What Are These Cables? Common Cables and Their Uses

What Are These Cables?

We all have that one drawer that’s full of cables and things from years past. The infamous “Junk Drawer” can clutter up valuable storage space. Often tangled up in that drawer is a mass of cables that go to something we once used but never got rid of. What are all these cables and cords and what are they used for?

Before we organize our Junk Drawer, let’s look at common cable types and see if they have any use in 2021. Let’s dive into cables in today’s Tech Basics.

Power all the things – Wall Adapters

One of the most common types of cables collected over the years in a junk drawer is the AC adapter power cable. These cables usually come with a block that plugs into your power outlet and converts power from Alternating Current (AC) electricity from your home to Direct Current (DC) used by everyday devices.

AC Power Adapters

Most AC adapter power cables will have a round end of various sizes ranging from very small to nearly half an inch wide. To see if we can use these cables, we need two important pieces of information: do they fit and if they supply the right amount of power.

Evan-Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the bottom of most devices that use a power cord, there is an information label that says the type of power it uses. On the power block of the adapter is a similar information label describing the power output from the adapter. For safety and protection of the device, only use AC power adapters that match the voltage and amperage for the device.

Brand new 90W Laptop AC Adapter for Toshiba Acer Gateway HP 19V 4.74A

Wall Power Cords

ArnoldReinhold, via Wikimedia Commons

Wall power cords are another type of cord that might be stuck in your junk drawer. These cables are best known for powering desktop computers from a wall outlet. If you have a desktop computer, it might be wise to keep one or two around.

Mobile Power – Charging and Data Cables

Another common type of cord found in our junk drawers is charging and data cables for mobile phones and digital cameras. The most common type of power for mobile phones is Universal Serial Bus, or the much friendlier: USB.

Micro USB Cables

As technology has changed over the years, so have the type of cables used to power these devices. Today, the most used type of USB cable for mobile devices is the micro-USB. Micro USB has a flat bottom with little prongs to keep them securely connected. While the top side of the connector has angled corners. You’ll probably want to keep a few of these around in your newly organized drawer.

3 micro USB connectors

USB Type C Cables

Micro-USB might still be king for a whole bunch of different devices, from an Alexa or Google Home to many common smartphone brands. However, there is a new kid on the block that’s steadily taking over the market for mobile power: USB Type C.

USB Type C is the standout when compared to its predecessors. It solved a dilemma plaguing USB for years: Which way to plug the darn things in. With USB Type C, gone are the days of trying to figure out which way they go in. Type C cables can be connected from either orientation, reducing user frustration as well as connector and port damage.

USB C Cable End

Even power-efficient laptops are being charged with or support USB type C connections. Nearly all next-generation phones being released are using the new USB Type C connection. If you have any USB Type C charging cables, it might be a good idea to hang on to them for a while.

Mini-USB Cables

With Type C being so new and hip, you may not have one in your junk drawer yet. However, you might have an older type of USB that we still see from time to time with older or less sophisticated devices: Mini-USB.

Mini-USB-B-type-Cable_13916-480x360

Mini-USB is a lot like the micro-USB, but it’s a bit thicker and bulkier than its angle cornered cousin. It was mainly used to power older phones like Blackberry and Motorola devices. Many mp3 players were also powered by mini-USB. If you still use any of these devices, hang on to these cables as they are not as common. Otherwise, let’s send them to the recycle bin.

Always Unique – Apple Power Connectors

Apple products are a class all their own. Fortunately, over the years iPhones, iPods, and iPads have really only used two types of charging cables. These proprietary cables are iconic and for the most part, unchanging. You may have a few of them lying around in your junk drawer.

Apple 30 pin Connector

Genuine Apple 30 Pin USB Connector

The Apple 30 pin connector was used for the original iPhone through the iPhone 4S and 1st through 4th generation iPods and iPads. This was the primary connector used up until about 2012. Unless you have one of these older generation Apple products, they’re probably safe to recycle.

Lightning Connector

randychiu, via Wikimedia Commons

Superseding the 30 pin connector and never one to follow the status quo, Apple introduced the Lightning Connector to its products starting in 2012. Well before USB Type C, the Lightning Connector featured a dual-sided compatible design that allowed people to connect it to their device from either orientation. Still very much in use today, the Lightning Connector is a must-have for those who use Apple products.

MacBook AC Adapters

Shannon Savage, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Apple MacBooks have changed their shape a little bit over the years. The newest generation of MacBooks uses the new USB Type C port to charge their devices. However, older MacBooks used a third type of Apple proprietary connector called MagSafe on its AC power adapters. This unique type of connector didn’t quite insert into a port. Rather, magnets held the connector firmly in place and allowed pins to connect with metal contacts on the device. If you have one of these older-style laptops, I’d keep it around. However, remember to follow the AC Adapter safety tips above about connection and power compatibility.

Visual Power – Video Display Connectors

In addition to AC power adapters and mobile device chargers, you may have a few video display cables piled in that junk drawer as well. While there are definitely a few you’ll want to keep, there may be several older cables that you may not want to keep around.

S-Video

S-Video, Evan Amos, Wikipedia Commons

VGA

VGA, Evan-Amos, via Wikimedia Commons

DVI

DVI, Hartmut.krummrei, via Wikimedia Commons

The three connectors listed above are analog video display relics from the older days of computing. S-video and VGA date back to the late ’80s, well before the dawn of the modern internet. DVI showed up in graphics cards starting in 1999 and in some variations supports both digital and analog display. If you have an older computer or monitor that supports these connections, you might want to hang on to them. However, I strongly suggest considering an upgrade to some of the modern digital connections below.

HDMI

D-Kuru, via Wikimedia Commons

HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface. It is by far the most common modern display technology used in computers, monitors, televisions, and gaming consoles. HDMI has a flat bottom portion and is angled on either end on the other side.

DisplayPort

displayPort

DisplayPort is one of the newest digital video connections, originating in 2006. Intended to replace VGA and DVI it has a sturdy construction, flat bottom, and is angled on one side. While it has a similar look to HDMI at first glance, the telling feature is the single angled side rather than HDMI’s two angles.

Let’s Get Organized.

Now that we’ve identified the cables in our junk drawer, we can begin sorting through and deciding which cables to keep and which cables are best recycled. Remember to make sure the cables you keep are a proper fit and rated for your devices. Never use frayed, broken, or worn-out cables. In addition to being a potential fire hazard, worn-out cables might damage your device.

For more Tech Basics tips, guides, and tutorials, click the link below.

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