Untangling the World of USB Types and Adapters
| Reuben Howe
In 2023 there are a staggering 10+ types of USB split across 4 different generations or "forms"! The days of "pass me a phone charger" have been replaced with "Oh wait, is it a USB-C or still a Micro?" and the disappointment that follows. From your phone to your PC and your "retro" tech like MP3 or CD players the USB cable is a versatile creature.
Get your head around all the commonly-used USB types here, with examples of adapters from our catalogue so you can really understand the differences and uses!
USB Types: Meet the Line-up
First off, let's get ourselves a comprehensive list of the cables we'll be covering:
Within each of these designs are actually a few different versions, the most common you'll have heard being USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 which are both versions of USB-A connections.
The only way to learn which is which is to dive in!
USB-A - The Classic
When you say "USB" most people will think of a "USB Stick". This is a storage technology that, nowadays, can hold upwards of 128GB in a space smaller than your finger. Even at such small a size, that connection is pretty large by comparison to other USB types!
USB-A connections are littered all over desktop computers and the sides of laptops (One's that aren't too shy about having a bit more width to support the port).
USB-A ports can carry power, and that's why they feature so commonly as the end of charging cables. Since a USB-A can connect to so many types of device, and even mains sockets nowadays, they make the perfect universal charging connection.
Not only that, USB-A can also carry data. We can see this easily in capture cards. Capture cards connect directly to a PC or laptop USB port and then to a games console, VHS player, etc. The footage from the console or VHS player is shown on the PC, proving that the video data carried by the SCART, Component or HDMI to the capture card is being processed and carried through the USB port on to the PC.
Of course, the simplest way to see the practicality of USB-A is a USB stick storage device. You can copy PowerPoints for meetings, word docs, pictures for a slideshow, music for a party or even applications ready to run right off the USB stick on the PC you connect to! All of this is possible because of data transfer.
With USB-A being so fundamental to these processes, it's no wonder that Chromebook and Mobile owners can pine for adapters that supply a proper USB port rather than the USB-C or micro-USB port that the device comes with. This adapter can add one or even two USB-A ports in place of a USB-C one, for example.
USB-B - The Middle Child
Joking aside from that title, USB-B served a purpose and was successfully able to transfer power to devices like cameras and some mobile phones. When technology wasn't so thin, there was space for the 5+ pins that a USB-B cable uses!
Cameras are the most common use anymore and every now and again you'll come across an adapter including mini-USB-B for just such devices. Another example are printers and even systems like audio-mixer tables. Substantial electronics that need a good amount of power and fall in to the category of "niche". USB-B never replaced or took off like USB-A, but it never needed to. USB-B and mini-B are fine just how they are and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Micro-USB - The Old New Kid on the Block
In the same way that we are getting buzz about USB 4.0 becoming more mainstream and standardised, micro-USB was once the pinnacle of small technology making a big difference.
Mobile phones are almost always either USB-C or Micro-USB, with Micro-USB being the progenitor of the former. Micro-USB cables can be power-only, or power AND data cables just like a USB-A which makes them exceptionally useful for all sorts of devices which don't have the space for a full USB-A port.
Videogame Controllers, Mobile Phones, Portable Radios, Headphones and Earphones, Speakers, Cameras and more all use micro-USB to keep charged and share data all while keeping a slim, compact design.
The main drawback of Micro-USB is the power and speed ratings compared to modern equivalents...
USB-C - The New Normal
The USB-C cable is smooth, versatile, can be used both ways up, and supports modern enhancements like Thunderbolt built in. That impressive list of Micro-USB devices? Chances are if you buy one made in 2023 it'll use USB-C rather than Micro-USB. One of the few editions to be a straight upgrade to its' predecessor, the USB-C cable is charging phones and transferring data for millions of users around the world.
So, what were those Chromebook and tablet owners doing getting a USB-C to USB-A converter?! Well, while the devices themselves might charge and transfer through USB-C on their end, the other end of the cable is almost always a USB-A! USB-A is still the most common source point for power on PC, laptop and Mains adapters, providing a safe and vetted amount of energy to the USB-C end.
Further to that, USB sticks are, as we discovered earlier, still very much associated with USB-A. You don't ask for a USB stick expecting a USB-C device, and even external hard-drives that can use USB-C will tend to have USB 3.0 (A variant of USB-A) connections to actually make use of that hard-drive or SSD speed.
Learn more about how to plug usb c into pc here
Mini USB - Goodnight, Sweet Prince
The Mini-USB was touched on earlier as a smaller, compact version of USB B cables (Which themselves are suitable for things like old printers and cameras). Mini USB provided data and power from PCs to peripherals but, alas, doesn't do anything that we haven't seen improved by the USB-A 3.0 and USB-C cables.
In this line-up of cable-types it's only USB-C and USB-A 3.0 that are staying relevant enough for long enough and have compatibility with enough devices to truly stand out. But, as someone who got a camera as a kid and needed to use "that weird port" to charge it, Mini USB has a place in my heart.
What is a Lightning Cable?
(We'll Make Our Own Cable, With Fast Speeds and No Compatibility)
Perhaps the most divisive of the USB cable types, Lighting cables are Apple-branded charging and data cables with extremely fast charging and data rates...for Apple products. The Lightning port was envisioned as an all-in-one solution (even removing the 3.5mm jack of all things from Apple phones / tablets!) but backlash has been variable. From the inherent cost assigned to needing proprietary chargers to the cost of adapters and potentially dangerous 3rd party tech for users who want that freedom back, lightning cables are a touchy subject.
The nice thing is that the tech exists in its bubble, and unless you have Apple products you only really need to worry about the other types. If you're ever wondering "Do I need a lightning cable?" the answer can be established easily by checking if your device is Apple-made.
If you are an Apple customer pining for some customisation and freedom from the proprietary Lighting cable then consider a nice coloured, braided cable that's MIDI certified for fast-charge and safety. These cables give you colour options and a good length to work with while remaining completely compatible.
Explore USB Adapters
Once you've taken the dive in to USB tech you then have the next task, working out if the cables you have and devices you have can be compatible with as few adapters as possible! It can be a bit algebraic, with USB-A and USB-C not connecting but then using a USB-C to USB-A adapter enables that connection, and even then a connection from UBA-A to something like Lighting or Micro is possible so you've actually created a USB-C to Lighting connection!
Take it one step at a time and see each adapter independently to avoid ending over-spending!