USB, Firewire and Thunderbolt, Oh My! – Tony’s Tech Tips

by Tony Gamble

Tony's Tech Tips LogoOne of the things I run into with clients most often is a lot of confusion over the types of ports used by their cameras, printers and LCD screens. Quite often I’ll have a client ask if he can use Model X Whizbang Gizmo on his PC, to which I would respond with “Do you have the (insert type here) port?” More often than not, the answer is “It’s the flat rectangular one.” Well that’s helpful.

With the sheer volume of devices out there designed to communicate with your home computer, it’s no wonder consumers are confused about which port is which. As technology continues to advance at its breakneck pace, ports change to keep up with the demand for speed and versatility. So how about a handy guide to help you identify the most common ports you’re likely to find at your local Big Box store?



USBThis is perhaps the most common and most recognized port out there. The Universal Serial Bus (USB) came to us in the mid-1990s and can be found on keyboards, mice, cameras, hard drives and more. The speed at which it transfers data has improved exponentially over the years, starting out at a paltry 1.5 megabits per second (or about 512 pages of text in a single second), and currently enjoying a healthy boost to 4 gigabits per second (about 1,270 copies of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – 1st Edition in a second). Fortunately, the physical connection hasn’t changed much in that time, allowing even old USB 1.0 devices to communicate on the speedy new USB 3.0 controller. The appearance of this port varies depending on the device, but the most recognizable shape that you’ll see on your PC is rectangular and flat.



FireWireThis port, also known as IEEE 1394, was originally intended to replace the slow USB connections and was adopted by Apple in the early 1990s. Compared to USB, the Firewire connection began by providing transfer speeds over 260 times faster at 400 megabits per second (Mbps), making it ideal for video cameras that need to transfer enormous amounts of data. In 2003, that speed went up to 800 Mbps, but in doing so the manufacturers had changed the connectors. What started out as a 6-sized elongated hexagon matured into a smaller, more squared-off shape. This meant that your FW400 device couldn’t plug into the new FW800 port without help. Fortunately, the new port could still speak the same language, so this physical incompatibility can be overcome with an adapter.



ThunderboltDeveloped by Intel and appearing first on Apple’s 2011 MacBook Pro, the Thunderbolt port was intended as the next generation to replace Firewire. It can transfer information at a whopping 10, 240 Mbps and can daisy chain up to 6 devices. Adoption of this connection has been slow outside of the Apple ecosystem, but there are plenty of hard drives, video editors and flatscreen displays out there to keep the pros happy.




HTMIThese two ports are very similar in their capacity to communicate high-definition video signals to monitors and televisions. The Digital Visual Interface (DVI) came first in 1999 and can still be found on many computers and televisions today. Its successor, the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) added the capability of transferring audio alongside the video, eliminating the need for extra cables. HDMI also supports encrypting the signal using a feature called High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), which is a digital copy protection scheme that prevents one from pirating TV and BluRay discs.



Download the Visual Guide

Download the Visual Guide

These certainly aren’t the only ports you’ll find on your Mac or PC, but when you head down to your local Best Buy or Wal-Mart to pick up a new camera, camcorder or hard drive, they’re most likely the ones you’ll be looking at. To help you sift through the technobabble on the box, bring this handy visual guide with you. You’ll thank me for it.

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