Understanding the Different Types of USB Cables and Ports

Understanding the Different Types of USB Cables and Ports

USB (Universal Serial Bus) is the standard for connecting all sorts of devices today. But the universal in its name can be a bit misleading, as there are many different types of USB connectors and a few different standards.

Let's discuss the various iterations of USB so you know what type of connection to expect with what devices. We'll include images along the way for easy identification.

Types of USB Connectors

You can tell USB cables apart by the connector on either end. Here are the most common types.

USB-A

USB-A-Connector

This is the standard connector, found on one end of almost every USB cable. It's a rectangular connector that only fits in one way.

You'll find several USB-A ports on virtually every desktop computer and laptop. Many TVs, game systems, cars, media players, and other devices have one or more, too.

You won't find cables with USB-A on either end, as there's really no situation in which this could be useful. In fact, connecting two computers with a USB-A cable could damage them both.

USB-B

USB-B-Cable

This is an older connector that's not used nearly as often nowadays. It's almost square at one end, and usually plugs into a printer or similar device. Other than these uses, it's been largely overtaken by the newer standards below.

Mini-USB

Mini-USB-Cable

As the name suggests, this is a smaller connection type that's good for mobile devices. It's been largely superseded by micro-USB, but you'll still find it on some cameras, MP3 players, and other such devices.

Micro-USB

Micro-USB-Cable

This is a tiny connector that's popular on all kinds of portable devices. Everything from Android phones to external battery packs to Bluetooth headphones uses a micro-USB port. However, some smartphones have moved onto the newer USB-C port.

USB-C

USB-C-Cable

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

This is the newest USB standard. Unlike older cables, which usually have USB-A on one end and another type on the other, USB-C can connect two devices that both have USB-C ports. Also different from the above types, it's reversible.

USB-C is slowly being adopted by device manufacturers. Many newer Android phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Google Pixel devices, use USB-C. Apple's newest MacBook and MacBook Pro models only feature USB-C ports, as well.

If you know about USB-C, you may have also heard about the Thunderbolt hardware interface. This is a standard that allows a USB-C port and cable to transfer data at speedy rates, connect to high-resolution displays, and perform other tasks.

Not every USB-C port supports Thunderbolt 3, though. For example, Apple's newest MacBook Pro models feature several Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports. But the standard MacBook's single USB-C port lacks Thunderbolt 3 support.

Because of all this, USB-C is a bit confusing. The port can either be a basic USB port similar to the ones above, or it can be a multi-purpose jack. This depends on the device. For more details on USB C, check out the reasons Cable Matters gives for why USB-C docking stations are so useful.

Lightning Cable

Lightning-Cable

Image Credit: randychiu/Wikimedia Commons

This isn't really a USB standard, but we include it for the sake of completion. Apple has used the proprietary Lightning cable in its mobile devices since late 2012. Like USB-C, it's reversible.

iPhone and iPad users plug a Lightning to USB-A cable into their devices to charge, connect to a PC, and more.

USB Speed Standards

Throughout its life, USB has updated its standards a few times. In addition to the types of connectors on each end, each USB cable and port has a standard of speed.

USB 1.x

USB 1.0 was released in 1996, but it wasn't until late 1998 that USB 1.1 arrived and kicked off the era of USB properly. This could only utilize USB-A and USB-B connectors, and is ancient by modern standards.

You're very unlikely to find any USB 1.x devices or cables around today.

USB 2.0

In 2000, USB got a makeover with its 2.0 update. This supports much faster speeds than version 1 could, and introduced support for several of the new ports mentioned above.

It's also notable for adding USB OTG (On-The-Go) support, which allows two USB devices to communicate directly. For example, with an adapter, you can connect a standard USB keyboard to an Android phone.

USB 2.0 is still used in cheaper flash drives, along with many mice, keyboards, and similar devices. If a cable or port doesn't have any USB 3 markings, as discussed below, it's likely USB 2.0.

USB 3.x

USB-3-Blue

Image Credit: smial/Wikimedia Commons

USB 3.0 launched in 2008, with 3.1 and 3.2 iterations coming later. Its biggest upgrade is much faster transfer speeds than USB 2.0 can provide.

You'll recognize USB 3.x cables and ports by their blue coloring and/or lightning bolt logo. These devices are backwards-compatible, so you can plug a USB 3.x cable into a USB 2.0 port or vice-versa. However, doing so limits you to USB 2.0 speeds.

Many external hard drives and higher-end flash drives use USB 3. USB-C cables are always USB 3. Older cable types, like micro-USB, require a special connector type for USB 3.0 compatibility. You'll often see this kind of connector on external hard drives so they can take advantage of USB 3 speeds.

USB-2-3-Types

Image Credit: Milos634/Wikimedia Commons

USB Unveiled

Now you now about the various types of USB cables and their uses. Generally, you can plug standard devices like mice and keyboards into a USB 2.0 port, as speed isn't a priority for them. But any devices that will transfer data, like an external hard drive, should be plugged into a USB 3 port for best results.

Time will tell if USB-C becomes the standard and largely replaces these or not. Either way, we'll have USB-A ports around for a long time to support older devices.


22 Comments

                    • My laptops screen went out and I want to transfer data and pics off its hard drive onto my desktop. How do I do this? What type of cable can I use that has two male ends into the USB ports on each device. Or can I put another monitor on laptop to see the data to retrieve.

                      Reply


                    • Ben Stegner

                      Hi Dennis,

                      If your laptop screen stopped working, you can use the video ports on the side of your computer (likely either a VGA or HDMI port) to connect it to any monitor. From there, you should be able to copy over any data that you need to recover from the laptop.

                  • I upgraded my PC to USB-3 with a special PCIe card. Will I get USB-3 speeds using a regular USB-2 cable or is there a special USB-3 cable for this? Thanks!

                    Reply


                  • Ben Stegner

                    Brian, you’ll need a USB 3 cable to take advantage of USB 3 speeds. If you plug a USB 2 flash drive into the new ports you added, it will run at USB 2 speeds.

                • Just wanted to say thank you for this article, specifically for the side by side diagram at the end. I’m intelligent, but getting ever more forgetful, lol, and I’ve needed a “cheat sheet” pocket reference of sorts for a while! Now, I’ll be able to label things (on paper and verbally) without looking it up every time. You rock!

                  Reply


                • Thank you. This was helpful.

                  Reply


                • Is the USB port inside the safe? Or is it located on the body of the lock itself? If it is on the lock, it is a way to charge the locks or get into it if you forgot the password/PIN. It if is inside the safe, then it might be to power up or access devices inside the safe without opening it completely. I have a safe with a digital combo and it has a DC plug-in to power it that way or with batteries. Hope that helps.

                  Reply


                • A Question: for what purpose would a safe (for documents and digital material) have a USB connection?

                  Reply


                • Ben Stegner

                  Hi Don,

                  I’ve never come across a safe with a USB port, but if I’m picturing it right, I would imagine this lets you put a USB device, such as an external hard drive, inside the safe. After connecting the device to the inside port, you can use the external port to access the contents of that device without opening it.

                  Aside from that, having a USB port on the safe also gives you a way to charge devices inside in an emergency. If you had a backup phone or something inside the safe and couldn’t charge it with a wall plug, you could use the USB port to charge up the phone using the safe.

              • oliver James

                I still don’t know which is the smallest usb tip – micro or mini. More importantly for me – i have a sony fdr ax53 camcorder – and it has a “MULTI” input. What size tip goes in there? Thanks. Actually, i am trying to dump data from the SD card and will be using the VMC-UAM2usbadapter – This is supposed to go into my multi port but it doesn’t say what size is the tip (or are there different sizes with this VMC adapter?).

                Reply


              • Ben Stegner

                Oliver, micro-USB is smaller than Mini-USB. I’m not familiar with “multi” inputs, but I looked up your camcorder here: https://www.amazon.com/Sony-FDRAX53-Video-Recording-Camcorder/dp/B01950TCEU

                I see that there’s a Mini-HDMI output on the camera, but don’t see any inputs. The VMC-UAM2 cable (https://www.sony.com/electronics/video-cables/vmc-uam2#product_details_legacy_default), meanwhile, looks like it uses micro-USB to connect to the camcorder and then lets you plug an external hard drive or similar USB-A device into the other side.

                Does this make sense?

            • I just want to know what the USB with both type A on one end and type B on the other end are used for?

              Reply


            • Hi Sadat, do you mean a cable like this? https://www.amazon.com/AmazonBasics-Printer-Type-Cable-Male/dp/B00BCWALHM

              A full-size USB-B connector like this is typically used for printers. This connection type has dropped in use with the advent of smaller USB-B connections, such as micro-USB on smartphones and external drives. USB-C is also becoming more popular, which decreases the need for these USB-B connectors.

              Chances are that you won’t need a USB-B to USB-A cable like the one above for anything other than a printer.

          • HI Guys,
            I am contacting you from England. I have a problem . I have an oldHI8 video camera and I wish to copy the films onto my PC. The HI8 has a firewire connection but there is none on my modern PC.
            Please how can I do this?
            Regards
            Richard UK

            Reply


          • Hi Richard,

            Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to properly convert a Firewire connection to USB with an adapter. Your best bet is to buy a PCI expansion card that allows you to connect Firewire devices to your computer properly.

            Here’s a StarTech card for about $25 on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/StarTech-com-port-1394a-FireWire-Adapter/dp/B00006B8EQ

            As long as you have a spare PCI slot, it should be as simple as opening your desktop, removing a shield from the back to make room, and connecting the card to your motherboard. You can then connect up to three Firewire devices directly to your computer.

            I hope this helps!

        • Bill Donegan

          Hello, I have a hard drive for a security system that has a cable with a HDMI connector. I want to plug that into a standard USB…(looks like USB A) monitor. What kind of adapter would do that ? Thanks

          Reply


        • Ben Stegner

          Hi Bill, I’m a bit confused. Hard drives do not have their own HDMI connections, as they need an operating system to access and display the videos installed on them. The USB-A port on your monitor is a convenience feature for connecting devices like mice and keyboards, so you don’t have to dig around the back of your computer. The USB port on your monitor is likely USB 2.0, so it would work with a hard drive, but probably wouldn’t be ideal.

          Does the port on your hard drive look like the one end of this cable? https://www.amazon.com/UGREEN-Micro-Samsung-Galaxy-Camera/dp/B00P0C4M7A

          If so, this micro-USB 3.0 to USB-A cable will let you connect the drive to a PC.

      • I would like to get pinout information on the several USB connectors. I am considering making a sort of break-out box for my own use, and would like to have an understanding of all of the communication lines used in the different connectors. Thank you for any help that you can provide.

        Reply


      • Hi Karl, something like that is unfortunately beyond the scope of an article like this. I recommend taking a look at some other resources, such as the following, for more info: https://www.electroschematics.com/usb-how-things-work/

    • I received a new sketch pad that will only charge with a USB A port. Problem is I have a 13 in MacBook air with a usb c or thunderbolt receptacle. How do I charge an item that has a USB A connector without the right side port?

      Reply


    • Hi Jill, you can purchase an adapter that has a USB-C male jack and USB-A female port to use USB-A devices with your MacBook. This is one such device: https://www.amazon.com/Syntech-Adapter-Thunderbolt-Compatible-MacBook/dp/B07CVX3516/

  1. Bill Buchanan

    I have a SkyCaddie SG2 GPS. The connector into the device for charging the device is round, looks shielded and has a female center to insert into a male pin in the device. What is this plug called? There seems to be various sizes of the male pin in this device and other devices I have.
    Thank you.

    Reply


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