Making Sense of All Things USB

If your organizational skills are anywhere near as advanced as mine, you
 likely also have at least one drawer in your kitchen or office that’s 
jammed with all the various USB cables that have been packaged with 
electronic products purchased over the years. Charging one of those 
devices often means untangling multiple cords while also attempting to 
eyeball matches between connectors and devices. There are times when I 
wonder if that annoying process is a sign of technology moving backward 
rather than forward.<br> Hubbell Wiring Device-Kellems

Chuck Ross

If your organizational skills are anywhere near as advanced as mine, you likely also have at least one drawer in your kitchen or office that’s jammed with all the various USB cables that have been packaged with electronic products purchased over the years. Charging one of those devices often means untangling multiple cords while also attempting to eyeball matches between connectors and devices. There are times when I wonder if that annoying process is a sign of technology moving backward rather than forward.

Actually, USB – short for “universal serial bus” – was a big step forward, technology-wise, when it was introduced in the mid-1990s. With their ability to transmit both power and data, USB cables took the place of the bulky cords and connectors that had previously been used with printers and other peripheral devices. The accompanying specifications for power and data transfer also allowed for plug-and-play convenience, so no more loading of proprietary software whenever a new keyboard or printer was added. And hot-swapping – the ability to connect and disconnect devices without some sort of shut-down process – also became possible.

The various connector-head shapes are the result of USB technology’s evolution. The easiest to distinguish are Type A connectors, with their large, flat heads, Newer electrical receptacles now often feature Type A sockets, eliminating the need for an adapter head when charging phones and other devices. Standard Type B connectors feature a square shape that’s also easy to recognize. Though they once were common for larger peripheral devices, including printers and scanners, they’ve been phased out over the last decade or so.

Confusion sets in with the various mini- and micro-USB head shapes. Mini B connectors are the ones first used to charge mobile phones and were replaced as phones became slimmer. Now, they’re more often used with digital cameras. Micro B connectors took over phone functions and added a new pin that allowed phones to read external drives, cameras and other peripherals. USB 3.0 Micro B connectors are a newer addition, adding five more pins that enable faster data transfer. These are found with newer cameras and phones, along with some industrial equipment.

Type C connectors are the newest addition, coming to market with the USB 3.1 standard. These look like a flattened loop and can support both higher data speeds and power levels. Apple has been using USB C cables and connectors to power its laptops for the last couple years.


Photo courtesy of Hubbell Wiring Device-Kellems

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