Cables Adapters and Ports, Oh My!

USB-C has gone from interesting to important.
— The Wirecutter (NY Times)
Handy USB ports on a crosstown bus

Handy USB ports on a crosstown bus

Escaping the heat, I rode one of the new SBS buses that feature USB ports--snag the right seat and you can charge your phone as you travel! Of course, you must have the right cable with you.  If you’ve ever tried to connect one electronic device to another, you have encountered the alphabet soup of cables, adapters and ports: USB-A, B, C, 2, 3, 3.1; Thunderbolt, Firewire, Ethernet, HDMI, Lightning, DisplayPort, etc.

For many years, it has been confusing and expensive to keep your old stuff working with your new stuff when the standards keep evolving and individual adapters can run $69+. Ouch! 

Why is it so complicated? Because connectors keep shrinking to fit smaller devices, and evolving for faster speeds and greater capabilities. Recently, many manufacturers have opted for the relatively new USB-C standard as a replacement for all others, including the power cord.

    Lots of articles will help you figure out which cable/adapter to buy for which equipment, but it’s easier to shop (without getting ripped off) if you know what you are looking for! Below, a visual primer to help you identify a few key types of connectors and ports.  For a more exhaustive list (if you are trying to identify ports on an older computer or device, for example), see here.

    A Visual Primer: Ports and Connectors

    The basics

    Many cables have one connection type at one end and a different type at the other.  And many connectors have a right side up, so they can only be inserted one way; newer types like USB C and Lightning are reversible.

    A port is the hole a connector gets plugged in to. Here, for example, are the many ports on an older Mac:


    USB (the U is for Universal) a decades-old standard used by BILLIONS of electronics, comes in different types (e.g., A, B, micro) and speeds (USB 2.0, 3.0, etc.).  USB 3.0 for example can transmit data TEN TIMES FASTER than the older 2.0 standard, so if you have a computer that supports it, buy USB 3.0 devices and cables. (They'll work with older USB 2.0 ports and devices, they just won't be as fast).  How do you tell? The symbols and shape are different, and USB 3.0 connectors are often blue inside. Here's a summary chart, followed by a closer look.

    The basic shapes of USB ports and connectors. Note the different symbols, too.

    USB type A, or plain ol’ USB
    Most common type; when someone says "a USB port" they generally mean this rectangular shape.  Usually  “male” (sticks out) but can also be “female” (receptacle).  (Yes, I'm not making that up).

    USB type B (2.0)
    Squarish. Most commonly used for basic printers, so cables with one end like this and one type A, like the one pictured to the right, are often referred to as printer cables.  Note that these have a definite "up" side, where the corners are cut off.

    usb C.jpg

    USB type C
    The newest, and swiftly becoming ubiquitous.  A bit tricky, because USB C is an easily identifiable SHAPE, like a squashed letter "O," but it also comes in different, not always compatible, TYPES (USB 3.0, 3.1, Thunderbolt 3). Many new Macs have USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports; laptops may ONLY have USB C ports, even for charging.  Many newer phones (except iPhones) use this connector in place of both the charging port AND the headphone port, so your old headphones won't work without an adapter.

    A cable or device that is Thunderbolt 3 will be compatible with USB C, but not all USB C devices and cables support Thunderbolt 3.  If you have a newer Mac, be sure you are buying Thunderbolt 3 compatible devices, adapters and cables.

    USB mini 2.0
    Smaller than A or B, trapezoidal shape.  Formerly common on cell phones, portable hard drives, and the like, now fairly unusual.





    usb micro.jpg

    USB micro 2.0
    Even smaller, shaped like a flattened letter "D." Once common on cell phones, now often used for charging wireless devices like Bluetooth headphones.  




    usb 3.0 type b.jpg

    USB 3 type B

    is a newer and faster version of the B above. Not very common; a device that uses this connector will generally come with its own cable. Note that the inside is blue, like many USB 3.0 devices.


    usb 3.0 micro .jpg

    USB 3 micro

    Used for many newer peripherals like portable hard drives. Connector looks like a flattened capital letter "B."



    Other important types (besides USB)


    Apple only, used for both power and data on iPhones and iPads. Simple, reversible, and small.  Newer iPhones have ONLY a lightning connector, so you can't charge and use your headphones at the same time without an adapter.



    Wired networks and network devices use Ethernet connections, so you will find this type of port on routers, modems, network printers, desktop computers and some laptops. They look a lot like the old phone plugs that will be familiar to anyone over 30, except they're fatter. Useful, because wired networks are typically fast, reliable, and secure compared to WiFi.

    hdmi end.jpg

    HDMI: for connecting TV’s and other audio/video devices. Vary wildly in price--from a few dollars to hundreds--but overspending is usually pointless.  If you have the option of connecting with HDMI or an older type, you'll get a much better quality picture with HDMI.