Unplugged
December 19, 2005 9:34 PM   Subscribe

What's the deal with USB cables? They're supposed to be "universal", but every time I get a new device (or buy a new cable at the store), I end up with a different kind of plug or receptacle. The only cable I can use with my digital camera is the one that came with it -- I've never found another with the same tiny plug on one end. Now my MP3 player requires yet another type of tiny plug. I left the cable that came with it at work, thinking I could surely use one of the various USB cable types I had at home. None of them fit!

After a little research, I see there are actually four different USB plug and receptacle types (scroll down). So much for "universal". (But none of the four different cables I have at home fit my MP3 player! Are there actually more than four subtypes? Are manufacturers making their own proprietary varieties?) What irritates me is that nowhere on the packaging or in the manual of any device or cable I've bought is there any explanation of which plug/receptacle flavor I'm buying -- "USB 2.0" is the only info provided.

My immediate problem is finding a second cable for my MP3 player, so I can have one at home and one at the office. I'd prefer it to be as short as possible -- 12" or less. Here's what the receptacle looks like -- I'm guessing it's mini-A or mini-B, but it doesn't quite resemble either of those as shown on the chart linked above:

posted by Artifice_Eternity to Technology (28 answers total)
 
Looks like a pretty standard small-form USB cable to me. I got one with both my camera and mp3 player. I also noticed one on a RAZR phone.

Should be able to pick one up at best buy or whatever. Just bring your original cable with you to compare.
posted by delmoi at 9:49 PM on December 19, 2005


OK, I was thinking my MP3 player had a Mini-B type receptacle. Now this site suggests that there are 4-pin and 5-pin Mini-B plugs and receptacles. Mine would seem to be 5-pin. But while the shape of the receptacle resembles the Mini-B picture here, the placement of the pins within it does not.

ARGH.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:49 PM on December 19, 2005


Woah, on closer inspection of my own MP3 player, it actually looks a little diffrent then mine, but are you sure a mini-b plug won't fit? It looks like the prongs would still line up.
posted by delmoi at 9:53 PM on December 19, 2005


Artifice: I think the diagram is of the plug not the receptical. The caption reads:
Comparing the cros-sections of the Mini-A plug with the Standard-A plug (a) and the Mini-B plug with the Standard-B plug (b) shows a significant size diffrence. The new connectors will make USB 2.0 much easier to use on handheld portable devices.
posted by delmoi at 9:56 PM on December 19, 2005


I'll have to look at the cable when I get to my office tomorrow -- except, SHIT, I live in Brooklyn and my office is in Manhattan, so that could be a slight problem.

I can't believe I left the cable at the office. TODAY of all days.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:58 PM on December 19, 2005


Delmoi: Good catch on the diagram. If those are plugs, then the mini-B looks most likely to fit my player's receptacle.

But I may not be able to confirm that any time soon...
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:59 PM on December 19, 2005


Well, I've answered one of my questions, about whether proprietary flavors of USB connector exist: Yes.

Sony uses a mini-'B' connector that looks very similar in size and shape to the standard mini-'B' connector, however the Sony connector is not the same.

Figures that Sony would make their own special USB dongles.

My MP3 player is a Sandisk, however.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:06 PM on December 19, 2005


I never get this either...
Why couldn't they just use ONE small mini USB plug in both sides... so the cable is all same all the time and all gadgets and computer has some port.???

Is there electricity requirement for different size?
posted by curiousleo at 10:07 PM on December 19, 2005


The connector usually does indicate a special form factor, power (or not) requirement, or similar. The bus is universal, the cables and connectors are not.
posted by kcm at 10:08 PM on December 19, 2005


Wait, it gets worse.

As if this weren't enough, Sony has also decided to make it's own USB connection, called a USB Sony Mini-B, which is an extremely small rectangle which comes in a variety of configurations for a variety of Sony products.

Someday those Sony fuckers will realize they do not have the power to make the marketplace adapt their freakish custom formats. They may be bankrupt by that time, however.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:09 PM on December 19, 2005


Artifice: I'm pretty sure I've used a standard mini-B plugs with my Sony Digital Camera, and I'm certain I've used the mini-B plug that came with my camera with my Samsung MP3 player.
posted by delmoi at 10:27 PM on December 19, 2005


Sony is totally a Dick, though. I've sworn 'em off even though I lurve their stuff (especially their cameras :( )
posted by delmoi at 10:28 PM on December 19, 2005


Why couldn't they just use ONE small mini USB plug in both sides... so the cable is all same all the time and all gadgets and computer has some port.???

I actually have a very old digital camera (640x480) that had an actual full-sized A socket (I never knew what the names of these plugs were before today, by the way, thanks Arty :P) on it. I've never seen anything like it, and I've never seen cables for it. Everything has some type of B receptacle. Hmm. Maybe Mini-A sockets are for miniature computers that you connect devices too, like a PDA? That would explain why you never see them.
posted by delmoi at 10:31 PM on December 19, 2005


Also original X-Box controllers use a totally proprietary USB connector, which is even larger then a standard-A.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 PM on December 19, 2005


If cables were all standard and interchangeable, you could buy them anywhere and from anyone. You'd no longer have to buy a proprietary Canon cable for your camera, an Apple cable for your iPod and a Sony cable for your PSP. There'd be lost profits everywhere!

What are you, Communist?
posted by aladfar at 10:40 PM on December 19, 2005


I actually have a very old digital camera (640x480) that had an actual full-sized A socket in it. I've never seen anything like it, and I've never seen cables for it.

What? The full-size A and B sockets and plugs are absolutely commonplace and have been so for years. Any USB keyboard or mouse, for instance, will use them.

Everything has some type of B receptacle.

Traditionally they're oriented so the "hub" device (like a computer or hub) has an A socket, and the peripheral device has a B socket. So a typical cable has one A plug and one B plug. I have never seen a B to B cable.
posted by xil at 10:45 PM on December 19, 2005


What? The full-size A and B sockets and plugs are absolutely commonplace and have been so for years. Any USB keyboard or mouse, for instance, will use them.

That was the only place I've ever seen an A socket on a peripheral Every other USB peripheral I've ever seen used B-sockets (full sized or mini) for output. USB hubs have always had B outputs with several A socket inputs. And all cables that I've ever seen have had one A plug and one B plug (std or mini)

The camera came with a cable with two A ends, and I have never seen a cable like that ever again.
posted by delmoi at 11:07 PM on December 19, 2005


check out your local department store electronics section - there are really great USB adaptor kits availible now that cost less than the price of a single USB cable at compUSA (which is not actually saying much since compUSA doesn't seem to sell any USB cables for less than $24 these days. The era of $3 USB cables seems to have died in favour of silly overpriced brand-name products)

Anyway, these kits generally have some A-to-A cables and then a set of A-to-everything-else adaptors, and usually a duplicate set (so you can have anything-to-anything), and sometimes some bonus stuff, like network plug adaptors so you can use the kit as a network cable or a modem cord in a pinch.

Oh, and second the comments about Sony. You lose a lot more than you gain by buying their shit - it always looks decent at first, but a year later, you've been so boned by price-gouging on proprietary formats, discovered normal features disabled on the assumption that you're a criminal (or more like, to try to force increased sales of Sony content), that you really took the hard road and got less out of it. Even no-name brand is safer than sony these days, and has been for years.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:53 PM on December 19, 2005


What you have in your picture is a standard 5-pin mini-B receptacle. I assume you plug this into your PC so you need is a standard "A to mini-B" cable. Some manufacturers use a non-standard 4-pin mini-B. You don't want that.

Here is the history of USB connectors. Back in 1995 the first version of USB 1.1 was released. This included only two types of connectors -- the standard A and the standard B. The A-plug only plugs into the upstream end or host PC. The B-plug only plugs into the downstream peripheral. These plugs are different so that you can't accidentally plug two devices into each other or two host PCs into each other causing electrical damage. Some devices like a mouse don't have a B-receptacle because the cable is permanently attached in what is called a captive cable. These standard connectors all have four pins.

It wasn't long before manufacturers started putting USB in portable devices like MP3 players and cameras and realized that the standard B-plug was just too big for these tiny devices and so they just shrunk the B-plug and receptacle down to a mini-B 4-pin. Various manufacturers did this on their own using proprietary designs, which is unforturnate. Your digital camera probably has one of these if it has four pins and is sort of square and D-shaped, like a standard B connector but smaller. Electrically, the mini-plugs and receptacles are identical to the full-size ones. They are only smaller to reduce the form factor.

It wasn't until 2000 that the USB organization caught up and created a univeral specification for the mini-B plug and receptacle. This is what you have on your MP3 player. Around the same time the USB organization was looking ahead to something called USB OTG (on-the-go) and realized that they were going to need a fifth pin. So when they created the mini-B specificaton, it was a 5-pin plug and receptacle with the fifth pin being a no-connect.

So at this point the USB organization had just a standard A for the host end and either a standard B or a mini-B 5-pin for the peripheral end. You can tell the universal mini-B from the proprietary mini-B because the universal has five pins and the proprietary has only four pins.

In 2003 the USB organization came up with the OTG (on-the-go) specification. Originally they only envisioned peripherals like mice and printers plugged into host PCs. For OTG they wanted to plug two peripheral devices directly into each other without a host PC -- for example a digital camera to a printer so that you could print pictures without without a PC.

For this OTG standard they needed a new small plug and receptacle called the mini-A. To connect two OTG devices you need a cable with a mini-A plug on one end and a mini-B plug on the other. The device you plug into with the mini-A plug becomes the default host and the device you plug into with the mini-B plug becomes the default peripheral.

Now, to make things more confusing, some devices could behave as both a host and a peripheral so they came up with the mini-AB receptacle. This receptacle is shaped in such a way that it will accept either a mini-A or a mini-B plug. The device defaults to the proper role of host or peripheral according to which end of the cable is connected, mini-A or mini-B. If you plug the cable into two devices which both have mini-AB receptacles, the two devices will default to the roles defined by the plugs on the cable, then later negotiate using a special protocol to decide which will be the host and which will be the peripheral. This has the advantage of allowing users to plug to OTG devices together and not needing to know which will be the host. The devices will figure it out on their own.

So now you have a standard A or mini-A for the host and a standard B or mini-B for the peripheral. Cables can have various combinations of these as long as there is an A on one end and a B on the other. It just depends on what kind of devices you are connecting. Generally PCs and hubs will use the full size connectors and small portable devices will use the mini-connectors. (A cable may have an A-plug on one end and an A-receptacle on the other. In that case it can't be used to connect two devices directly. It is just used as an extension cord.)

Just remember that an A-plug is the upstream or host end and a B-plug is the downstream or peripheral end. A hub will have receptacles for both -- the B-receptacle is the downstream end from the host PC and the A-receptacles are the upstream ends feeding to the peripherals. A keyboard may have a built-in hub to allow other peripherals to be connected without having to connect directly to the PC. In that case the keyboard will have an A-receptacle since it is upstream of the peripherals.
posted by JackFlash at 11:56 PM on December 19, 2005 [1 favorite]


delmoi:

Those A-to-A cables are common. My mp3 player has an A-socket, and I often used it as an external HDD at work or elsewhere, but frequently forgot the cable, so sometimes I'd just wander to the nearest computer store or department store and get another for $3 to $6.

Well, maybe they were common, as I mentioned, compUSA seems to have stopped carrying any discrete cable that costs less than $24.99. I haven't looked for them recently - I have quite a collection now :)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:01 AM on December 20, 2005


As if this weren't enough, Sony has also decided to make it's own USB connection, called a USB Sony Mini-B, which is an extremely small rectangle which comes in a variety of configurations for a variety of Sony products.

Is there a camera maker in the world that doesn't? My Panasonic and minoltas both have proprietary cables too.
posted by cillit bang at 2:41 AM on December 20, 2005


Thanks JackFlash. That is a nice explanation of a vexing problem. Much appreciated.
posted by RMALCOLM at 3:16 AM on December 20, 2005


cillit bang: Nikon. A while back they used weird, tiny square 4-pin connectors, but my D70 has mini-B, as do almost all my portable peripherals.
posted by scruss at 4:30 AM on December 20, 2005


I'm not the OP, but JackFlash looks like a good candidate for a Best Answer designation.

Just to add to the comments about the excessive cost of cabling, I used to work for a national electronics chain, and our employee discount was such that we paid only 5% above cost for any item -- not much or no savings on some things, but for a store-brand $24 USB cable, our price was less than $3. I'm just saying.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:18 AM on December 20, 2005


All of the big chain stores seem to have gone to a single-vendor model for accessories - Try to find anything besides Monster Cable at Best Buy, I dare you. Pisses me off - if you have a small computer store locally, one that sells components or home-built systems, you can probably find a better deal on cables. They're much more likely to carry a generic one vs. the overpriced name brand crap (and it is pretty definitely crap - the price difference between Monster and generic isn't worth the difference in cable quality.)
posted by caution live frogs at 7:46 AM on December 20, 2005


It was my impression that USB referred merely to the interface with the computer, not the device, making it universal. It's like all cars running on unleaded gas, not that all parts of each car can fit on other cars.
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:11 AM on December 20, 2005


JackFlash: Thanks for a very comprehensive explanation, that not only solves my problem but explains the whole USB cable mess. It's amazing to me that I was not able to find a clear and concise summary elsewhere on the web... and that cable and device makers don't offer any of this info in their manuals or on their packaging.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2005


In Sony's defense (for once), I discovered this weekend that the cable supplied with the PSPortable fits my wife's Canon Digital Rebel just fine (I used it to download stuff from her camera to my iPod with the iPod Camera adapter).
posted by lhauser at 12:00 PM on December 20, 2005


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