Updated April 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for Best Ethernet cables

It seems like everything has gone wireless these days, but there’s still a humble workhorse powering the connected world: the Ethernet cable. Introduced in the mid-1970s, these cables helped to speed the internet revolution and shift society firmly into the information age.

Look between your internet gateway and your WiFi router and you’ll see an Ethernet cable in use at this moment. If you’re using an older, non-wireless-capable printer, there’s a good chance you're using one of these cables to connect it to your PC. An Ethernet cable provides a direct and much more secure connection between devices like computers, printers, servers, and more. Communication via Ethernet cables is super fast. That’s why they are such an important part of the computing world.

Let’s get familiar with the capabilities of these cables and see why it’s a good idea to have a couple on hand at any time.

ethernet cable
The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers IEEE) sets the standards for Ethernet cable. IEEE 802.3 is the working standard that defines Ethernet and how it is used.

How to buy the best Ethernet cable

The best Ethernet cable is the right Ethernet cable. Consider where and how you’ll be using it and then compare the capabilities of available models.

How do you plan to use it?

Ethernet cables are used to connect devices that handle many tasks, such as transferring data between servers in different locations. In the home, they’re most commonly used to connect WiFi routers to internet routers or gateways, connect a PC to a printer, and network multiple devices directly through a wired rather than wireless configuration.

Why does the Cat rating matter?

A Cat rating shows the bandwidth and data transmission speed an Ethernet cable is capable of. “Cat” just means “category.” The important part is the number: 5, 5e, 6, 6a, 7, 7a, or 8. The higher the number, the faster the speed.

Cat 5 cables have the slowest and lowest capability, but that doesn’t mean they’re a poor choice. They can still handle download speeds up to 100 million bits per second (Mbps) and bandwidth up to 100 megahertz (MHz). That’s fine for households with internet download speeds between 25 Mbps and 75 Mbps. Cat 5 has been phased out of almost all commercial networking environments, however.

Cat 5e cables (the “e” is for “enhanced'') handle data transmission speeds up to 1,000 Mbps, but they still only handle bandwidth up to 100 MHz.

Cat 6 is also rated for data transmission up to 1,000 Mbps, but its bandwidth capacity is more than double at 250 MHz. And Cat 6a (the “a” is for “augmented”), the current workhorse for office networking, boosts those numbers to 10,000 Mbps and 500 MHz.

Cat 7, 7a, and 8 were developed with bandwidth in mind. While both 7 and 7a ratings have data transmission speeds of 10,000 Mbps, they boast bandwidth capacities of 600 MHz and 1,000 MHz, respectively. And the newest category 8 supports up to 25/40 billion bits per second (Gbps). They’re ideal for high-speed networking and cloud server environments that handle a lot of data. And we mean a lot: think of the capacity needs of a huge multiplayer gaming environment at 9 pm on a Saturday night. These ultra-high-capacity Ethernet cables are helping to shift all of that data to where it needs to be in millionths and trillionths of a second.

What’s your internet speed?

Most homes and apartments have access to internet speeds of 1 Gbps or less. Major internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon offer speed packages in set increments like 50 Mbps, 150 Mbps, 500 Mbps, and 1 Gbps (and the latter speeds aren’t available in all areas). Some providers, such as DirecTV, which provides internet via satellite to rural areas, only offer 25 Mbps.

Internet speed and bandwidth put the largest workload on Ethernet cables used by consumers. So you want to make sure the cable connecting your gateway and router is rated to easily meet that speed. But you won’t need the massive bandwidth capacity that a Cat 7 cable offers.

Do you need a secure, fast connection between devices?

Users who are (understandably) nervous about connecting their devices via WiFi can use an Ethernet cable to connect many of those devices instead. The most common use is to connect a printer to a PC.

While USB connectors are rapidly replacing Ethernet cables in direct-connect scenarios, these cables still play a role when building a wired home network. They provide faster data transmission than USB cables over longer distances.

What is an Ethernet patch cable?

Patch cables are short lengths of cable, usually less than 6 feet, that directly connect one powered device to another. For example, the short length of Ethernet cable connecting your gateway and router is a patch cable. Another example is if you decide to connect your Xbox console directly to a wired router so your gaming session has the best connectivity possible. That length of Ethernet cable is a patch cable. These can be temporary connections or longer term, but they are different from structured Ethernet cable setups, such as the cable that runs to a wall port so users can connect to a local network.

One of the great things about Ethernet cables is that in a pinch you can use older, slower cables as patch cables. Speed and performance for a Cat 5 cable won’t be the same as a Cat 6a, but you’ll get the connection you need right away.

Choosing the right cable length

You don’t have to buy a big spool of Ethernet cable. It’s available in several commonly used lengths, such as 2, 4, 6, and 8 feet. Measure the distance between the devices you plan to connect and choose a cable that’s long enough to meet that distance plus a little slack. For example, if the measured length is 3.6 feet, order a 4-foot cable.

If you’re building a network for your home or office, longer cables are available. Keep in mind that data speeds and performance drop dramatically in Ethernet cables longer than 180 feet (55 meters), and their limit for data transmission is about 328 feet (100 meters).

Stick to a “Goldilocks” rating. That’s the Cat rating that is just right for your specific network needs. Too fast and you’re wasting money; too slow and performance suffers.

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What are the features of Ethernet cables?

Backward compatibility

All Ethernet cables can be used interchangeably regardless of their Cat rating, in most cases. If a Cat 6a cable fails and all you have on hand is a Cat 5e, that should be fine for short-term connectivity. Performance will drop, but you’ll still have a network connection.

Shielded vs. unshielded

Lower cable ratings 5, 5e, 6, and 6a can be found with unshielded or shielded options. For shorter connections, an unshielded Ethernet cable is okay, and it can save you money. On longer cable runs, shielded or shield twisted pair (STP) cable is recommended because it reduces or prevents electromagnetic interference (EMI) from degrading the cable’s performance.

RJ45 connectors

One reason that Ethernet cables have great backward compatibility is that they almost all use the same connector at both ends: the venerable RJ45. This eight-pin plug hasn’t changed a bit over the years, and all Ethernet-ready devices have an RJ45 jack (or port) that the cable can be plugged into. The exceptions are Cat 7 and higher cables, which use a GG45 connector, but this plug is still backward compatible with RJ45 jacks.

ethernet cables
DID YOU KNOW?
Ethernet cable was developed almost 50 years ago and is still an essential partner to all the high-speed, high-capacity computing developments since then.
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How much do Ethernet cables cost?

The price of these cables varies depending on CAT rating and length.

Inexpensive

Cat 5 and 6 cables are the most economical choices, running between $3 and $10 for lengths up to 8 feet.

Mid-range

For $11 to $16, you can find Cat 5, 6, and 6a cables in varying lengths from a few feet of shielded cable to several feet of unshielded.

Expensive

You’ll find high-performance Cat 6, 7, and 8 shielded cables in the $17 to $35 range, including cable that is rated for outdoor installation.

Don’t worry about Ethernet cable colors. Unless you’re using a bunch of patch cables in a server setup and need to keep track of where they go, the exterior cable insulation color doesn’t mean anything.

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Tips

  • Tuck cables out of sight. Not only does it prevent a tripping hazard, but it also protects the cable from damage from sunlight.
  • Stick with the right Cat rating. Ethernet cables with a rating of Cat 6 or higher are more than capable of handling today’s gigabit data speeds.
  • Replace older cables. A Cat 5 cable could deteriorate faster due to heat issues when handling high-bandwidth rates.
  • Don’t use a frayed Ethernet cable. While electric shock or fire probably isn’t an issue, performance degrades dramatically if the exterior insulation is damaged.
  • Change the cable to fix connection issues. If you can’t surf even though the router is working, swap the Ethernet cable for a new one to see if that fixes the problem.
ethernet cable
Distance matters. After 108 to 180 feet (33 to 55 meters), data transmission speed on Cat 6 Ethernet cables drops to 10 Gbps. It’s worse for Cat 7, which loses its hyper-fast speeds at just 49 feet (15 meters).

FAQ

Q. How do I shorten an Ethernet cable?

A. Crimping and splicing tools are available at electronics supply stores. They’re a good choice if you’re setting up a wired home network with various distances between connection points or devices. Measure the length of the cable you need, cut it, expose half an inch of internal wiring, and use the splicing tool to attach the wiring to an RJ45 Ethernet plug in the correct order. That sounds complicated, but there are plenty of online videos that can walk you through the process.

Q. Do all Ethernet cables fit the same?

A. Yes, all Ethernet cables use RJ45 plugs that fit the corresponding Ethernet ports in devices that have Ethernet capability. The distinctive square ports are easy to identify, and unlike USB plugs, you won’t waste time trying to figure out which end is up, because there’s a small plastic clip on the bottom of each plug that helps hold the connector in the jack.

Q. How do I know what type of Ethernet cable I have?

A.  If you’ve lost the packaging for your cable, look at the cable itself. The Cat rating is printed along the exterior of the cable every few inches. This is a standard feature on Ethernet cables so that network engineers can quickly identify the type of cable they’re using. Note that the color of the cable has no relation to its Cat rating. Always check what’s printed on the cable.

Q. Is Ethernet faster than WiFi?

A. Yes, it is. However, Ethernet cables that are plugged into a WiFi router will only work at the same speed as the router. They can’t go any faster. Another option is to plug the cable into the internet gateway (if it’s a separate component from the router), which might slightly increase the download and upload speeds. Basically, your speed is limited by the bandwidth you subscribed to from your internet provider and the capabilities of the gateway and router setup you’re using, not the Ethernet cable.

Q. Do Ethernet cables go bad?

A. Yes, they do! Ethernet cables last a surprisingly long time (I still have a few Cat 5 cables from the 1990s tucked away in a drawer), but they can fail for several reasons. Water damage, excessive exposure to sunlight, excessive heat, and other extreme conditions will break down the insulation or cause a fault in the cabling. One spot that fails more often is at the RJ45 connector, which is spliced to the cable’s internal wiring bundle. Two types of metal meet at the connection point, making it a prime target for oxidation of the contacts. You can replace the connector if you have a splicing tool, but if it’s just a short patch cable, it’s much less aggravating to just replace the whole thing.

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