Computer cables are overwhelming. There are so many standards, acronyms, and terms to know. Do you need IDE or SATA for your hard drive? What’s the differences between USB Type A, Type B, and Type C? Are DisplayPort and Thunderbolt the same thing?
In the end, consumers like you and me are left on our own to learn all the different cable types. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single source of information that highlighted the important details between different types of computer cables?
You’ve come to the right place. Here’s an overview of the most common computer cable connector types you might find around your home.
USB (Universal Serial Bus)
The USB connection is the most ubiquitous of all computer connector types in the world. Nearly every computer peripheral device—keyboards, mice, headsets, flash drives, wireless adapters, and such—can be connected to a computer through a USB port.
USB keeps evolving, which means there are multiple USB versions:
- USB 1.0 can transmit data at speeds up to 1.5 MB/s.
- USB 2.0 can transmit data at speeds up to 60 MB/s and is compatible with older versions of USB.
- USB 3.0 can transmit data at speeds up to 625 MB/s. It is compatible with previous versions of USB.
- USB 3.1 can transmit data at speeds up to 1.25 GB/s. It is compatible with previous versions of USB. At the time of this article, USB 3.1 is the most common type found in the market.
- USB 3.2 can transmit data at speeds up to 2.5 GB/s, but only when using a USB-C connection. It is compatible with previous versions of USB.
- USB 4.x is a future specification that will transmit data at speeds up to 5 GB/s, but only when using a USB-C connection. It will release in mid-2019 and will be compatible with USB 3.2 and USB 2.0.
There are also several “shapes” for USB connections:
- Type A supports USB 1.0, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1.
- Type B supports USB 1.0, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1.
- Type C (i.e. USB-C) supports USB 3.1, USB 3.2, USB 4.x.
- Mini supports USB 2.0.
- Micro supports USB 2.0.
Note: If you buy an adapter from one USB type to another, the data transfer rate will be limited by the slowest connection between the two endpoints and the two devices that are connected together.
Note: The Mini-USB and Micro-USB variants are most often used with smaller, portable devices like PDAs, phones, and digital cameras. The standard USB connectors are more often used on devices that tend to remain plugged in, like external hard drives, keyboards, and mice.
HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface)
High-definition broadcasts are now the standard for high-quality video. Unlike VGA and DVI, which only transmit video signals, HDMI sends both video and audio signals together. These signals are digital; thus, HDMI is only compatible with newer devices. (Learn more about video cable types!)
HDMI connections come in five types:
- Type A is the most popular. This connector can be identified by its 19 pins on the male head. Type A is compatible with single-link DVI-D connections.
- Type B is larger than Type A, coming in at 29 pins on the male head. Type B is compatible with dual-link DVI-D connections. You won’t see this type often, if ever.
- Type C (Mini) is a 19-pin connector that’s most often used with portable devices, like camcorders and digital cameras.
- Type D (Micro) also has 19 pins and looks similar to a Micro-USB cable. It’s mostly used for mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.
- Type E is much larger with a locking mechanism. It’s mainly used in automotive applications.
Like HDMI, DisplayPort is a media interface that transmits both video and audio signals together and was designed to replace VGA and DVI. These days, DisplayPort is mainly used to connect devices (e.g. a computer) to monitors, so you’ll only see it among other monitor cable types.
There are multiple versions of DisplayPort, but all DisplayPort cables are compatible with all DisplayPort devices. The speed will be limited by the lowest version of DisplayPort supported between the device and cable. Look for these DisplayPort cable certifications:
- RBR (Reduced Bit Rate): Up to 810 MB/s.
- HBR (High Bit Rate): Up to 1,350 MB/s.
- HBR2 (High Bit Rate 2): Up to 2,700 MB/s.
- HBR3 (High Bit Rate 3): Up to 4,050 MB/s.
DisplayPort is compatible with HDMI and USB using adapters. There is also Mini DisplayPort, which was mainly used in older Apple devices released before 2011.
Thunderbolt cables are designed to connect external devices to a computer. They’re mainly used in Apple devices released 2011 and later.
Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 cables use the same connector as Mini DisplayPort, and all Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 connections are compatible with Mini DisplayPort connections.
Thunderbolt 3 cables use the same connector as USB-C, and all Thunderbolt 3 connections are compatible with USB-C connections. Thunderbolt 3 is also compatible with Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 using adapters.
VGA (Video Graphics Array)
Created way back in the 1980s, the VGA connection cable is one of the oldest computer monitor cable types. It’s an analog video signal cable, so it has faded out of popularity due to world’s shift toward digital video signals. Still, if you look on any video card or display apparatus, there is a good chance you’ll see a VGA port.
VGA connections can be identified by 15 pins arranged in 3 rows with 5 on each row. Each row corresponds to the 3 different color channels used in display: red, green, and blue.
DVI (Digital Visual Interface)
The DVI connection succeeded VGA in the 2000s as video technology moved from analog to digital. Digital displays, like LCD, proved to be higher quality and eventually became the market standard for video devices (at the time).
DVI connections come in three types:
- DVI-A can transmit analog signals, allowing it to be backwards compatible with VGA (useful for CRT monitors and older LCD monitors).
- DVI-D can transmit newer digital signals.
- DVI-I is capable of both analog and digital. In certain cases, you may need a VGA-to-DVI or DVI-to-VGA converter cable.
DVI has largely fallen out of use, having been replaced by more modern monitor cord types like HDMI, DisplayPort, and Thunderbolt.
IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics)
IDE cables were used to connect storage devices to a motherboard. If you’ve ever opened up a an old hard drive then you likely know what an IDE connector looks like: it’s the wide cable that looks like a ribbon with more than 2 plugs.
The connectors on an IDE cable have 40 pins; the smaller 2.5-inch drive variety uses a form-factor version of the IDE that has 44 pins.
SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment)
Newer hard drives mainly prefer SATA ports over IDE ports. In fact, SATA was designed to succeed IDE, and it has. Compared to IDE, SATA provides higher data transfer speeds. Your motherboard needs to be compatible with SATA these days; fortunately, most of them are.
A standard SATA cable can be identified by two connectors, each having 7 pins and an empty notch. It looks like an L-shape.
eSATA (External SATA)
eSATA technology is an extension of, or improvement on, the SATA cable—it makes SATA technology available in an external form. In reality, eSATA isn’t much different than SATA, but it allows connections to devices like external hard drives and external optical drives. However, eSATA has fallen out of popularity due to advancements in USB speeds.
Ethernet cables are used to set up local area networks. In most cases, they’re used to connect routers to modems and computers, though you can also connect two devices directly by using a cross-over Ethernet cable.
If you’ve ever tried to install or fix a home Wi-Fi router, you’ve likely dealt with an Ethernet computer cable. It looks unique so it’s easy to distinguish from different types of cables.
Nowadays, Ethernet cables come in several varieties:
- 10BASE-T Ethernet is the oldest and most basic type and supports data speeds up to 1.25 MB/s.
- 100BASE-TX Ethernet (i.e. Fast Ethernet) is also an older variety of Ethernet that supports data speeds up to 12.5 MB/s.
- 1000BASE-T Ethernet (i.e. Gigabit Ethernet) is the most common type of Ethernet used in homes as of this writing. It supports data speeds up to 125 MB/s.
- 10GBASE-T Ethernet (i.e. 10 Gigabit Ethernet) uses Cat6 wiring (as opposed to Cat5 or Cat5e in previous versions) to support data speeds up to 1.25 GB/s.
Note: There are even faster varieties of Ethernet, all the way up to Terabit Ethernet, but they aren’t for household use yet so you won’t run into them.
That should cover it! The computer cord types in this article comprise 99% of all cables you’re likely to find lying around in your home.