Computer cables can be confusing so here’s a quick visual guide that will help you quickly identify almost every cable that came bundled with your computer and other electronic gadgets. You may also refer to this guide for ideas on how to hook different devices using commonly available connectors and converters.
1. USB Cables and Connectors
What are USB cables used for – You can use USB cables to connect most new devices to your computer including flash memory sticks, portable media players, internet modems and digital cameras.
Computer accessories like mice, keyboards, webcams, portable hard-drives, microphones, printers, scanners and speakers can also be connected to the computer through USB ports. Additionally, USB cables are also used for charging a variety of gadgets including mobile phones or for transferring data from one computer to another.
How to recognize USB Cables – The standard USB connector, USB-A, is a rectangular connector. The USB-A end is present on every USB cable as it is the end that connects to your computer.
The other end of the USB cable may have different connectors including USB-B (a square connector commonly used with printers, external hard drives, and larger devices) or smaller connectors such as the Mini-USB and Micro-USB that are commonly used with portable devices such as media players and phones.
Additionally, many other connectors have USB-A connectors at the end that connects to the computer, and a device-specific connector at the other end (e.g. the iPod or a Zune). Then you have USB Male to Female connectors for extending the length of a USB cable.
Many other non-USB cables can also connect to your computer via a USB converter; these cables have the standard USB-A connector on one end while the other end could have connections for other ports such as Ethernet or audio.
2. Audio Cables and Connectors
2.1 – 3.5mm headphone jack
The most common audio cable is the standard headphone jack, otherwise known as a TSR connector. It is available in several sizes, but the most common ones used with computers are the 3.5 mm or 1/8" mini audio jack.
Most speakers and microphones can connect to the computer with these audio cables. The microphone port on your computer is usually pink while the speaker port, where you insert the stereo audio cable, is colored green. Some computers have additional TSR audio ports colored black, grey, and gold; these are for rear, front, and center/subwoofer output, respectively.
A larger variety of the TSR connector, 1/4″ TRS, is commonly used in professional audio recording equipment and it can be connected to a computer using an 1/4" to 1/8" converter (pictured right).
2.2 – Digital Optical Audio
These are fiber optic cables and can therefore transmit pure digital audio through light. Some laptops and audio equipment have a mini-TOSLINK jack but you can use a converter to connect it to a standard TOSLINK (Toshiba Link) port.
3. Video Cables
3.1 – VGA
One of the most common video connectors for computer monitors and high-definition TVs is the VGA cable. A standard VGA connector has 15-pins and other than connecting a computer to a monitor, you may also use a VGA cable to connect your laptop to a TV screen or a projector.
Converter cables are lso available to let VGA monitors connect to newer computers that only output HDMI or DVI signals. A smaller variant of VGA, Mini-VGA, is available on some laptops but with the help of a converter, you can connect any standard VGA monitor to a Mini-VGA port of your laptop.
3.2 – DVI Monitor Port
If you have purchased a computer in the recent past, chances are that it uses DVI instead of VGA. The new breed of "thin" laptops use the smaller variants of DVI like the Mini-DVI and Micro-DVI (first seen in MacBook Air).
A DVI cable has 29 pins, though some connectors may have less pins depending on their configuration. DVI’s video signal is compatible with HDMI, so a simple converter can allow a DVI monitor to receive input from an HDMI cable.
Additionally, DVI to VGA converters are also available for connect your new graphics card to old monitor that supports only VGA mode.
3.3 – S-Video
S-Video cables, otherwise known as Separate Video or Super Video cables, carry analog video signals and are commonly used for connecting DVD players, camcorders, older video consoles to the television.
Standard S-Video connectors are round in shape and may have anywhere between 4-9 pins.
4. Audio and Video Cables
4.1 – RCA Connector Cables
RCA connector cables are a bundle of 2-3 cables including Composite Video (colored yellow) and Stereo Audio cables (red for right channel and white or black for the left audio channel).
Sometimes additional cables may be included, offering additional audio channels and/or component video instead of composite. Component video offers better picture than composite because the video signal is split in different signals while in the case of composite, everything is transferred through a single yellow plug.
Uses of RCA Connectors – The RCA cables are usually used for connecting your DVD player, stereo speakers, digital camera and other audio/video equipment to your TV. You can plug-in an RCA cable to the computer via a video capture card and this will let you transfer video from an old analog camcorder into your computer’s hard drive.
4.2 – HDMI Cables
HDMI is the new standard that provide both audio and video transmission through a single cable. HDMI support a maximum resolution of 4096×2160p (HD is only 1920×1200) with up to 8 channels of digital audio and are used for connecting Blu-Ray players to an HDTV.
Standard HDMI cables can be up to 5 meters long, but higher quality ones can be up to 15 meters long, and the length can be further increased with amplifiers. HDMI is backwards compatible with DVI so you can use a converter to watch video on a DVI device through the HDMI cable though you will have to use another cable for the audio.
4.3 – DisplayPort
A combined digital video and audio cable that is more commonly used in computers is DisplayPort and the smaller derivative Mini DisplayPort. Both support resolutions up to 2560 × 1600 × 60 Hz, and additionally support up to 8 channels of digital audio.
Mini DisplayPort connector is currently used in MacBooks but we could them in other computers as well in the near future.
Standard DisplayPort cables can be up to 3 meters long, but at a lower resolution cables can be up to 15 meters long. DisplayPort connectors are available to connect VGA, DVI video, or HDMI video and audio with a DisplayPort cable or connection. Additionally, converters are available to convert Mini DisplayPort into standard DisplayPort.
5. Data Cables
5.1 – Firewire IEEE 1394
Firewire, otherwise known as IEEE 1394, i.LINK, or Lynx, is a faster alternate to USB and is commonly used for connecting digital camcorders and external hard drives to a computer. It is also possible to ad-hoc network computers without a router over FireWire.
Firewire typically has 6 pins in its connector, though a 4 pin variety is common as well.
5.2 – eSATA Cables
While SATA cables are used internally for connecting the hard drive to the computer’s motherboard, eSATA cables are designed for portable hard drives, and can transfer data faster than USB or FireWire.
However, the eSATA cable cannot transmit power, so unlike USB, you cannot power an external hard drive with eSATA. The eSATA cable is somewhat different from the internal SATA cable; it has more shielding, and sports a larger connector.
6. Networking Related Cables
6.1 – Phone RJ11 Cable
The telephone cable, otherwise known as RJ11, is still used around the world for connecting to the Internet through DSL/ADSL modems. A standard phone cable has 4 wires and the connector has four pins.
The connector has a clip at the top to help maintain a tight connection.
6.2 – Ethernet Cable
Ethernet is the standard for wired networking around the world. The Ethernet cable, otherwise known as RJ45, is based on Cat5 twisted pair cable and is made from 8 individual wires.
The Ethernet connector, likewise, has 8 pins and looks similar to a phone plug, but is actually thicker and wider. It too has a clip to help maintain a tight connection like a phone connector.