PCWorld's Giant Cable Guide

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PCWorld's Peripheral Cable Guide

From FireWire to Bluetooth, and from PATA to PS/2, we have information on all the plugs you need for your hard drives, cameras, phones, input devices, and other peripherals.

FireWire 400 (aka IEEE 1394, IEEE 1394a, or i.Link)

Use it for: Camcorders and external PC drives; also works (but is rarely used) for networking

If you have a choice, select it instead of: USB 1.1 (for PC equipment); composite or S-Video cables (for video gear)

It's similar in performance and use to: USB 2.0 (for PC equipment)

It adapts to: Four- and six-pin styles; FireWire 800, with a physical adapter, will connect at FireWire 400 speeds

Add more ports by: Installing a PCI-card upgrade; connecting a hub; daisy-chaining devices

This audio/video and general PC serial connector comes in four- and six-pin variants. The four-pin FireWire option is most often found on camcorders and some laptops, while the six-pin version is usually on midlife Apple laptops, hard disks, and many desktop PCs. Some TVs, cable boxes, and other video gear use it. The six-pin style carries power, as USB does, so external hard drives often need no other cable. FireWire 400 runs at a theoretical speed up to 400 megabits per second.

FireWire 800 (aka IEEE 1394b)

Use it for: Hard disks and other PC drives; also works (but is rarely used) for networking

If you have a choice, select it instead of: FireWire 400 or any type of USB

It's similar in performance and use to: eSATA

It adapts to: FireWire 400 connectors (falling back to those speeds)

Add more ports by: Installing a PCI-card upgrade; connecting a hub; daisy-chaining devices

This general PC serial interface doubles the theoretical speed of the original FireWire while maintaining backward-compatibility (with an adapter); if you use it with old FireWire, the speed will be cut in half. You'll find this connection on Apple computers, and on many midrange and high-end PCs.

USB

Use it for: Attaching basic, slow peripherals; charging gadgets

If you have a choice, select it instead of: PS/2 keyboard and mouse inputs

It's similar in performance and use to: PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports

It adapts to: Physical differences in more-recent USB styles

Add more ports by: Installing a PCI-card upgrade; connecting a hub

The classic, original USB is the bread-and-butter serial connector for linking input devices to a PC. In addition to mice and keyboards, you'll use it for printers, scanners, and other peripherals. One device, usually a PC, connects with the rectangular "A" end; the relatively square-shaped "B" end is often hard-wired, or connects to external devices. On this kind of connection, devices are hot-swappable, meaning that you can change them without restarting the PC. It also carries power and has become a ubiquitous charger plug for small gadgets.

USB 2.0

Use it for: External drives, cameras, mobile phones, other gadgets

If you have a choice, select it instead of: USB 1.0

It's similar in performance and use to: FireWire 400, eSATA

It adapts to: Other USB shapes

Add more ports by: Installing a PCI-card upgrade; connecting a hub

Significantly faster than the original USB, the 2.0 version usually connects with an "A" end on a PC and a Mini-USB end on a peripheral. Some of the tiniest gadgets on the market opt to use the Micro-USB end. The faster bus of USB 2.0 means that it's much more suited to hard disks and to network adapters than the original version is.

SATA

Use it for: Internal hard drives, Blu-ray and DVD burners, and other disks

If you have a choice, select it instead of: ATA

It's similar in performance and use to: eSATA

It adapts to: eSATA

Add more ports by: Inserting an additional PCI controller card

Serial ATA connects internal disks within PCs. Many new computer case designs allow you to slide in a hard drive so that it meets directly with a port; otherwise, you'll use a cable. The fastest, most widely implemented version (often misnamed SATA II) runs at 3 gigabits per second and provides enough speed for the most disk-demanding tasks, such as high-end video capture.

eSATA

Use it for: External hard drives, Blu-ray and DVD-burners, and other disks; DVRs often support an eSATA drive for more storage space

If you have a choice, select it instead of: USB 1.0, FireWire 400

It's similar in performance and use to: USB 2.0, FireWire 800

It adapts to: SATA

Add more ports by: Inserting an additional PCI controller card

eSATA, a variant of SATA, simply takes that technology outside of a PC. eSATA is shielded from electrical interference and offers other considerations for making the move outside the case, and as a result is compatible with any kind of external disk.

ATA (aka Parallel ATA or PATA)

Use it for: Internal floppy drives, CD-ROM drives, and other disks

Add more ports by: Inserting an additional PCI controller card (each ATA port can support two devices)

Still often used to connect internal floppy drives (should your PC even have one of those) and occasionally CD-ROM drives, ATA is the analog cousin of SATA. Because it is analog, it requires you to use certain cables and/or manually set jumper pins on connected devices.

PS/2

Use it for: Keyboards, mice, other input devices

It's similar in performance and use to: USB 1.0

Add more ports by: Inserting an additional PCI controller card

This old, analog serial cable is still sometimes used to connect keyboards and mice. If you're troubleshooting a PC problem, connecting such input devices might be worthwhile, especially if you're having trouble interfacing with the BIOS. Otherwise, USB input devices are much more common and will likely work just as well.

Bluetooth

Use it for: Connecting PDAs, phones, GPS devices, digital cameras, earpieces, and other wireless audio gear; simple networking between PCs and/or gadgets; linking video game controllers

If you have a choice, select it instead of: USB (if wireless connectivity matters to you)

It's similar in performance and use to: USB

Add the functionality by: Installing an internal PC card or (more often) a USB-to-Bluetooth adapter dongle

Designed as a short-range, wireless connection for PCs and gadgets, Bluetooth can reach distances of 100 meters with certain hardware, but you'll most likely use it within a single room. The 2.1 version is currently the most widely used; it's backward-compatible with older Bluetooth devices, too. Bluetooth is a versatile connection and useful in many situations, although its modest speed of 3 megabits per second means that it won't replace other wireless tech. To connect devices, you "pair" them, putting each in a discoverable mode. You might also enter a password if both devices have a keyboard. (If only one does, consult your manual or try simple combinations such as '1234' or '0000'.)

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