Hardware

What type of USB is this?

Navigating the Universal Serial Bus (USB) minefield can be difficult, with slight differences between the connectors, ports and versions adding to the confusion. The brainchild of seven companies (including IBM, Intel and Microsoft) and popularised by the iMac in the 1990s, USB is integral to everyday tech – but how do you tell your Type-Bs from your Type-Cs, your mini from your micro?

The versions

Before we move into the murky world of the connectors, it’s worth getting your head around the different flavours of USB powering your trusty cable.

Essentially, as you’d expect, the versions have got progressively faster – in terms of charging and data transfer – since USB 1.0 was first released in 1996. Nowadays, the types you’re most likely to encounter are USB 2.0 and the blue, SuperSpeed USB 3.0. The former has a maximum signaling rate of 480 Mbits/s, while the latter massively increases that to 5 Gbits/s. However, the USB 3.1 Gen 2 has now upped the maximum data signaling rate to 10 Gbits/s – double that of USB 3.0.

TIP: To find out which ports your laptop or PC is packing, head to Device Manager and click on “Universal Serial Bus controllers”. This will bring up a dropdown list of your ports with their version numbers.

The connectors

Below is a rogue’s gallery the most common USB connectors, complete with their uses and how to recognise them.

USB Type-A (or just plain ol’ USB)

If you think of a USB, it’s more than likely that you’ll be picturing a Type-A. It’s by far the most common connector/port and can be used to hook up innumerable mice, keyboards and gadgets (such as, bizarrely, a fish tank). Supported in every USB version, the Type-A ports are also omnipresent on most laptops, PCs, Macs, modern games consoles, TVs and DVD or Blu-ray players.

What does it look like?

The standard USB plug and port are both rectangular and will be usually be denoted by the familiar trident logo.

USB Type-B

Type-B (or Standard-B) connectors are becoming increasingly rare nowadays as manufacturers prefer to plump for the ubiquitous Type-A. However, you will still find Type-B ports on larger devices such as printers and scanners, as well as certain storage devices.

What does it look like?

Type-B connectors and ports are square with a round or square “bump” on the top, depending on the version.

mini-USB

Introduced way back in 2000, mini-USB connectors have long since been the scourge of people untangling a nest of wires and muttering under their breath “we got rid of that camera ten years ago – why on earth do we still have the cable?” While the mini-A and mini-AB connectors have now been deprecated, mini-B cables can still be used to charge old-school smartphones and PDAs.

What does it look like?

Imagine that someone heavy, perhaps Jabba the Hutt, has sat on Darth Vader’s helmet and you won’t be far from the truth: a rectangular port/connector with indented ends.

 micro-USB

First released in 2007, the micro-USB connector is thinner than the mini-USB, making it ideal for more portable and slimline mobile devices. The port is now the industry standard and can be thousands of smartphones and tablets – with the very notable exception of Apple, which, as always, does things slightly differently with the Lightning charger.

What does it look like?

The streamline micro-USB connectors are the same width as their older brother, the mini-USB, but only around half as thick.

USB Type-C (or USB-C)

In a case of “one cable to rule them all”, USB Type-C is a reversible cable that promises both more power (up to 100W) and higher transfer rates (up to 10 Gbits/s). More and more smartphone manufacturers, including OnePlus, and laptop makers, such as Apple, are jumping on the Type-C bandwagon, with the connector also being lauded as a replacement for the 3.5mm headphone jack.

What does it look like?

A small, 24-pin connector that, and this is the biggest clue, can be used either way up.

Images: Paul DowneyMonitotxiKonstantin Malanchev and Maurizio Pesce/CC BY

About the author

Max Figgett

Max has written for numerous websites and magazines over the years. Whether it’s about ancient hardware or software secrets, no Big Tech Question is too obscure for him to tackle.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: