Confused about what these cables do and which ones you should use? Fret no more. Our guide to the most common cables you’ll encounter will help to steer you in the right direction. And it starts with the ubiquitous USB.
1. Universal Serial Bus (USB)
The Universal Serial Bus truly is universal. Released in 1996 and now at version 3.1, it’s become the primary way devices connect to computers and each other.
How to identify: USB connectors come in five primary species, which may be found in different combinations on the same cable, with variations based on the version of USB they support.
Type A: The most common species of USB, this flat, fingernail-sized connector plugs into a PC, Mac, peripheral, or power source, usually with the male (plastic-tabbed) side down.
Type B: Once commonly used to connect printers and other peripherals, this square-shaped connector is now relatively rare. Rounded corners on one side make it easy to plug in.
Mini USB: Another nearly extinct connector once used for cameras and some cell phones, wider at the top.
Micro USB: Smaller and flatter than the mini, the micro has become the default connector for most Android and Windows phones.
Type C: The new oval-shaped C is designed to be a smaller, faster replacement for Type A. The best part? You can plug it in any old way you want. The catch: You’ll have to wait for devices that come with compatible ports, due out later this year.
Natural habitat: Everywhere
Status: Total world domination
Fun fact: The nearly 20-year-old USB standard has outlived nearly half the companies that collaborated to create it.
If you’re paying for cable or satellite, those 300 channels of mindless entertainment, Internet, and digital phone service are probably delivered via coax, an amazingly old technology that shows no sign of slowing.
How to identify: Thick black shielded cable with a copper wire sticking out of both ends. You connect them by screwing the male (threaded) Type N connector onto its female counterpart, which is not nearly as exciting as it sounds.
Natural habitat: Homes of cable or satellite subscribers, offices of business broadband customers
Status: Surprisingly resilient, thanks to improvements in the way data is delivered over them
Fun fact: Coaxial cable was patented by an English mathematician in 1880. No, that’s not a typo.
(Flickr/Adafruit Industries, HDMI.org)
3. High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI)
HDMI is the standard for delivering high-quality audio and video to a flat- screen display. If you’re eyeing a 4K TV, consider cables compatible with HDMI 2.0, which can carry two to four times the data of older versions.
How to identify: The most common HDMI (Type A) has cable heads that are identical on either end and grooved in a roughly trapezoidal shape, making them almost impossible to plug in upside down.
Some tablets and other portable devices have either Mini (Type C) or Micro (Type D) HDMI ports, which allow you to connect them to larger displays.
Natural Habitat: HDTVs, computer monitors, camcorders
Status: Thriving. More than 4 billion are currently in the wild.
Fun fact: Last November, HDMI won a prime-time Emmy for Engineering Excellence.
The standard for wiring local area networks (LANs), Ethernet still provides the most reliable and fastest connection between two devices. Category 5 (Cat-5) Ethernet is typically used for slower LANs, Cat-6 for networks that move 1 gigabit of data or more per second.
How to identify: Looks like a landline phone wire on steroids, with eight internal wires instead of two and a larger RJ-45 connector that snaps into a device’s Ethernet port.
Natural habitat: Corporate networks; home routers and gaming consoles
Status: Declining, as more homes adopt fast wireless networks
5. Apple Lightning
Introduced with the iPhone 5 in September 2012, this Tic-Tac-sized connector replaces the chunkier 30-pin model for charging and syncing all things “i.”
How to identify: On one end, a symmetrical metal knob with eight tiny gold bars (pins) on each side; on the other, a standard USB that can plug into a wall wart or a computer. The Lightning end can be plugged in with either side facing up, one of the first “reversible” connectors to gain popular acceptance.
Natural habitat: Every iDevice introduced in the last three years, including the iPhone 5 and 6; iPad 2, Air, and Mini; fourth- and fifth-generation iPods; and seventh-gen Nanos.
Fun fact: Apple had to pay Harley Davidson for the rights to the Lightning brand name.
6. Apple 30-Pin
The original way to power or sync the iPod, as well as the iPhone (up through the iPhone 4S), and the iPad (through the iPad 2), Apple’s proprietary connector spawned a cottage industry of compatible charging docks and speakers made instantly obsolete by the Lightning.
How to identify: Roughly half an inch square, with 30 pins that look like tiny teeth. The connector is inserted into your iDevice teeth side up and snaps tightly into place.
Natural habitat: iDevices made before 2012
Status: Endangered. Apple is no longer selling these, though you can still find them on eBay. Owners of newer iPhones can buy an adapter to convert their old 30-pin models into the newer eight-pin Lightning.
7. Samsung 30-pin
Samsung deploys a proprietary 30-pin cable to charge and sync its Galaxy Tablets. It looks almost identical to Apple’s (old) cable, but it’s a different animal entirely.
How to identify: Like the Apple cable, Samsung’s features 30 toothlike pins along the inside and snaps into its socket with a click. Subtle differences on the side of each connector make it impossible to plug a Samsung cable into an Apple device, or vice versa.
Natural habitat: Samsung Galaxy Tablets and Tab Notes
Status: Alive and clicking
The latest generation of high-speed data-transfer technology, Thunderbolt is two to three times faster than USB 3.0 and more than 20 times faster than USB 2.0; it can also carry power over short distances. Thunderbolt connectors replaced FireWire on Apple Macbooks and iMacs starting in 2011.
How to identify: Small square connectors with a central groove and notched corners; the cable and the port usually have a small thunderbolt logo on or near them.
Natural habitat: Macs, gaming laptops, workstations, big displays, very large hard drives
Status: Still somewhat rare, due to high cost
9. VGA, DVI, DisplayPort
These three very different cables share a common purpose—to shuttle images from your computer to the screen. VGA cables have been around since displays were still made from cathode-ray tubes. The Digital Visual Interface (DVI) was built to replace VGA, but that transition never really took. The high-bandwidth DisplayPort is designed to replace both and handles high-definition audio as well as video, but is getting stiff competition from HDMI and Thunderbolt.
How to identify: VGA connectors are typically blue and feature nine or 15 pins that look like actual pins (or holes for pins, on the female end). DVI is white and features 18 to 24 pins, depending on the type. DisplayPort connectors look a lot like HDMI, only they’re more square and notched at the lower-right corner.
Natural habitats: The back of your computer or HDTV
Status: You’ll still find displays and laptops with VGA or DVI in ports on the back panel, though they’re increasingly rare. DisplayPort is still relatively new and ascending.
10. The Dead Cable Museum
The history of computing is strewn with the remains of cables gone by—parallel, serial, SCSI, S-video, FireWire, component video, and dozens more. Some are still in use but highly obscure; others have gone to the great cable roundup in the sky. If your equipment is really old, or you’re a nostalgia buff, you might still get some use out of them.
How to identify: Look for a thick layer of dust
Natural habitat: A box in your attic or a computer history museum
Status: In 50 years, they’ll be worth a small fortune on eBay, if eBay is still around.
(Main image via Getty)
My Note: If you want to use label for each cable wire use brad clips to avoid confusion just a suggestion.