– What is the difference between CAT5 and CAT6?

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Is it really just speed? Can I use CAT5 if it calls for CAT6?

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Its not even speed. It is distance. Both cables are capable of 1000mbs, but the distance of cat6 maintaining 1000mbs is so reliable that it can be certified to guarantee 1000mbs for 330 ft. Cat5 cannot be certified for 1000mbs, but you can get 1000 mbs if the run is less than 90 ft or so. Cat5 can be certified to 100mbs at 330ft.

There are specifications for the impedance, attenuation, crosstalk, radiation, etc. And the Cat 5 is more relaxed in these specifications then Cat 5e or Cat 6. Most notably Cat 5 and 5e is tested to 100MHz while Cat 6 is tested to 250MHz. If some equipment requires that you use a Cat 6 cable it means that if you have a cable that meet the Cat 6 specifications they guarantee that it will work. However even though a Cat 5e cable is not certified for Cat 6 it can still meet this specifications in favorable conditions. And even more so equipment which require Cat 6 might have better tolerances for noise and crosstalk then the Cat 6 cables guarantee and your cable might therefore meet the requirements for the equipment even if not the Cat 6 standard itself.

So in short, Cat 5e cables will normally work where Cat 6 cables are required. However it might not.

CAT6 wire is better insulated from interference than CAT5, meaning signals can travel further in a CAT6 cable than they can in a CAT5 cable. Usually a short CAT5 cable will work in high bandwidth applications, but if you are doing something really high bandwidth or long distance, you should use the better CAT6 cable. If you are doing home networking, CAT5 cable will generally work for gigabit ethernet over the lengths you would expect to have inside your house. If you are going more than 100ft, you will definitely want a higher grade cable.