If you just purchased a new PC or are moving an older one, you may have a jumble of wires and may not be sure what they are or where they go. This guide should help identify the various cables needed to properly set up your computer or assist you find the right cable when your IT support person asks you to check a cable. Some computers will have different numbers and types of connectors. This is a general guide that should cover about 99% of the connectors most people will see.
The Ethernet network cable, also called a patch cable or patch cord, connects from your switch, router or internet modem to the back of your computer. Below are some examples of patch cables. Some refer to patch cables by the quality of the rating for passing traffic. Cat5 cables are rated for 10-100mbit; Cat 5e cables are rated for Gigabit network connections which are faster than Cat5 cables are rated to support. Cat 6 and Cat 6a are the standard for newer faster cables.
The picture below is a dark blue Ethernet cable with hand crimped jack. As you can see, the RJ45 cap at the end has become separated from the shielding (in this example it is blue). The shielding is what keeps the internally twisted wires in place and are what allow the cable to support higher speeds. I prefer premade patch cables with molded ends as they don’t typically suffer this problem.
The picture below is a light blue patch cable with a booted end. The boot extends around the RJ45 jack on the end which helps reduce the chances of the end becoming seperated to a small degree. The boot however, also tends to make unplugging the cable cumersome and will not guarantee the sheilding will not separate from the plug. I tend to avoid the booted covers.
The picture is a grey patch cable with a molded end. The price difference is usually no more than a dollar booted patch cable and well worth the $1 difference in price. I highly recommend getting the molded patch cables in either cat5e or Cat6 when purchasing new patch cables. The molded or snagless molded patch cables are easier to untangle when they get mixed together and they ensure the highspeed throughput at which the cable is rated.
Many of today’s current peripherals such as printers, scanners, keyboards, some mice, wireless dongles for keyboards and mice, some external hard drives, cell phones, cameras and even microphones are usually connected with USB cables. The rectangular connection on the right side of the picture below is the end that connects to your computer. The other end varies in shape and size depending on the peripheral to which it is connecting. In this case it is designed to connect to a printer. USB cables can be purchased in lengths up to 15’, so if the cable you got with your device is too short, you can always buy a longer one. Once you exceed 15’ you may experience issues.
Many people prefer wireless keyboards and mice for greater freedom. The mouse and/or keyboard require a dongle to connect to the computer if the computer does not have built in radio or Bluetooth wireless connectivity. The dongles vary in size and shape.
Power cables for most computers and many monitors tend to look like the one below. Make sure to plug your computer into a good power strip rated for 1100 joules or more or a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) to protect your equipment from power spikes such as those caused by lightning spikes and brownouts.
Your speakers or headphones are typically connected with 1 slim jack. The diameter for the jack is typically 3.5 mm. Headphones and speakers are typically plugged into a green jack on the back of the computer. Microphones typically get plugged into a red jack.
There are several connectors available for monitors: VGA, DVI, HDMI and Display port.
Older monitors tend to use VGA (Video Graphics Array) cables. VGA cables typically have blue ends and 15 pins in the connectors. VGA cables are fine for older systems but do not offer the same video quality capabilities of newer DVI, HDMI or Display port cables. If you have a newer monitor (such as most flat panel screens) with an option for any of these and your computer also has a newer connection you should probably use a DVI, HDMI or a display port cable.
DVI (Digital Visual Interface) cables are excellent and found on many systems. If your computer came with a 6’ cable and you need more slack, you can replace it with a cable up to 15’. 15’ is as long of a DVI cable as you want to use if your computer screen is set for a higher resolution.
The Dual Link connectors are for very high resolution screens and for splitting a link between two monitors. For most people with two monitors you are better off using two cables if possible. The connectors on both video cards and monitors varies for DVI, so make sure you check how many pins or holes each end has.
HDMI or High Definition Multimedia Interface has many of the advantages of DVI and you can get an adapter to go from HDMI to DVI or from DVI to HDMI. HDMI can carry sound as well as video as well as networking. So if your HDMI cable is carrying sound, you can’t use the DVI adapter if. A quality cable can go nearly 50’; however degradation can occur even with a quality cable if the source isn’t capable of supporting that length. A length of 18’ is a good standard.
Not many devices use a display port yet you may see it on some newer monitors and video cards. If you look at the HDMI connector, you can see both sides of the connector have an obtuse and acute angle. The display differs; one side of the display port connection is square and one side has an acute and obtuse angle. Display port does not carry sound like HDMI but it does display greater depth and resolution than HDMI. Currently, the improved picture quality available with display port degrades with cables greater than 6’.
Some newer computers include ESATA connectors. If you want to plug in an external hard drive, and the drive supports an ESATA connection, this will give you your best speed. ESATA connectors typically require a power source for the drive as well.
Older Computer Cables
PS/2 or Personal System 2 ports are used for some older keyboards and mice. Green connectors are typically for mice and purple ends for keyboards. The PS/2 Connectors are round. If your mouse still uses a PS/2 connector it might be time to consider upgrading your mouse and/or PC (if the PC is as old as your mouse).
An excellent way of organizing your cables is with Velcro. Velcro allows you to easily gather the cables and untie them should you need to move a cable or replace one.
While you can buy an expensive labeler specially made for labeling cables, I would get a standard multipurpose brother p-touch for labeling your cables. You can get one for anywhere from $10 on sale to $120. If you label the end of the cable that goes to your computer, you won’t have to trace the cable to find out what it connects to the computer.
A friend recently asked what he could recommend for an older family member who was worried that when they moved their computer to a new location they wouldn't know how to plug all the cables back correctly. I recommended they use different nail polish colors and make the end of the cable and the hole it plugs into with the same colors so it would be easier to get it right.