Multiple Ports on Your PC: What Do They Do for You?

The back of your PC is a rich source of connectivity. Ports and connectors exist for just about any device you can find, though some may be more obscure than others. In today’s USB-centric PC, it’s sometimes easy to forget that other connectivity options exist. Even USB isn’t just USB any longer.

Let’s walk through the plethora of connection types you could conceivably find on PCs, and their possible use. We’ll start with the most modern connections and work backwards. At the end, we’ll touch on possible connections you’ll see in future PCs.

While the examples here focus on desktop PCs, most of these connections are available on various laptop PCs as well.

For an examination of common and not-so-common connections that you may find on your system's motherboard, see "Motherboard Port Guide: Solving Your Connector Mystery."

Schizophrenic USB

USB used to be simple. You had USB 2.0 and… that was it. USB 1.0 connections existed for a brief time, but once USB 2.0 came along, with substantially better throughput, it became widely adopted. As with any widely adopted standard, variants appeared. Let’s look at some flavors of USB you might find, and how they might vary.

Standard USB 2.0 ports.
Standard USB 2.0 ports.

USB 2.0 is the standard port type. These days, mice, keyboards, hard drives, optical drives, printers, and just about anything else can be found in a USB 2.0 flavor to plug into one of these ports. Even with the emergence of USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed USB), USB 2.0 is still the most versatile connection.

USB 2.0 port with BIOS auto-install feature.
USB 2.0 port with BIOS auto-install feature.

This particular type of USB port ships on certain recent Asus-manufactured motherboards. This is a standard USB 2.0 port, and can be used as a normal connection to USB 2.0 devices. However, it’s also able to auto-install a BIOS. You need to copy a special BIOS flash program to a USB flash memory key, as well as the BIOS you want to install. Then press a button next to the port when the system is powered up, and the BIOS auto-installs. This is a pretty geeky feature, tailor-made for hard-core enthusiasts who may have gotten themselves into trouble with severe overclocking or other tweaks.

USB 2.0 ports with increased available trickle current.
USB 2.0 ports with increased available trickle current.

These types of ports are available on motherboards made by Asus, Gigabyte and possibly other manufacturers. It increases the available trickle current out of the USB port to charge up mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. This is in response to devices like Apple’s iPad, which requires more current to charge than the normal USB 2.0 port might supply to charge in a reasonable amount of time.

USB 3.0 ports.
USB 3.0 ports.

USB 3.0 is the latest version of USB, and is also known as SuperSpeed USB. It increases maximum throughput to 5 gigabits per second (625MB per second.) Most PCs implement USB 3.0 through a discrete chip built onto the motherboard, but some AMD chipsets have USB 3.0 built into the PC’s core logic. Intel will be building USB 3.0 into its core logic in its next-generation Ivy Bridge chipsets.

USB 3.0 is backward-compatible, so you can plug in USB 2.0 devices, but you’ll get only USB 2.0 speeds. Also, USB 3.0 cables are different than earlier USB cables, so be sure to get the right cable type for your USB 3.0 device, if your spiffy SuperSpeed USB gizmo didn’t include a cable in the box.

Next: eSATA, Audio, and Networking

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