Ethernet cables, often referred to simply as network cables, are an essential piece of hardware for desktop computers, servers, printers, and other computer or electronic equipment that needs to be directly connected to a modem or a router. Ethernet cables provide a direct connection to a local network, to the internet, or simply to another computer or piece of computer equipment. Only certain types of ethernet cables, known as crossover cables, will provide a connection between two computers or similar devices.
In homes, ethernet cables are used to provide internet connectivity to desktop computers and video game systems, though many newer desktop PCs and video game systems can connect to networks wirelessly, either via a wireless signal or even via Bluetooth. In commercial setups, ethernet cables are almost always the preferred connection type, since they provide more stability and security than wireless connections.
The great thing about ethernet cables is that they are available in varying lengths, and couplers can be used to connect multiple cables together end-to-end, though this is not a recommendation as a long-term solution due to signal degrading.
There are three common types of ethernet cables: CAT5, CAT5e (often referred to simply as CATe), and CAT6. All three can be used interchangeably in structured cabling to connect devices to networks, and will carry signals throughout a network, but each one offers different features from the rest:
CAT5 is the gold standard type of ethernet cable. It supports both 10BASE-T and 100BASE-T networks, and can provide connectivity for 10MBPS as well as 100MBPS speeds. CAT5 can handle bandwidth speeds up to 100Mhz.
CAT5e is the upgraded form of CAT5. It does everything that CAT5 does, but it also provides support for 1000BASE-T (known as gigabit ethernet) as well as connectivity for 1000MBPS speeds, and bandwidth speeds up to 350Mhz. Additionally, CAT5e cables have been designed to not "bleed" any signals or data from one cable to another that is physically nearby, so slowed down speeds or network congestion due to crossed signals (known as "crosstalk") is no longer an issue.
CAT6 is the newest type of ethernet cable on the block, but not necessarily the best. The primary difference between it and CAT5e is that CAT6 has been officially "certified" as being able to handle gigabit internet connectivity, whereas CAT5e has not, though it has been physically designed to handle it. All that's missing from CAT5e is the official certification, though CAT6 also offers more resistance to signal and electrical interference from nearby network lines, power lines, and equipment.
Cost-wise, CAT5 may be the oldest type of ethernet cable out of these three, but it's guaranteed to work and be backwards compatibility, and is incredibly cost effective. If you're concerned about signals crossing and subsequent network speed and efficiency issues, then you may wish to consider the slight price increase incurred by upgrading to CAT5e. However, CAT6e should only be considered if you need seriously rugged cable that will prevent any interference from other networking and electrical equipment, and/or if you are in need of certified gigabit data handling speeds. But if you're wanting to jump to gigabit speeds, keep in mind that all other networking equipment on your home or business network must be gigabit-ready and certified as being able to handle gigabit in order for your network to receive a true gigabit connection.