Computer Ports Explained

Spend any time shopping for new desktops or laptops for your small business, and you might spy a few unfamiliar ports here and there. As you may know, ports are input or output jacks for the peripherals a computer can use, from USB flash memory drives to mice to monitors. As time has passed, some ports have become faster and faster, even though they may look about the same as they did a decade ago. Others have all but disappeared entirely. The march of technology that has given us e-commerce transaction databases, high-definition video, and digital photos with more megapixels also spurs the industry to develop faster interfaces (not to mention faster broadband Internet connections) to carry all that data. Ports that can’t keep up, or can’t be upgraded to speedier versions of themselves due to technological constraints, are left behind. The ports a PC supports depend on the chips built onto or attached to its motherboard. Its chipset (core logic) may have built-in USB and Ethernet capability, for example, while a third party chip added by the motherboard manufacturer adds support for audio. Meanwhile, the CPU might have on-die graphics capabilities to power the motherboard’s video outputs, while a chip on an expansion card adds eSATA (external Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) for swift backups to an external hard drive. In all cases, driver software and/or the motherboard’s BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) allow the ports to work with the computer’s operating system. In the interests of space, we’ll focus on the more recent port technologies in this article. And because several of them have miniaturized versions used in mobile devices, such as the smart phones and tablets invading the business world, we’ll mention those as applicable.

USB 3.0

The wildly popular USB interface is available in a long-awaited third version. USB 3.0, marketed as Super- Speed USB, has a theoretical speed of 5Gbps (gigabits per second), or 625MBps (megabytes per second). Even though real-world performance is somewhat slower, as with all such interfaces, that’s still more than fast enough to keep the new port from bogging down transfers to external hard drives and current SSDs (solid-state drives). USB 3.0 ports are easy to spot because their center posts are bright blue. Otherwise, USB 3.0 ports are shaped just like USB 2.0/1.1 connectors, namely a rectangular port with a rectangular post (Type A) on the PC end and a square with two beveled corners (Type B) on the peripheral end. Best of all, version 3.0 is backward compatible with USB 2.0 and 1.1 devices. Those older drives and input devices still run at their original speeds, however. USB has mini and micro versions, too. In fact, many phones, MP3 players, and other devices recharge their batteries through micro USB. Therefore, if you’re buying new computers in today’s mobile office environment, it’s important to purchase models with sleep-and-charge USB ports. These can continue to charge devices even while the PC is turned off or in Sleep mode.


It is a super-fast, 21.6Gbps interface primarily designed to carry video to computer monitors. With this much bandwidth on tap, it’s able to accommodate greater resolution, faster refresh rates, and more color depth than HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). Besides professional media content generation applications, DisplayPort is ideal for multiple monitor setups. DisplayPort’s port resembles HDMI’s, except that its connector only has one beveled corner instead of two. Also, DisplayPort’s center post is shaped like a shallow letter U. Using an adapter, you can convert DisplayPort to HDMI, DVI (Digital Visual Interface), and VGA ( video Graphics Array). Some devices, such as multi-monitor graphics cards, have mini-DP ports, which look like small rectangles with beveled corners. The latest extension to the DisplayPort 1.2 standard lets it support active cables more than 100 feet long.


OK, OK. Why is there even a need for this article? Shouldn’t IT companies just make one fast port, and then use it for every kind of device? Computer repair Las Vegas Intel’s Thunderbolt comes the closest to that kind of goal. The company brought it to market in cooperation with Apple, which very characteristically desired two selling points: the simplicity of a single type of cable and enough performance to give Apple a competitive advantage over PC vendors. Thunderbolt in essence is a 10Gbps (1.25GBps) interface that combines PCI-E (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) with DisplayPort in a single, thin cable. It can daisy-chain compatible devices, and it supports hubs, which leads to an interesting scenario: Picture your mouse, keyboard, monitor, and external backup drive all linked to your computer through a single cable connection. Even professional external storage with RAIDed (redundant array of independent drives) SSDs wouldn’t hit a bottleneck on its way to your computer. Even though it was formerly known by the code name of Light Peak, Thunderbolt doesn’t use optical technologies such as lasers or fiber to transmit data. Like the others here, it’s based on sending electrons through copper wires. Thunderbolt uses mini-DisplayPort connectors, and it’s adaptable to DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI, VGA, and more.


The High-Definition Multimedia Interface was developed for consumer electronics devices such as Bluray Disc players and HDTVs. However, HDMI has also seen wide use in graphics cards and computer displays. Its connector’s wide rectangle with two beveled corners can be adapted to DVI. HDMI is notable for its ability to transmit both high-def video and audio. For example, a quality cable rated for 10.2Gbps operation can carry a 3D, 1080p movie as well as its HD surround sound simultaneously. The current specification, HDMI 1.4a, has a variety of optional features such as advanced 3D formats, Ethernet support, and more. There are mini and micro versions for mobile devices such as smartphones and camcorders.


The external SATA interface has been around longer than most of the ports we just described. Until USB 3.0 came along, this port was the fastest link to consumer storage peripherals such as external hard drives. However, USB 3.0’s superior real-world speed and backward compatibility may signal that eSATA’s day is done. Like the internal SATA interface, eSATA may support 1.5Gbps, 3Gbps, or 6Gbps theoretical transfer rates. Some recent eSATA ports also supply enough electrical power to run compatible flash memory drives. However, the majority of ports force users of eSATA flash drives to use a cable to draw supplemental power from a USB port.


Smart Computing | September 2011 p.29


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