Network cable guide

Ready to set up a home or small-office network? Learn how to identify every important networking cable.

Whether your setup is wired or wireless, we have the cable know-how you need for your network.

Category 5e Ethernet

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Use it for: Wired networks linking PCs, printers, and other devices

If you have a choice, select it instead of: Cat 5 and older standards; wired ethernet is still more reliable than Wi-Fi, too, especially when wireless mobility doesn't matter

It's similar in performance and use to: Wi-Fi (especially 802.11n)

It adapts to: Other ethernet versions

Add more ports by: Adding a switch or router to a network; installing an internal PC card on a computer

The latest, most widely used ethernet cable supports up to gigabit ethernet connections (as fast as the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard), but you can use it on slower networks, too. (You're unlikely to own consumer hardware that exceeds gigabit speeds anyway.) Cat 5e cabling replaces Cat 5 and is slightly slower than Cat 6. Most ethernet cables use an 8P8C end, which looks similar to a phone plug but is slightly bigger and has more pins.

Legacy Wi-Fi (aka 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11a)

193829-wifirouter_original

Use it for: Wireless-only networks (or bridging wireless networks to wired PCs), phones, PDAs, MP3 players, nearly all laptops

If you have a choice, select it instead of: Bluetooth, wired ethernet (when mobility is more valuable than speed)

It's similar in performance and use to: Wired ethernet

It adapts to: Other Wi-Fi variants

Add more connections by: Installing a wireless PC card or router (PC cards will talk to one other device or network at a time, while routers can network dozens)

Though 802.11n maintains compatibility with older wireless standards, in such a setup the network must operate at the slower, older speeds for all connected devices. ("Dual-band" routers can isolate the old gear on its own wireless radio so that you don't have this drawback.) 802.11b is noticeably slower when transferring local files, while the other variants of Wi-Fi approach speeds similar to those of wired ethernet.

802.11n Wi-Fi

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Use it for: Wireless-only networks (or bridging wireless networks to wired PCs), phones, PDAs, MP3 players, nearly all laptops

If you have a choice, select it instead of: Legacy Wi-Fi, wired ethernet (when mobility is more valuable than speed)

It's similar in performance and use to: Wired ethernet

It adapts to: Other Wi-Fi variants

Add more connections by: Installing a wireless PC card or router (PC cards will talk to one other device or network at a time, while routers can network dozens)

Though the actual 802.11n standard is still being finalized, compatible hardware is already common. Theoretically, once the standard is complete, you'll be able to update draft-standard equipment through firmware. 802.11n improves in speed and general performance over legacy Wi-Fi standards.

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