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What You Need to Know About Ports

Most people look at a computer and see it as machine that you operate with a keyboard and mouse and that connects to a monitor and printer. What most of us overlook is that the computer is the brains of the outfit and the other parts—the printer, modem, keyboard, etc.—are simply connected to the computer.

They're on the outside, or the periphery, of the computer case itself. For that reason, in computer-speak, these devices have long been labeled "peripherals"—although most non-tech types don't use that term.

Because these devices aren't part of the computer, there has to be (and is) an easy way to physically connect them to the "system unit" (the computer case) so that the computer and the peripherals can work with and talk to each other...and so you can get done what you need to get done.

The points at which a mouse, keyboard, camera or scanner connect to your computer are called ports.

More ports than you know.

In the workplace, people rarely have to worry about setting up a computer and connecting all the wires and devices. But at home, and with desktop computers especially, it's all up to you. So, it's good to have an idea of what kinds of ports you have. Here's a look at ports you might find on the back of a PC desktop:

  • Keyboard port
  • Digital audio or S/PDIF-out port
  • Digital audio or S/PDIF-in port)
  • Serial port
  • FireWire port
  • Side-surround port
  • Microphone port
  • Speaker port
  • DVI port
  • Mouse port
  • Network port
  • Rear surround sound port
  • Center surround sort/subwoofer port
  • Audio-in port
  • S-video port
  • HDMI port
  • Built-in memory card reader
  • Headphones port (or jack)
  • USB ports

The number of ports will vary on a typical notebook computer, primarily because a laptop's case is smaller and thinner to begin with. Here are ports you might find:

  • Network port
  • Express card module slot
  • USB ports
  • Modem port
  • HDMI port
  • Memory card slot
  • Audio-in (microphone) port
  • Audio-out (headphone) port
  • Serial port

Here's a brief look at some of these ports. How many are you familiar with?

  • USB port. USB stands for "universal serial bus." It can connect more than 130 different types of peripherals, including keyboards, a mouse, printers, digital cameras and many more. A desktop PC may have a half-dozen USB ports (a laptop would have just a couple). If you've used a mouse, a digital camera and a printer, you're familiar with the three types (A, B and C) of USB connectors and their respective ports.
  • FireWire port. Similar to a USB port, a FireWire port also connects a variety of devices, including DVD drives, scanners and digital cameras.
  • Bluetooth port. Bluetooth technology uses radio waves to transmit data between devices, such as a mouse and a computer, or a smartphone and a microphone/headset. Some computers have Bluetooth technology (and ports) built in.
  • SCSI port. These are high-speed "parallel" ports that let you connect SCSI peripherals such as printers or disk drives. If you've ever heard the strange term "scuzzy port," it refers to the SCSI port.
  • MIDI port. Computers can play, store, create and manipulate "digitized" music—music and sounds that have been turned into bits of electronic data. MIDI stands for "Music Instrument Digital Interface." An electronic keyboard cable can connect to the MIDI port, which allows music played on the keyboard to be recorded and stored directly onto the computer's hard drive, which someone can review and fine-tune using sophisticated recording software.

If you have used both Apple computers and Windows-based PCs, you know that ports are more prevalent on PCs (especially on desktop PCs) than on Macs. Apple seems to envision the Internet world going online, going digital and simply not requiring so many different types of connectors and ports.

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