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 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 devices with 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.
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.
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 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 a headache and go for a quality product from a recognized manufacturer. The small difference in price is worth it.
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.
This prevents your phone from making a data connection with the computer you connect to and may allow for a faster charge.
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.
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.
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.
While there are already several devices you can connect to a USB-C port, right now the best way to get started is with a USB-A to USB-C adapter.