While technological innovations allow us sleek and lightweight laptops that we can carry practically anywhere, they haven’t quite figured out how to make a computer that’s completely free of cords and ports.
Until then, we’ll just have to keep track of the various ports attached to our computers — as well as the cables that connect to them.
And while competition over proprietary port standards and improvements over time means that the available ports for a given machine are going to change over time, the standards in use today aren’t as complicated as they may initially seem.
Whether you’re trying to make sense of a new port you’ve never seen before or understand the usage of an anachronistic cable in your house, here’s everything you need to know about the different types of computer ports we have today.
Data ports are used to transfer data — though the transfer itself can vary depending on the devices being used.
Data cables can be used to connect one computer to another or to an external data storage device like an external hard drive.
Flash drives and memory sticks preempt the need for a cable entirely by simply pairing a miniature storage device with a dongle for the appropriate data port.
As computers become more streamlined, data ports are becoming more versatile — and many data cables double as charging cords for modern day laptops and other devices.
There are currently a handful of different types of data ports in wide usage, and which ones you have access to can limit the speed and efficiency of data transfer for your device.
Initially adopted in 1996, the USB-A port was once the recognized standard for data ports (and still is).
For the most part, it remained in usage for so long because it continued to be highly effective.
But part of it has come down to the fact that USB-A has undergone some major upgrades over the years without needing to make changes to the actual format of the port.
The USB 2.0 standard improved maximum transfer speeds from 12 Mbps to 480 Mbps when it was released in 2000.
USB 3.0 released in 2008 and boosted those speeds again — this time to a maximum of 4.8 Gbps.
While you needed a computer with a port that supported USB 3.0 to make the most of those speeds, every version of USB Type-A was backwards compatible.
USB 3.0 devices could work in 2.0 ports, and older flash cards or cables could connect to newer USB ports and still transfer data at their traditional speeds.
Though USB-A are becoming legacy devices, that legacy is pervasive enough that they will likely have usage for a long time to come.
USB-C was first introduced in 2014 — but it took a few years for it to develop into a serious competitor for the well-entrenched USB-A format.
A USB-C cable can transmit data at roughly four times the speed of USB-A’s 3.0 protocol, and it can also double as a power source when connected to the wall via a block.
In another convenient divergence from the USB-A, this new format also employs a cylindrical design that’s symmetrical top to bottom — and that means that you never have to worry about aligning the cable so that it fits correctly in the port.
Some USB-C devices can even be used as a display port when connected to a compatible TV or monitor.
USB-A managed to stay relevant for so long because it allowed for incremental performance upgrades without requiring consumers to transition to a new format.
For many people, USB-A continues to provide more than capable data transfer rates — but that hasn’t stopped device manufacturers from integrating USB-C into their designs and often ditching USB-A in the process.
Meanwhile, this new format offers other advantages like the ability to work as a display cable for a monitor. And while the release of a 4.0 format for USB-A could complicate things, USB-C currently seems positioned to become the new standard.
The first Thunderbolt cable was released three years after USB 3.0 was introduced to the public, but it’s made some major changes since Apple and Intel first started producing them.
Though the transfer speeds of the first generation Thunderbolt port were comparable to USB 3.0, they offered a few advantages over their primary rival.
They could be used to daisy chain together multiple devices, and they allowed for hub stations that allowed multiple ports to be delivered to the source device by a single cable.
But getting consumers invested in the technology meant getting manufacturers invested — and transitioning their production to a new format when USB-A was already ubiquitous and largely comparable in terms of performance was a hard sell.
High costs associated with the cables also helped stall mass adoption, and it remained a format indulged in almost exclusively by Apple for years.
And while Thunderbolt 1 and 2 began to see some adoption in Windows PCs, the introduction of Thunderbolt 3 has changed the conversation entirely.
Rather than using its own proprietary ports, Thunderbolt cables look exactly like and are completely compatible with USB-C ports — and Thunderbolt ports can read data from USB-C cables.
Transfer speeds with Thunderbolt cables are double that of the fastest USB-C connections, and a Thunderbolt cable paired with a port hub continues to be an elegant solution if you need to connect multiple devices.
SD Card Reader
The trend for primary data ports is to consolidate as many features as possible into a single port, but the SD card format continues to be devoted exclusively to data transfer and storage.
The cards themselves are incredibly small and wafer thin, and the tiny slot for insertion in laptops or PCs may go overlooked if you’re not explicitly seeking it out.
The advantage of SD cards is versatility. They can go with you practically anywhere, and they’re compatible with a range of devices apart from PCs — making them a sensible choice if you want to physically transfer any data over from you digital camera, security systems, video game consoles or entertainment boxes, or even your phone. SD cards continue to be built into most PCs.
While Thunderbolt and USB-C can be used to connect a computer to a display, Thunderbolt ports have yet to become the standard in monitor and TV design.
But there are quite a few existing video and display formats, and many offer some very persuasive arguments.
The audience a computer was designed for can impact the available video ports — as can the form factor, year of production, and cost. These are the primary display ports you’re likely to find on a PC or laptop in 2022 and beyond.
HDMI has been the popular standard for digital video since consumer high definition became mainstream, and it stays that way for now because it comfortably meets the needs of most consumers.
HDMI ports are now a common inclusion on laptops, an easy and elegant choice if you’re looking to display your computer’s screen through your TV.
HDMI continues to be the standard for televisions at the moment — and that means you can expect to find it in everything from TV boxes and movie projectors to gaming consoles and virtual reality headsets.
Unless you’re particularly interested in connecting your tower PC to a television regularly, HDMI isn’t exactly a necessity for desktop machines.
HDMI has done a strong job of staying relevant as video standards evolve. The latest standard is designated HDMI 2.1, and it allows for 8K resolution at 60 Hz or 4K resolution at 120 Hz.
The most recent advancements to HDMI ports support cords that also include ethernet or internet capable.
As these features become more prominent, the challenge will come from making sure that both the port and the cord you’re using support the standards you need.
In the same way that HDMI was introduced as a new standard for television and related consumer video devices, DisplayPort represents an attempt at creating a single unified video standard for computer monitors.
But as the line between entertainment and work devices blur, there’s not always a definitive choice for what a specific computer needs. Most mid-range and higher monitors come equipped with DisplayPort, and it uses a locking mechanism that helps keep both the display and the PC tightly secured.
DisplayPort and HDMI look similar but aren’t actually compatible — and consumers have to deal with the same challenge of untangling the actual speeds, features, and standards of a given port or cable.
As it stands, HDMI 2.1 outperforms DisplayPort 1.4 — though 2.1 devices are still rare and the difference is negligible to most consumers.
Most modern monitors come equipped with DisplayPort connections, so they’re a safe choice for office and home desktops.
But if you use a laptop and travel regularly, you may want to opt for an HDMI port in case you find yourself dealing with anachronistic hotel business center monitors.
DisplayPort can daisy-chain together multiple monitors, and a smaller mini-DisplayPort format is typically employed in smaller devices like tablets.
The DisplayPort may represent a functional standard for computer displays in 2022, but it’s not the first time industry representatives worked together to create a unified format.
When it was first released in 1999, the 1920 x 1200 resolution that DVI could deliver was actually slightly higher than 1080p — which then represented the cutting edge of high definition video.
A lot changed with the introduction of 4K, and DVI’s inability to deliver audio alongside video has left it somewhat obsolete.
The bulkier design of these connectors and the exposed pins that sometimes need to be tightened means that they’re a far greater hassle to deal with than HDMI or DisplayPort.
Despite this, DVI spent a long time as the reigning champion of video transmission — and it’s still not rare to find a graphics card or a monitor equipped with a DVI port.
DVI cords are available in digital and analog formats. The latter are now rare, but they offered simple conversion from the format that preceded them.
That format is VGA. As with DVI, connectors take the form of 15 pins which can be tightened in with a pair of screws to keep them more secure.
And while this method may seem rudimentary, it’s mostly the outdated resolution that killed VGA.
These cables support a maximum resolution of 640 x 480 — which is significantly below DVI, much less the newer standards of high definition video like 4K and 8K.
As laptops grow more compact and their ports become more singular, VGA ports are becoming a rare sight.
But a surprising number of computers and monitors still ship out with VGA ports. As a standard that was introduced in 1987, it’s had a lot of staying power.
HDMI brought with it the ability to transmit both audio and video in high definition, but there’s been no major push for a new standard in audio ports.
In terms of just audio, you aren’t going to find a whole lot of options in both desktop and laptop computers. In fact, there’s really only one.
3.5mm Audio Jack
The 3.5mm audio jack has stayed in use since the 1950s, and its longevity can definitely be attributed to its basic but reliably functional utility.
This port didn’t break out big in the consumer market until the introduction of the Walkman, but it’s since been a ubiquitous presence that’s appeared reliably in everything from PCs to phones to car stereos.
Though simple, it’s been a convenient enough presence for everyone that no one has felt the need to create and try to introduce a new standard.
That could be changing. Apple began removing headphone jacks from their iPhones in 2018 as a means to promote sales of their Bluetooth AirPods, and a few PC manufacturers have started to do the same with some of their laptop models.
The design of ethernet ports have remained relatively unchanged since its invention in 1973.
Though they were once essential for connecting devices to the internet, they often aren’t even needed for configuring a computer to a router anymore.
The increased speed, affordability, and accessibility of wireless internet (WiFi) ensures that ethernet standards will most likely become irrelevant before they undergo a dramatic format change.
RJ45 Wired Ethernet Port
This form of registered jack has been the standard for Ethernet connectivity since 1987, but the speed and functionality of these cables have changed over time.
The exact speed that you can get from a wired connection is contingent on the Ethernet ports in both the network devices and the computer and the cable you’re using.
Backwards compatibility has helped this standard stay relevant until now — but as Wi-Fi speeds catch up to wired LAN speeds, Ethernet ports are becoming obsolete.
Other Peripheral Connection Ports
There are a few other ports that you might find on your computer, but most are curiosities that don’t have much value to the average modern consumer. Here are some of the ones you’re more likely to encounter.
Another output that uses a pinned connector, the parallel port was once commonly found in printers, security cameras, and external devices like hard drives and CD drives.
The introduction of USB brought about the death of parallel ports, and the popularization of wireless internet ensured it would stay dead. Few if any PC manufacturers include parallel ports anymore.
A serial port looks quite similar to a smaller version of a parallel port, but the pins are anchored to the port rather than the cable.
Serial ports were actually more simple than parallel ports because they could only send single streams of data rather than the multiple streams that parallel ports introduced.
Though once employed for peripherals like mice and devices like printers and modems, they’re now functionally extinct.
eSATA was initially introduced as an alternative to USB — an efficient method for transferring data from an external device.
Like early USB advices, it could transfer data but not offer power. A newer iteration known as eSATAp offered both power and data transfer, but few if any modern computers include eSATA ports by default — and eSATA-enabled hard drives are increasingly rare too.
The circular PS/2 port used a system of visible pins like many other contemporaneous ports.
But PS/2 ports were almost exclusively used for connecting keyboards or mice. Though these ports are almost nonexistent today, they are sometimes used in situations demanding specific network security needs.