What is Ethernet?
Ethernet cables and ports are used to connect your devices to the internet. Here’s what you need to know about Ethernet.
From Wi-Fi to mesh internet systems, wireless is all the rage these days. But don’t take a bolt cutter to all the wires in your house just yet. Ethernet cables are an important part of your home internet setup, and if it’s been years since you’ve checked them, they could be affecting your internet performance.
If you’re planning to upgrade to a gigabit internet plan or not getting your expected download speeds, this is what you’ll need to know about Ethernet cables and ports.
Explaining Ethernet cables
Ethernet cables are the primary way to get the internet to your computer. In most internet setups, you’ll use a short Ethernet cable to connect your modem to your Wi-Fi router. If your computer is close enough to your modem, you could also directly connect your computer to the internet with an Ethernet cable.
An Ethernet cable is physically similar to the phone cables that you might’ve used to connect a landline phone back in the day. An Ethernet cable has a wider plug head (known as an RJ45 connector) compared to a phone cable, and the body of the cable is slightly thicker.
Types of Ethernet
On the side of your Ethernet cable, you’ll find a label like Cat 5 or Cat 6 that refers to the cable’s grade and specifications. There’s a wide world of cables out there, so let’s break down the most common Ethernet cable categories:
|Ethernet cable types
|Maximum transfer speed
- Cat 5 Ethernet: Stock Cat 5 cables have slow speeds and are out of wide circulation. While it’s possible to hit gigabit speeds by tweaking your Ethernet cable’s wiring, it’s far easier to upgrade to a Cat 6 cable.
- Cat 5e Ethernet: With Cat 5e, you’ll have faster maximum download speeds compared to Cat 5, and most households will be fine if you’re already using Cat 5e cables. But if you’re upgrading to an internet plan with speeds above 1 Gbps or wiring your home for Ethernet, consider splurging on fancier cabling.
- Cat 6 Ethernet: At your local store, you’ll likely see Cat 6 cable on the shelf. Cat 6 supports transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps, so if you need a gigabit Ethernet cable, you’ll be set with Cat 6. Cat 6 cables are our pick for the best Ethernet cable type because they offer the best performance and value.
- Cat 6a Ethernet: Cat 6a cables are heavy-duty versions of Cat 6 cables designed for businesses and data centers. They’re useful if you’re doing something like running cable through a multi-story home, but you won’t need them if you’re simply connecting a TV or printer to your network.
- Cat 7 Ethernet: Cat 7 isn’t widely used, and we wouldn’t recommend it.
- Cat 8 Ethernet: Cat 8 has the fastest transfer speeds and it’s occasionally advertised as a great Ethernet cable for gaming, but it’s also overkill for most households. Cat 8 can be useful if you’re seriously future proofing your home network, but unless you live in a TikTok mansion or server farm, it’s not a must-have item.
What Ethernet cable do I need?
Now that we’ve covered the basics for Ethernet and your internet, let’s break down a few potential Ethernet cable scenarios.
My internet’s slow!
Unless your modem is using a cable that’s Cat 5 or older, your Ethernet cable isn’t the most likely culprit. (And if you’re trying to improve your internet speed for gaming, you don’t need a Cat 8 cable—your internet connection and router are going to be your biggest bottlenecks.)
Check out our slow internet guide for internet troubleshooting tips.
I need a new Ethernet cable
If you just need to connect a device to your network, get a Cat 6 cable. You won’t have to worry about upgrading for years, and Cat 6 cables are extremely affordable.
I want to wire Ethernet through my house
We’d still recommend a Cat 6 cable, but if you’re doing something like running cable through your walls, we could start to make a case for Cat 8 Ethernet.
Cat 8’s 40 Gbps maximum speed is galaxies beyond what home internet users need, and at the moment, you’ll be paying for unused performance with Cat 8. AT&T’s 5 Gbps internet plan comes the closest to hitting Cat 8’s on-paper ceiling, and it costs a bananas $180 per month.
But if you want an Ethernet option that’ll potentially keep up with rising internet speeds for the next decade—like if you’re building a house and running cable through your walls—it could be worth springing for Cat 8. Cat 8’s not as wildly expensive as it used to be, but you’ll still be paying a slight premium for Cat 8 cables compared to Cat 6.
Ethernet cables aren’t the most glamorous part of your home internet setup, but they’re still worth a look if you’re trying to maximize your internet performance.
To find the best Ethernet cable, don’t overspend on the latest and greatest tech. A Cat 6 cable will be fine for most households, and consider a Cat 8 upgrade only if you’re looking for a cable to permanently install.