Untangling the Cables

Nick Broughall
7 July, 2012
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Science fiction has a lot to answer for. For decades, it has promised us the utopian future of ubiquitous wireless data, without a cable to be found anywhere. And while technologies like AirPlay are slowly making that future a present-day reality, the fact is that cables are still a very necessary part of our everyday computing needs.

Theoretically, cables should be a relatively simple affair. Plug each end of the cable into the two devices you wish to connect and sit back and watch the magic happen. The difficulties start to arise when you need cables with different connections at each end, or need an adapter to connect some devices to others.

This is especially true for Apple users. Cupertino is renowned for pushing the boundaries when it comes to its choice of cable connectors. It was Apple that first invented the FireWire standard back in the late 1980s, incorporating the technology in its Macs while PCs manufacturers instead opted for the slower USB format.

When it was clear that USB had essentially caught up to speed, Apple began killing off the FireWire connection, first from iPods in 2005 and then from its MacBook lineup in 2008.

Apple was also one of the pioneers of the DisplayPort connection. While the standard was designed to replace DVI and VGA ports, few companies adopted the connection in the same way Apple had. In 2008, Apple even went so far as to create its own version, dubbed mini-DisplayPort, which was later incorporated into the official standard.

More recently, the Thunderbolt connection developed by Intel was first brought to market in 2011 in conjunction with Apple, and appeared on Macs before there were any peripherals to make use of its speed benefits. Even today, other manufacturers are only just beginning to use it.

The good news is that the industry has been consolidating the different kinds of cables, making it significantly easier to understand exactly what you need for any particular job. While that may make older gadgets harder to connect, it does reduce the number of connections you’ll need to consider in the future. Some cables, like USB, are also backwards compatible, allowing you to connect slower USB 1.0 devices to a fast USB 3.0 port.

Despite this, convergence can still lead to confusion when you need to connect different devices that don’t have the same port.

A rear view of Apple’s Thunderbolt Display, showing its power cable and a dual-cable with Thunderbolt and MagSafe connectors.

HDMI, for example, is a perfect way to transfer high definition video and audio to a television screen, but connecting an HDTV to a non-HDMI Mac requires a bit of extra planning. You either need a dedicated cable that features a DisplayPort, mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt connector (depending on your Mac) at one end and HDMI at the other, or you need to buy a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter. Naturally, Apple sells a whole range of adapters to make the process of connecting different types of cables easy, but it’s not necessarily the cheapest option. In many cases, it may actually be cheaper to just buy a dedicated cable with different ports on each end. A quick Google search will tell you when it’s more economical to opt for an adapter over a dedicated cable.

When it comes to cable quality and price, while it’s acknowledged that the quality of analogue cables can severely affect the quality of the data transmission, there are two schools of thought when it comes to digital.

One says that more expensive cables lessen the chance of interference though the use of higher- quality materials, and help stop signal degradation over long cable runs.

The other school – one which is now in the majority – says that the use of digital cable connections means the days of needing to spend hundreds of dollars on expensive wires in order to get the best-quality connection are over. As with digital TV reception, with digital cables like HDMI or Thunderbolt, you either get a connection or you don’t, whether you use a $5 cable or a $300 cable.

Knowing which type of cables you need for each job is the first challenge when connecting your gadgets. Here are the most important types of cables you need to know about for connecting not just your Mac, but all your gadgets.

Home Theatre


It’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago, there was no such thing as an HDMI cable.

Originally designed as a backwards-compatible replacement for DVI connections on TVs, the first HDMI products began launching in 2003.

HDMI’s big draw card over DVI was that, in addition to a smaller plug, it was able to transmituncompressed high-definition video and audio between devices. It also allowed for the transmission of CEC control commands, which let you do things like control your TV’s volume when using your Blu- ray player’s remote control.

There are three main types of HDMI plugs to think about. The main type is a full sized, 19-pin plug that you find in most TVs and home entertainment hardware. Mini-HDMI is a smaller version of the same plug, often found in PCs and tablets, while Micro-HDMI is smaller still, managing to squeeze the 19-pin connector into a tiny port. It’s usually found in camcorders and some (non-Apple) smartphones.

HDMI has moved through a few different standards over the past nine years, adding functionality and support for technologies such 3D and 4K resolutions. The catch is that you need to get the right type of cable for these functions to work. If in doubt, opt for the top-of-the-line “High Speed with Ethernet” option to make sure everything works.


Back in the days before everybody had a fancypants flat-panel TV, a technology called CRT made the television world go around. Emphatically analogue,it offered limited ways of connecting external products, but if you wanted the best possible quality, your only option was component video.

Component video connections transfer pictures by separating the red, blue and green signal into three distinct channels and dedicating a wire to each one. Because pretty much every TV recreates images by combining those three colours, this is the way to get the best possible image quality transmitted over an analogue connection.

Component connections are probably the best option for connecting older devices that lack an HDMI port to newer digital TVs. Because it’s an analogue connection, though, it’s worth spending just a little bit more to ensure you have quality cables to make the connection. You’ll also need to consider a way to connect the audio, as component is a video-only cable.

Composite Video

Composite video is the de facto video connection for home cinema products – in practically every box you’ll find the standard yellow, white and red cable to connect to your TV. This is a travesty.

Essentially, composite takes all three component video streams and runs them down a single wire – the yellow one. Generally, the quality of the cable is abysmal, and because so much information is being sent down a single cable, the quality of the signal amplifies the terrible picture.

The red and white cables carry stereo sound, but the same issue occurs thanks to questionable quality and limited bandwidth in the cable. Best used only as a last resort, composite video connections are cheap, which is perhaps the standard’s only saving grace.


Sacre bleu! While most of the world was content to use the disappointing composite cable plug to connect AV gear to televisions back in the ’70s, the French were busy developing a superior port called SCART. Using 21 pins in a uniquely shaped (and large) connector, SCART gathered all the necessary analogue video and audio channels and transmitted them through a single connection.

The SCART connection never really took off in Australia, generally only appearing on European televisions and set-top boxes. It has mostly been superseded by the digital HDMI format, but trivia fans will appreciate the fact that the CEC technology in the HDMI standard, which allows users to control connected devices, largely came from SCART’s AV.Link technology.


Fortunately for humanity, the S-Video connector has mostly gone the way of the dodo in a world filled with HDMI televisions and accessories. S-Video offered a step up from composite video quality by separating analogue video transmission into two channels – brightness and colour.

The big problem with S-Video – aside from the average video quality compared to the digital connections of today – was that the four-pin connector was not only difficult to connect, but also easy to bend out of shape. The fragility of the pins meant that it was especially easy to break, compared to other cable options.


It has a name to make marketers cringe, but S/PDIF is an essential part of the home theatre setup, offering a way to connect devices digitally to share an audio connection.

It comes in a couple of different versions – a coaxial cable with a simple one-pin plug that looks similar to a TV antenna connection; or an optical version known as TOSLINK that uses optic fibre to connect between two devices.

S/PDIF is used for transmitting digital audio signals for devices that don’t have HDMI ports. It can transmit surround sound standards like DTS and Dolby Digital, making it useful for home theatre setups. But given that HDMI also transmits uncompressed digital audio, these cables are becoming less and less common.





Beginning its life as an Intel prototype connection known as Light Peak, Thunderbolt made its first appearance in the 2011 MacBook Pro range. Featuring the same connection point as the mini-DisplayPort it replaced, Thunderbolt essentially combines PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies into a single cable.

The real beauty of Thunderbolt – aside from its 20Gbit/second speeds – is that it allows up to seven different Thunderbolt devices to be daisy-chained together. That means that the single port on your MacBook Pro can connect to a docking station, four external hard drives and two external monitors, adding capacity and convenience to your laptop.

The big catch with that scenario is that your computer’s graphics card needs to be able to support outputting to two external video sources. Well, that and the fact that because the technology is so new, actually finding Thunderbolt peripherals on store shelves is exceptionally difficult.


DisplayPort is one of those brilliantly named cables that need little explanation – it’s a port for connecting your displays. Nice and simple!

Naturally, there are a few complications to keep things interesting, though. Like Mini DisplayPort, which Apple created back in 2008 and then licensed to the rest of the industry for free, before it was introduced into the official DisplayPort standard.

Then there’s the fact that the basic DisplayPort connection isn’t technically compatible with technologies like HDMI and DVI. Only Dual-Mode DisplayPort connections (which admittedly is most DisplayPort connections these days) will let you plug in a DVI or HDMI adapter through the DisplayPort plug and connect to a DVI or HDMI screen. Look for a DP++ logo if you’re not sure if your DisplayPort connection is dual mode or not.

Also worth paying attention to is whether your Mac has a mini DisplayPort or a Thunderbolt port (look for the thunderbolt icon next to the port). While Thunderbolt is backwards- compatible, if you try and connect a Thunderbolt peripheral through a mini DisplayPort plug, you aren’t going to have a lot of luck.


Once upon a time, VGA was the de facto monitor connection standard for almost all computers, and some TV sets as well. With 15 pins and two screws to hold it in place, the VGA cable supported resolutions all the way up to 2048 × 1536 pixels.

As an analogue cable connector, VGA could transmit the equivalent of a component-video-quality signal across its copper wiring. Of course, the final image quality could be affected by the quality and length of the cable.

These days, the VGA connector still makes an appearance on some desktop PCs, but Apple has moved on from the legacy standard in a big way, replacing it with the more up-to-date digital connections DisplayPort and Thunderbolt.

If you do happen to own a legacy VGA screen and want to connect it to your newer computer, there isa whole range of different adapters to convert newer cable signals to the analogue VGA connection.

Although, to be honest, if you do own a monitor that only supports VGA, and not something like DVI or HDMI, it might be time to upgrade anyway.


DVI was the first real digital video connection cable for computers. Which would have been fantastic if it wasn’t a barrel of confusion. That’s one of the main reasons DVI didn’t take off in the home theatre space.

To start with, there are three different versions of DVI: DVI-D, which is a digital only connection; DVI- A, an analogue only port; or DVI-I, which integrates both analogue and digital into a single cable.

Admittedly, the analogue capability in DVI was mostly included as a way of offering backwards compatibility for legacy VGA connections through an adapter. But with ongoing push for digital devices, DVI’s analogue connectivity is mostly obsolete these days.

In addition to the different types of DVI, there’s also the choice between single-link and dual link, a version that essentially doubles the video bandwidth the cable can handle.

Each different type of connection uses a different permutation of pins on the DVI’s connector as well, which means you need to pay close attention to what type of cable you need before buying. Otherwise, you could end up with a useless stretch of copper wire.


Also going by the much less-catchy moniker IEEE 1394, FireWire was Apple’s attempt at creating a fast and reliable serial bus interface standard for transferring data. It would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddlesome USB.

Developed as far back as 1986 and driven by Apple (but with some input from the likes of Sony, IBM and Texas Instruments), FireWire was a popular connection interface with hard drives and video cameras for fast data transfer.

Despite technically being capable of connecting up to 63 peripherals in a daisy chain, FireWire was consistently overshadowed by the cheaper and simpler USB standard.

Even Apple has cooled on the cable standard, originally cutting FireWire connectivity support for the iPod and then removing FireWire ports from its MacBook lineup. The connection does still appear on some Mac models.

To keep you on your toes, there are a few different FireWire versions to pay attention to. FireWire 400 was the first version, followed by FireWire 800, which quickly became the standard.

There are also FireWire 1600 and FireWire 3200 standards, although they are a lot less common and Apple hasn’t upgraded past the 800 version on its Mac machines.

The plug for FireWire 400 is slightly different to all the other standards too, so you might want to double-check what you need to connect before dropping any cash.


The Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection has become the de facto wired connection for not only computers, but smartphones, games consoles and hard drives as well.

Originally conceived in the mid-1990s, USB originally had a maximum speed of just 12Mbps, and featured a low data rate for peripherals like joysticks.

By 2000, the USB 2.0 standard had increased that to 480Mbps, which made it fast enough to compete with technologies like FireWire, although not quite surpassing it. The 2008 launch of USB 3.0 upped that to a whopping 5Gbps, while increasing power output and decreasing power consumption.

The fact that USB can carry enough juice to power up gadgets has no doubt helped its success. In some cases, USB ports on computers can even charge gadgets when the computer is switched off.

There are a few different plug types for USB, although they are mostly interchangeable between brands and manufacturers. Type A is the one in pretty much every computer launched in the past 15 years, Type B appears in printers, while the mini and micro versions of each are found in peripherals and smartphones.


If you’ve never pulled apart a PC, you may not be familiar with the Serial ATA connector used to connect hard drives and optical drives inside. eSATA is the external version of that connector.

Used almost exclusively to connect to external hard drives, eSATA of

fers the benefit of plugging indirectly to your external hard drive without any need for data conversion to travel through a FireWire or USB cable. It’s also a lot faster than traditional USB 2.0 or FireWire 400 connections.

The catch is that eSATA can’t carry power, so you won’t find portable 2.5in drives with an eSATA connection. You also need a computer with an eSATA connector port, which hasn’t made its way to the Mac yet – though it can be added to Mac Pros as an add-in card – and is unlikely to any time soon.


Technically Ethernet isn’t a type of cable so much as a technology for transmitting data. But given that it’s the technology we use to connect to the internet, it’s still pretty important.

There are a few types of cables used for Ethernet connectivity: Cat 5, Cat 5e or Cat 6. All of them use four twisted pairs of cable to transmit data with a minimum of electromagnetic interference and crosstalk.

The main difference between them is that Cat 6 offers better performance largely due to a slightly thicker cable size.

While Cat5 is sufficient for current Ethernet connectivity, if you’re looking to install a wired home network, opt for Cat 6 to future- proof your work.


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