Ethernet cables provides the shielding that you need to prevent crosstalk interference.
The twisted pairs of wires that are used inside Ethernet cables create a balanced electrical field. Transmission noise is an electrical unbalance that impacts the data signal. WiFi is more susceptible to noise from microwaves and other electrical devices. If signal quality is of great importance in your network, a cabled design may be beneficial.
Using Ethernet cables also gives you more flexibility in the type of equipment that can be connected to the network. WiFi is great for the new mobile devices that have flooded the market, but there are many others that require a cabled connection. Power over Ethernet (PoE) allows power to travel over the same cable as data. This allows network control of surveillance cameras, monitoring systems, and VOIP phone systems among many other applications. Devices cannot be power through a WiFi connection.
Distance Limitations of Ethernet Cables
There are limitations on how long ethernet cables can be while still maintaining optimal data transmission.
In general, the maximum recommended length of Ethernet cables is 100 meters.
To achieve speeds of 10 Gbps with Cat6 cables, the length needs to be reduced to 55 meters. A long Ethernet cable can reduce the speed with which the transmission can occur. Shorter cables can often achieve speeds that are above the rated standard for a type of Ethernet cable.
The type and length of Ethernet cables can affect Internet speeds for connected devices. Cabling that is planned with your specific requirements in mind can go a long way toward creating a robust networking environment for all of your users.
How do Ethernet Cables Work?
Ethernet cables are wired in a specific way and conform to an Ethernet cable color code. Cables are constructed with 8 wires twisted into four pairs with a pair usually consisting of a solidly colored wire and another that is white with a colored stripe.
Two different color codes exist for Ethernet cables. The T568B scheme is the standard for most Ethernet use in the United States, especially for business purposes. T568A is followed by most European and Pacific nations as well as the United States government. The internal wiring differences make them functionally equivalent but not compatible with each other. Consistently using either standard is the key when designing and purchasing cables for your network. Here is the color standard and pinouts for the T568A and T568B standards.
How to Choose Ethernet Cables
You should choose your Ethernet cables after carefully considering their planned usage. Your data transmission speed requirements, and the environment in which the cables will be deployed. If you will be connecting computers or other equipment to a network switch or hub then you want straight-through Ethernet cables. To enable two computers without modems to communicate directly you would employ a crossover or null-modem Ethernet cable. These different cables are not compatible with each other.
You can choose to purchase pre-made cables or manufacture your own. You can purchase cables and build them to the exact length that you need them by attaching an RJ45 Ethernet cable connection at each end of the cable.
If speed will be a critical factor then you will want to go with the best cables you can fit into your infrastructure budget. You may also want to design your infrastructure to reduce the cable lengths within reason wherever possible. Cat6a will give you the fastest performance but will be more expensive than the alternatives.
The environment in which your cables will be used can be a determining factor on your choice of Ethernet cables. Most Ethernet cable is not waterproof, as it is designed for indoor use in a dry environment. There are situations where you might need to run Ethernet cables outside or in an otherwise wet location. In these cases, you will want to purchase exterior-grade or direct burial cables which afford protection from moisture.
Types of Ethernet Cables
There are 5 different types of Ethernet cables for you to choose from when designing your network. They are Cat5, Cat5e, Cat6, Cat6a, and Cat7.
Here is an overview of the differences among the various types of Ethernet cables:
Cat5 - Standing for Category 5, this is the most used type of cable and until the arrival of Cat5e was the most efficient and reliable option available. It consists of unshielded twisted pairs (UTP) of wires and has maximum data transmission speeds of 10/100 Mbps.
Cat5e - Cat5e is also a UTP cable and can reach transmission speeds of 1000 Mbps and offers better protection from electrical interference.
Cat6 - Category 6 cables increase the transmission performance of the Cat5e variety. Cat6 cable is available in both UTP and STP (shielded twisted pairs) form and is more expensive than Cat5e. Its top speed is 1000Mbps and it is more suited than Cat5e to operate in environments where they will be exposed to electrical interference.
Cat6a - Augmented Category 6 cable increases transmission speed to 10,000 Mbps and doubles the maximum bandwidth to 500 MHz.
Cat7 - Category 7, also known as Class F cables are comprised of screened, shielded twisted pairs (SSTP) of wires. Heavy insulation makes them thicker and bulkier that Cat6e cables.
The type of Ethernet cables that you use in your installation can make a big difference in the performance of your network and impact the overall utility of your digital environment. Cables are not all the same and should not be treated as a disposable and interchangeable part of your network.