USB (Universal Serial Bus): Everything You Need to Know

USB (Universal Serial Bus): Everything You Need to Know

Tim Fisher has more than 30 years’ of professional technology experience. He’s been writing about tech for more than two decades and serves as the SVP and General Manager of Lifewire.

Updated on April 21, 2023

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USB, short for Universal Serial Bus, is a standard plug-and-play type of connection for many kinds of devices. Generally, USB refers to the types of cables and connectors used to connect these many types of external devices to computers.

What is USB?

The Universal Serial Bus standard has been extremely successful. USB ports and cables are used to connect hardware such as printers, scanners, keyboards, mice, flash drives, external hard drives, joysticks, cameras, monitors, and more to computers of all kinds, including desktops, tablets, laptops, netbooks, etc.

In fact, USB has become so common that you’ll find the connection available on nearly any computer-like device such as video game consoles, home audio/visual equipment, and even in many automobiles.

Before USB, many of those devices would attach to a computer over serial and parallel ports, and others like PS/2.

Many portable devices, like smartphones, eBook readers, and small tablets, use USB primarily for charging. USB charging has become so common that it’s now easy to find replacement electrical outlets at home improvement stores with USB ports built in, negating the need for a USB power adapter.

AmazonBasics USB 3.0 Cable.

The USB Standards List

There have been several major USB standards, with USB4 2.0 the newest version available:

  • USB4 2.0: This version of USB4, which supports 80 Gbps (81,920 Mbps), was released in October 2022.
  • USB4: Based on the Thunderbolt 3 specification, USB4 supports 40 Gbps (40,960 Mbps).
  • USB 3.2 Gen 2×2: Also known as USB 3.2, compliant devices are able to transfer data at 20 Gbps (20,480 Mbps), called Superspeed+ USB dual-lane.
  • USB 3.2 Gen 2: Previously called USB 3.1, compliant devices are able to transfer data at 10 Gbps (10,240 Mbps), called Superspeed+.
  • USB 3.2 Gen 1: Previously called USB 3.0, compliant hardware can reach a maximum transmission rate of 5 Gbps (5,120 Mbps), called SuperSpeed USB.
  • USB 2.0: USB 2.0 compliant devices can reach a maximum transmission rate of 480 Mbps, called High-Speed USB.
  • USB 1.1: USB 1.1 devices can reach a maximum transmission rate of 12 Mbps, called Full Speed USB.

Most USB devices and cables today work with USB 2.0, and a growing number are updating to USB 3.0.

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The parts of a USB-connected system, including the host (like a computer), the cable, and the device, can all support different USB standards so long as they are physically compatible. However, all parts must support the same standard if you want it to achieve the maximum data rate possible.

Everything You Need to Know About USB Ports and Cables

A Look at USB Connectors

A number of different USB connectors exist, described below.

The male connector on the cable or flash drive is typically called the plug. The female connector on the device, computer, or extension cable is typically called the receptacle.

  • USB Type C: Often referred to simply as USB-C, these plugs and receptacles are rectangular with four rounded corners. Only USB 3.1 Type C plugs and receptacles (and thus cables) exist, but adapters for backward compatibility with USB 3.0 and 2.0 connectors are available. This latest USB connector has finally solved the problem of which side goes up. Its symmetrical design allows it to be inserted in the receptacle in either fashion, so you never have to try again (one of the biggest peeves about earlier USB plugs). These are being widely adopted on smartphones and other devices.
  • USB Type A: Officially called USB Standard-A, these plugs and receptacles are rectangular and are the most commonly seen USB connectors. USB 1.1 Type A, USB 2.0 Type A and USB 3.0 Type A plugs and receptacles are physically compatible.
  • USB Type B: Officially called USB Standard-B, these plugs and receptacles are square shaped with an extra notch on top, most noticeable on USB 3.0 Type B connectors. USB 1.1 Type B and USB 2.0 Type B plugs are physically compatible with USB 3.0 Type B receptacles but USB 3.0 Type B plugs are not compatible with USB 2.0 Type B or USB 1.1 Type B receptacles.
  • A USB Powered-B connector is also specified in the USB 3.0 standard. This receptacle is physically compatible with USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 Standard-B plugs, and of course, USB 3.0 Standard-B and Powered-B plugs as well.
  • USB Micro-A: USB 3.0 Micro-A plugs look like two different rectangular plugs fused together, one slightly longer than the other. USB 3.0 Micro-A plugs are only compatible with USB 3.0 Micro-AB receptacles.
  • USB 2.0 Micro-A plugs are very small and rectangular, resembling in many ways a shrunken USB Type A plug. USB Micro-A plugs are physically compatible with both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 Micro-AB receptacles.
  • USB Micro-B: USB 3.0 Micro-B plugs look almost identical to USB 3.0 Micro-A plugs in that they appear as two individual, but connected, plugs. USB 3.0 Micro-B plugs are compatible with both USB 3.0 Micro-B receptacles and USB 3.0 Micro-AB receptacles.
  • USB 2.0 Micro-B plugs are very small and rectangular, but the two corners on one of the long sides are beveled. USB Micro-B plugs are physically compatible with both USB 2.0 Micro-B and Micro-AB receptacles, as well as USB 3.0 Micro-B and Micro-AB receptacles.
  • USB Mini-A: The USB 2.0 Mini-A plug is rectangular, but one side is more rounded. USB Mini-A plugs are only compatible with USB Mini-AB receptacles. There is no USB 3.0 Mini-A connector.
  • USB Mini-B: The USB 2.0 Mini-B plug is rectangular with a small indention on either side, almost looking like a stretched out piece of bread when looking at it head-on. USB Mini-B plugs are physically compatible with both USB 2.0 Mini-B and Mini-AB receptacles. There is no USB 3.0 Mini-B connector.
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Just to be clear, there are no USB Micro-A or USB Mini-A receptacles, only USB Micro-A plugs and USB Mini-A plugs. These «A» plugs fit in «AB» receptacles.

USB Troubleshooting

Using a USB device is usually pretty straightforward: just plug it in. Anything else necessary for the device to work is often handled automatically for you, in the background. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.

Some brand-new USB-connected hardware need special device drivers to fully function. Other times, a USB device that’s been working normally for years might suddenly stop working without an obvious reason why.

Follow this guide on What to Do When Your USB Ports Aren’t Working, or this fix-it guide for What to Do When a USB Device Isn’t Recognized in Windows, if one of those is the issue you’re experiencing. We also have this more general guide: How to Fix a USB Drive Not Showing Up.

Typically, though, the best troubleshooting advice is going to be specific to whatever device you’re using. For example, our What to Do If USB Tethering Isn’t Working guide is made specifically for issues related to USB tethering in Windows. Use the search bar at the top of this page to find additional help, whether it be for your phone, streaming stick, or some other USB device.

Who created the USB standard?

USB was developed collaboratively between Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Nortel. The USB standard is maintained by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF).

What is the current USB standard?

Since 2019, USB4 has been the current USB standard. Only USB-C connectors (rather than traditional mini/micro-USB) can support USB4.

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What does 2.0 and 3.0 mean on a flash drive?

If you see a number like 2.0 or 3.0 on your flash drive, it refers to the version of USB that the device supports. Flash drives that support USB 3.0 can transfer data slightly faster, but it doesn’t matter too much since most ports are backward compatible.

What are the advantages of USB over EIA-232F?

EIA-232F is an older connection standard that was replaced by USB. The USB standard is faster and consumes less power, making it much more efficient.


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