A Guide to Laptop Ports & Slots

This post will explain laptop Slots and ports such as USB port, Fire Wire, AV, PC Card, PS2, Docking Station and more.

The Wonders of the USB Ports – aka: The Universal Serial Bus

USB is short for Universal Serial Bus, and refers to a standard originally developed by Intel for connecting external devices to computers.

Forget about printer ports, forget about serial ports, and forget about keyboard and mouse ports. Any type of device you could have plugged into these other computer ports you can now plug into a USB port.

If you’ve done any laptop shopping already, you may see one potential problem. Most laptops have only one or two USB ports. What if you need to connect three USB devices at the same time?

No problem!

One of the many wonders of USB is that it’s expandable through USB hubs. A USB hub is a simple little device that has one connector to fit into your USB port, and then typically two, four or even eight USB ports of its own.

Add the right hub and you can easily connect as many as eight devices to the same port. In fact, technically speaking, you can connect up to 127 devices to a single USB port, but that’s not very likely for most users.

When you’re shopping, make sure the USB ports on your laptop support the USB 2.0 standard. This provides significantly faster throughput than the original USB 1.1 standard, and all devices being brought to market now rely on USB 2.0.

Don’t worry, either, if you have older USB 1.1 devices that aren’t ready for retirement. You can still plug them into USB 2.0 ports.


FireWire™ Ports

At about the same time that Intel developed USB, Apple developed a somewhat competing technology called FireWire (officially, IEEE 1394).

The use of somewhat stems from the fact that, although both of these were designed to provide a standardized means for connecting external devices, they were aimed at different markets.

With its 12-Mbps throughput, USB 1.1 was suitable for mice, keyboards, printers, etc.

However, with its impressive 400-Mbps throughput, FireWire was the connection medium of choice for high-end applications, such as connecting external devices used in digital video editing.

Well, then along came USB 2.0 with its 480-Mbps throughout. For technical reasons too geeky to detail here, the original FireWire is still considered by many to be superior to USB 2.0.

However, buyers look at numbers, and 480 looks better than 400. Thus, Apple upped the ante by introducing FireWire 800 (officially IEEE 1394b) with its 800-Mbps throughput. Apple claims that due to its technical superiority, FireWire 800 is in actual use more than twice as fast as USB 2.0

The bottom line here is that if you’re planning on doing some high-end work that demands the fastest possible access to external devices, look for a laptop with a built-in FireWire 800 port.

Audio-Visual (AV) Ports to Look Out for on Your Next Laptop Computer

Any laptop you’re likely to consider will have you covered on basic sound ports, i.e., ports for microphones and headphones. As mentioned in Section 7, the important thing is to make sure they’re conveniently positioned on your laptop. But what about other types of audio/video (A/V) ports?

Business users probably want a laptop that includes a standard monitor port, typically called a VGA port. While you may never have a need to connect a standard monitor to your laptop, you may now and then need to connect a data projector to your laptop. The typical data projector uses this same VGA port.

To hook your laptop into an A/V system that wasn’t designed for computers – for example, to use your laptop as a DVD player connected to your late-model TV – you’ll need an S-Video port. S-Video is a common standard in non-computer A/V, making it ideal for this sort of thing.

The All-Important PC Card Slot

This type of slot was originally called a PCMCIA slot. However, when several people were hospitalized after trying to pronounce PCMCIA as a word, the industry decided to simplify things with PC Card. (For you serious types, the part about people being hospitalized was a joke.)

A PC Card slot accepts devices that are roughly the length and width of a credit card, although somewhat thicker. At some time or another, there’s a good chance you’ll buy a PC Card device. For example, you might decide later you made a mistake not getting a built-in FireWire port. You can add one via your PC Card slot. Ditto for wireless networking.

Certainly at some level, your PC Card slot competes with your USB port. Consider wireless networking. You can add a wireless PC Card adapter or you can add a wireless USB adapter. The disadvantage of USB here is that it involves a cable (which can get tangled) and an external device (which takes up room). A USB-based wireless networking adapter consists of a device maybe a little smaller than your checkbook sitting at the end of a cable – a device that you need to position somewhere. Most of a wireless PC Card adapter fits inside the PC Card slot.

PC Cards, and thus PC Card slots, come in three sizes: Type I, Type II and Type III. All PC Cards measure 85.6mm x 54mm. The difference is in their thickness. Type I cards are 3.3mm thick, Type II cards are 5mm thick, and Type III cards (relatively rare) are 10.5mm thick. It stands to reason, then, that a Type I slot uses less room in a laptop. For that reason, some smaller laptops offer only Type I slots. Note, however, that a Type I card can fit in a Type II slot – just not the other way around.

In addition to types of PC Card slots, also consider how many PC Card slots are included on your new laptop. Some offer only one slot; others have two.

PS2 Port, Parallel and Serial ports – All About to Become Redundant

For as long as Moses can remember, serial and printer ports have been standard inhabitants on the backs of most laptops. The need was obvious.

A serial port is a nine-pin port that was used to connect things like mice and external modems.

And of course, the function of the printer port (a.k.a., parallel port) was obvious.

In the last several years, PS/2-style ports – small, round ports for mice and keyboards – have also become common.

You may be wondering about the past tense used in the previous paragraph. The reason is that you probably don’t need any of these ports on your laptop (unless you have printers, mice, etc., not ready for retirement that require them).

The reason?

In a word, USB. Virtually every type of external device now comes in a USB version.

All About Docking Stations & Port Replicators

So what’s a docking station and a port replicator? And what’s the difference between them?

Essentially, these are two devices that meet the same basic need. They serve as a bridge between your laptop and various desktop-oriented devices. To simplify the discussion, this section refers to both collectively as port replicators.

The idea is that you can plug a standard monitor, a full-sized keyboard, a mouse and whatever else you want into the port replicator, and then plug the port replicator into your laptop.

You can leave these devices plugged into the port replicator, and simply detach your laptop when you’re ready to hit the road. In other words, the port replicator lets your laptop do double duty as a desktop.

If this all sounds attractive, the most important thing to look at is whether the laptop you’re considering supports a port replicator. Manufacturers design port replicators to go with specific models of their laptops.

Since port replicator support is not a standard feature on most laptops, it’s something you can expect to pay extra for (in addition to the port replicator itself, which may set you back $200-$500 or more).

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