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Most computers and electronic devices have some form of USB connection, and many devices also come packaged with a USB cable. What are all these different cables for and does it matter which one you use?

For now, yes it does matter. This may change in the near future.

Universal Serial Bus (USB) is an industry standard developed in the mid-1990s to standardize the connection of computer peripherals to computers. It replaced a number of earlier interfaces and is now the most popular connector type for consumer devices.

But it can be somewhat complicated to wrap your head around. Here’s everything you need to know about the USB standard in terms of cable availability.

The Many Types of USB

If USB is supposed to be universal, why are there so many different types? Well, they each serve different functions, mainly to keep compatibility when newer deviceswith better specs are released. Here are the most common types of USB.

Type-A: Most cables have a type-A connector on one end, most peripherals (such as keyboards and mice) have a type-A connector, personal computers usually have multiple type-A ports, and many other devices and power adapters use a type-A port for data transfers and/or charging.

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Type-B: An almost square connector, mostly used for printers and other powered devices that connect to a computer. They’re much less common than type-A these days so we’re not going to worry about them here.

Various USB connection types

Mini-USB: The standard connector type for mobile devices before the micro-USB type came along. As its name suggests, mini-USB is smaller than regular USB, and is still used in some cameras that have non-standard connectors.

Micro-USB: The current standard for mobile and portable devices. It has been adopted by virtually every manufacturer except Apple.

Type-C: A reversible cable that promises higher transfer rates and more power than previous USB types. It’s increasingly being adopted as the standard for laptops and even some phones and tablets. It has even been embraced by Apple for Thunderbolt 3 Thunderbolt 3: What It Is & Why You Need to Start Using It Thunderbolt 3: What It Is & Why You Need to Start Using It Thunderbolt 3 may just be the only device cable you need to know about anymore. It's so awesome that it's making everything else obsolete. Here's what you need to know. Read More . More on USB-C at the end of this article.

usb-c

Lightning: Not a USB standard but Apple’s proprietary connector for iPads and iPhones. It’s a similar size to micro-USB and is compatible with all Apple devices made after September 2012. Older Apple devices use a different and much larger proprietary connector (both pictured below).

What About USB 3?

The latest USB standard offers faster transfer rates and is, for the most part, backwards-compatible with earlier versions of USB. Standard-A connectors are identical to the Type-A connectors of previous versions, but are usually colored blue to distinguish them.

They are fully backwards-compatible but the increased speeds are only available when all components are USB 3 compatible.

USB 3.0 micro cable

USB 3 Standard-B and micro versions (pictured above) have extra pins to allow the increased transfer speeds, and are therefore not compatible with previous versions. Older Type-B and micro-B cables can be used in USB 3 ports but won’t get the increased speed.

In general, the cables you’ll use the most, and therefore need to replace, are micro-USB, Lightning, and USB-C.

The Nuances of Micro-USB

If you have an Android phone or tablet, you definitely have a micro-USB cable. Even the most diehard Apple fans can’t avoid them as micro-USB is the most common connector type for things like external power packs, speakers, etc.

If you buy a lot of gadgets, you may find that you collect a bunch of these over time, and since they’re generally inter-changeable, you may never need to buy one separately — unless you keep losing them or breaking them.

When buying a micro-USB cable, it can be tempting to just pick the cheapest option, but, as is often the case, this is a bad idea. Cables made with poor quality control can break easily, and a slightly broken charge cable is pretty much useless as far as device charging goes.

Save yourself the headache and go for a quality product from a recognized manufacturer. The small difference in price is worth it.

micro-usb-charge-phone

Another thing to think about is cable length. Short cables are great for portability, but that can leave you sitting on the floor next to a power outlet as it charges. Too long a cable can be inconvenient to carry, will tangle more easily, and potentially be a tripping hazard.

Three feet is a good length for a charging cable. This allows you to keep your phone in your hand while connected to a battery in your bag or pocket, ideal for playing Pokemon Go 10 Pokemon Go Tips that Every Beginner Needs To Know 10 Pokemon Go Tips that Every Beginner Needs To Know Pokemon Go can be a little daunting if you're just getting started, so we've made a list of 10 things you need to know to be the very best! Read More , or just using your phone while traveling for long periods.

Ultimately, the length of cable you need depends on your own circumstances and preferences, but this five-pack of different-length cables from Anker should suit most people’s needs. Anker has a well-deserved reputation for quality products at reasonable prices and great customer service.

Anker [5-Pack] PowerLine Micro USB - Durable Charging Cable [Assorted Lengths] for Samsung, Nexus, LG, Android Smartphones and More (Black) Anker [5-Pack] PowerLine Micro USB - Durable Charging Cable [Assorted Lengths] for Samsung, Nexus, LG, Android Smartphones and More (Black) The Anker Advantage: Join the 10 million+ powered by our leading technology. Buy Now At Amazon $10.99

If you’re always looking for a charging point but concerned about security, or you find that your devices charge slowly when connected to some chargers, a charge-only cable like this one from PortaPow may be a good idea.

This prevents your phone from making a data connection with the computer you connect to and may allow for a faster charge.

PortaPow Specialised 5ft 20AWG Charge Only Micro USB Cable for Blackberry, OnePlus One, HTC One, Google Nexus, Asus Transformer, Dell Venue, Other Fast Charging Devices ... PortaPow Specialised 5ft 20AWG Charge Only Micro USB Cable for Blackberry, OnePlus One, HTC One, Google Nexus, Asus Transformer, Dell Venue, Other Fast Charging Devices ... Uses 20AWG copper cable for lower resistance and faster charging than a budget micro USB cable. Buy Now At Amazon $7.74

An alternative is an adapter that disables data transfer and can be used with any of your existing cables.

One of the perpetual annoyances with USB cables (at least prior to the USB-C standard) is that the connectors are not reversible, meaning it often takes two (or even three!) attempts to plug in a cable.

Reversible Braided Micro USB Cable, BlitzWolf 3ft Double Sided Plugable USB Micro B Charger and Data Cord for Android Phone, Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, Note 5 Edge, HTC M9, Xperia Z3 Z2, Moto X (Red) Reversible Braided Micro USB Cable, BlitzWolf 3ft Double Sided Plugable USB Micro B Charger and Data Cord for Android Phone, Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, Note 5 Edge, HTC M9, Xperia Z3 Z2, Moto X (Red) [Reversible for Both Heads] Leading double sided USB plug and micro plug, allow you to plug it in like an Apple cable, no need to recognize up side and down side. Buy Now At Amazon $7.99

Some manufacturers have attempted to fix this, and this BlitzWolf cable is reversible at both ends. No more fumbling in the dark! While it’s well-reviewed, the manufacturer does warn that it may not work with every device.

What Is USB On-The-Go?

USB On-The-Go (OTG) is a relatively new standard that allows mobile and portable devices to act as USB hosts.

Let’s say you have an external drive, a smartphone, and a laptop. What do you have to do if you want to move files from the external drive to the smartphone? The most straightforward method is to move files from the external drive to the laptop, then from the laptop to the smartphone.

With USB OTG, the smartphone can actually host the external drive, thus bypassing the need for the laptop altogether. And that’s not all! There are tons of other ways to make use of USB OTG What Is USB OTG? 5 Cool Ways to Use It on Android What Is USB OTG? 5 Cool Ways to Use It on Android USB OTG allows you to connect any USB device to your Android smartphone or tablet. There are so many possibilities! Read More .

Ugreen Micro USB 2.0 OTG Cable On The Go Adapter Male Micro USB to Female USB for Samusung S7 S6 Edge S4 S3 Android or Windows Smart Phones Tablets with OTG Function 6 Inch (Black) Ugreen Micro USB 2.0 OTG Cable On The Go Adapter Male Micro USB to Female USB for Samusung S7 S6 Edge S4 S3 Android or Windows Smart Phones Tablets with OTG Function 6 Inch (Black) The most practical&necessary on the go micro usb cable: Enabled android or windows micro usb phones or tablets work as PC host by connect female usb connector devices such as keyboard,game controller,flash drives,SD/TF card reader,wireless mice and more Buy Now At Amazon $4.79

Think you’d benefit from a USB OTG connection? This adapter from Ugreen is popular and well-reviewed, making it a great option for first timers. Not all devices support OTG so check your manual or download USB OTG Checker.

Lightning equivalents exist but are unsupported and only seem to work with some devices.

What Is USB-C?

USB-C is an emerging standard and promises to be all things to all people. It’s smaller, it’s reversible, it’s fast and it can both receive and provide a lot more power than previous versions of USB.

Apple shocked the world last year when they unveiled a new MacBook with a single USB-C port Should the New MacBook's Single Port Scare You Away? Should the New MacBook's Single Port Scare You Away? Apple recently revealed the new MacBook, and it's a jaw-dropper — but it also has only a single port. Was this a blunder, or a sign of the future? Read More and nothing else. That’s likely to be the beginning of a trend.

While there are already several devices you can connect to a USB-C port What Can You Shove In a USB C Port? What Can You Shove In a USB C Port? Look closely at the ports on your laptop. If you bought one in the past year, you'll notice a tiny, rectangular port you've probably never used. That's the USB C port. Read More , right now the best way to get started is with a USB-A to USB-C adapter like this one from iXCC.

iXCC USB Type C to USB 3.0 Type A Adapter, Charge and Sync Cable, On The Go (OTG Host Cable) for Type-C Supported Devices (6 Inch) iXCC USB Type C to USB 3.0 Type A Adapter, Charge and Sync Cable, On The Go (OTG Host Cable) for Type-C Supported Devices (6 Inch) USB Type C Male to USB Type A Female Adapter allows you to connect your flash drive, keyboard, mouse, or other standard USB-A devices to a USB-C enabled device. Buy Now At Amazon $6.99

The advice about avoiding the cheapest option applies even more to USB-C. Due to the higher power throughput, a faulty cable can destroy your devices or even cause a fire, so make sure you buy a trustworthy USB-C cable How to Buy a USB-C Cable That Won't Destroy Your Devices How to Buy a USB-C Cable That Won't Destroy Your Devices A few months ago, Amazon banned USB-C cables that did not meet the standards set forth by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), and for good reason: such cables are prone to failure, can damage connected... Read More !

What’s your go-to brand for cables? Are there any other cable types that you consider essential? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credit: USB cable types by iunewind via Shutterstock, USB-C (Type-C) port by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr, Micro-USB 3 cable by TomeK K. via Shutterstock, Smartphone Charging via Shutterstock

  1. Carl
    November 19, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Hi
    I've just bought the New smartphone UMI PLUS. It comes with a Type C, USB connector, but it's Bigger than other type C connectors, Its unique, and not seen on other mobile phone , i've had before. Could you tell what is the description is exactly ? Does it has a specific number etc. If I should need to replace this USB lead at some time in future ?
    Please email back your comments
    Thanks
    Carl

    • Derek Walsh
      November 21, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      From what I can find out, the UMi Plus uses a non-standard cable. If looking for a replacement, you'll need to source one that's either made by the same manufacturer, or made specifically for that phone.

  2. Read and Share
    August 6, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    Would be lovely if USB / microUSB can replace HDMI / microHDMI some day...

    • Derek Walsh
      August 7, 2016 at 3:24 pm

      That's certainly a possibility. Some USB-C devices are compatible with HDMI, and as the standards settle down and TVs start to include USB-C ports, it's possible you won't need a HDMI cable at all.

  3. Raish
    August 5, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Good article. Recently bought a one plus 3 phone and it has usb-c connection. Brilliant!

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