An expansion port can be either a socket or slot. You can find them located along the sides, front, back and even bottom of a laptop. Different computer ports help expand the functionality of a laptop. They provide a physical connection point to peripherals (devices) like a printer, external mouse, keyboard and monitor. Or even your smart phone. Different users require different ports. So, it’s important not to overlook these connectivity interfaces when shopping for a laptop. And since there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We’ve assembled this comprehensive guide of the most import laptop ports. Along with some of the adapters you might need. Just in case the laptop you want doesn’t come with the built-in connector you need.
1. IEEE 1394 Port
Brand named FireWire by Apple, Sony calls it i, Link and Texas Instrument calls it Linx.
No matter what it’s called. It’s a port that hooks your laptop up to various peripherals including digital cameras, external hard drives, printers and scanners.
On such devices, the port will either have a 4- or 6-pin connection.
The IEEE 1394 standard supports plug-and-play, which means once you connect your laptop to a peripheral supporting this standard, your operating system will automatically find the device and ask for permission to download necessary drivers to work with the plugged in device.
Like the expansion slots we’ll show you below. IEEE 1394 is hot-swappable, which means that neither your laptop or the device you plug into it needs to be shut down before connecting or disconnecting it to your laptop.
Cool as this port is, USB is much faster.
2. USB 2.0
A USB (Universal Serial Bus) is the most popular kind of expansion port on a laptop. Why? Because there’s a wide array of peripherals that can connect to it.
This port is often referred to as a high-speed USB or USB 2. It’s capable of transferring data at up to 480 Mbps, and it’s the most common speed for a USB. USB 2 works with most devices out there, which is why practically every laptop is built with this connector.
For better or worse. What makes USB 2.0 ports unique is that they come in a variety of shapes. Examples include Type-A (rectangular), Type-B (square), mini or microUSB sizes to support a variety of peripherals.
On a laptop, a USB 2.0 port is always a Type-A connector.
3. USB 3.0
This one is known as SuperSpeed USB or USB 3.
It has a maximum transfer rate of 5 Gbps, which is MORE than 10x faster than its predecessor. The fantastic thing about this port is that it’s backward compatible with USB 2.0 cables and peripherals.
The USB 3 connection is great for devices like external hard drives, SSDs and high-res docking stations. You can recognize this port by the light blue color around the connection. Or by a tiny “SS” logo next to the port to indicate its higher transfer rate.
4. USB Type-C
This slim USB port is celebrated as the connector of the future for good reason: You’ll find it on many devices, and it’s poised to replace USB Type-A, Type-B and microUSB ports on all new laptops and devices.
Laptops are getting thinner and this port is much thinner than its predecessors to fit on the latest devices. It’s also reversible, so you never have to worry about plugging it in the wrong way. Plus, USB Type-C supports several different standards. But not all of them offer the same functionality.
For example, a USB-C port can transfer files at speeds of either 5 Gbps (gigabyte per second). That’s if it has a USB 3.1 Gen 1 protocol. Or 10 Gbps if it’s a USB 3.1 Gen 2 (more about these two later).
But the most fascinating thing about this port is that it can accept USB Power Delivery when it’s labeled USB-PD, which means you can use this connection to charge your laptop.
It also has the power to send DisplayPort signals out via “alt mode.” And it can even operate as a Thunderbolt port. The ones that double as Thunderbolt 3 have a lightning bolt next to the connector.
If you’re laptop only has a USB Type-A port and you need to connect to a USB Type-C device. One adapter you’ll need is a USB Type-A to USB Type-C cable.
5. Thunderbolt 3
Thunderbolt is the fastest connection on the market today!
Thunderbolt 3 transfers data at speeds up to 40 Gbps, that’s 4x faster than the USB 3.1 Gen 2 protocol.
What makes Thunderbolt 3 unique is that it’s a high-speed standard that can support up to two 4K monitors simultaneously.
A single port carries dual DisplayPort signals.
And check this out: Suppose your laptop’s slim design doesn’t allow for the graphics functionality you need for the games you long to play. If it has a Thunderbolt port, you can connect to an external graphics card for more graphical power to play high end games.
But that’s just the tip of the ice burg: All Thunderbolt 3 ports use the USB Type-C connection and can double as a USB Type-C port. What does this mean for you?
You have the power to connect to an entire universe of USB supported devices and you can even use this connection to power up your laptop.
If you need your Thunderbolt 3 laptop to connect to an older Thunderbolt device, one adapter you’ll need is a Thunderbolt 3 cable. Not all Thunderbolt cables can handle the full 40 Gbps speeds; so be sure to read specs. Connecting to legacy devices will require a Thunderbolt 3-to-Thunderbolt adapter.
6. USB 3.1 Gen 1
This is another SuperSpeed USB.
USB 3.1 Gen 1 is a connection protocol with the same 5 Gbps speed as USB 3.0. The difference is you’ll find it exclusively on USB Type-C ports. Bonus! It’s backward compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 devices.
Another cool thing about laptops and devices that support USB Type-C connectivity with a USB 3.1 Gen 1 protocol is USB Power Delivery. This allows you to receive or send power from your laptop at up to 100 Watts, which means you can use this type of connection to charge your laptop.
If you’re trying to connect to a device with a USB 3.1 Gen 1 protocol and your laptop doesn’t have this port. The adapter you’ll need is a standard Type-C wire because a USB 3.1 port needs a Type-C connector.
7. USB 3.1 Gen 2
This one is marketed as SuperSpeed+.
So named for its higher transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps. Functionally, it’s similar to the USB 3.1 Gen 1 protocol with one MAJOR difference: it supports double the throughput. The great thing about this protocol is that just like USB 3.1 Gen 1, it’s backward compatible with USB ports.
If you’re laptop doesn’t have a USB 3.1 Gen 2 connector and you need to connect to a device supporting this protocol. An adapter you’ll need is a Type-C cable; just make sure it’s rated at 10 Gbps so you can take full advantage of all USB 3.1 Gen 2 capabilities.
8. SD Card Reader
Also marketed as a 3-in-1 card reader, a 4-in-1 card reader, a 5-in-1 card reader, an SDHC card reader, or Express Card slot. This space-saving technology allows various cards to be slotted in depending on the needed function.
It’s the largest expansion slot on a portable computer. But with the shrinking footprint of laptops, they’re becoming less common. However, you can still find them on laptops that are good for picture and video editing.
The ExpressCards themselves have a 26-pin connector and are hot-pluggable and hot-swappable, which means you can remove and insert them without needing to restart your laptop.
The cards come in two standard formats: 34mm and 54mm, which describes the width of the slot. The depth is always 75mm. They support a data transfer rate of 2.5 Gbps.
If the laptop you want doesn’t offer a reader slot, an adapter you’ll need is an SD card reader that can connect to your laptop via USB.
9. microSD Card Reader
Another type of ExpressCard slot is the microSD card slot.
Also known as a microSDHC reader, or microSDXC reader, it’s an expansion slot that reads smaller SD memory cards like the ones used by smartphones for external storage.
By inserting a memory card into the slot, files can be transferred between the card and the laptop hassle-free without connecting USB cables. Like the larger expansion port above, it can also be hot-plugged and it’s hot-swappable.
Governed by the SD Association (Security Digital Association), the industry standard for these non-volatile, data storage cards are: MicroSD and MiniSD with SD being the largest in the series.
Chromebooks make heavy use of microSD card storage since on-board storage is limited to less than 100GB, (half of which is used by the operating system).
If the laptop you choose has very limited internal storage, make sure to get one that at least comes with a microSD card slot. You can install the Windows 10 apps you use most often on a microSD card instead of having them take up room on your system.
If the laptop you want doesn’t come with a built-in SD card reader, an adapter you’ll need is a USB-based external microSD reader.
Speaking of external storage…
e-SATA stands for External Serial Advance Technology Attachment.
It’s a BUS interface that supports the SATA and USB standards for connecting to external storage devices. But it’s a professional-class port unique for off-loading thousands of files and data between your laptop and an external storage drive faster than a standard USB port.
You’ll find them mostly on workstation-level laptops.
eSATA ports are an esoteric interface: Un-like USB ports, they have a solitary purpose that’s strictly for transferring information to and from a storage device which is what makes them faster than USB.
You’re looking at the great granddaddy of all video output ports.
VGA (Video Graphics Array) dates all the way back to mullets and Camaros; back when a Canadian-based crime-drama called 21 Jump Street premiered on television helping launch the career of a certain actor – 1987.
You can still find this port on monitors and projects and even some current laptops. It’s an analog connection with a chunky 15-pin connector, so you’ll mostly find them on larger/thicker notebooks.
Output is limited to 1920 x 1200p.
And because this is an analogue connection, it’s prone to signal degradation over long cables – In 2010, computer manufacturers announced the phase out of this technology in favor of HDMI.
But one advantage it has over HDMI is the ability to display different resolution images un-like HDMI which is a digital standard that’ll just replace an image that it can’t scale with a black box.
High Definition Multimedia Interface is the most popular port for connecting to external monitors, televisions and projectors – some can output up to 4K!
HDMI 1.0 and 2.0 ports can send audio and video signals to the external visual peripheral connected to your laptop.
You won’t be able to output to dual displays from a single port. And while most laptops have a full-size HDMI connector, we’re finding that many slim laptops use miniHDMI ports more often.
If your laptop is equipped with HDMI but the device you want to connect to has a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connection, some adapters you might need include an HDMI-to-DVI cable or a USB Type-C to HDMI adapter, provided your Type-C connector can supports video.
PCAdvisor.com can help you connect your laptop to a television.
This is the most advanced display connection standard in the world.
Not only can it output to a single monitor at a 4K (3840 x 2160) resolution and 60 Hz. It can output to as many as three monitors at once!
Most modern laptops have a mini DisplayPort, or they can send signals out of a USB Type-C port. And like HDMI, a DisplayPort can output audio and video on the same cable.
Many of the peripherals you’ll want to connect to won’t have this port: an adapter you’ll need to connect your laptop to them is a mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI cable.
To output to more than one monitor with a DisplayPort from a single mini DisplayPort requires a multi-stream transport (MST) hub.
It’s also known as a Network Adapter, Network Jack, RJ-45, Gigabit Ethernet, and 10/100 Ethernet.
This port type is found primarily on business laptops and helps you connect directly to wired networks via the network adapter inside your laptop.
The ability to plug-into a network via an Ethernet port is particularly important when you find yourself in an environment where the wireless signal is poor or non-existent.
Endorsed by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, “RJ” stands for “Registered Jack” and it’s basically a telephone connector – All Ethernet ports operate at up to 1 Gbps.
If your laptop doesn’t have a built in Ethernet port one adapter you’ll need is a USB-to-Ethernet adapter so long as the system comes with USB Type-C or USB Type-A port.
NOTE: As Wi-Fi continues to improve and laptops become slimmer, manufacturers are beginning to drop the Ethernet Port.
Optionally, you can use a docking station to connect to wired networks.
15. Audio Jack
Also referred to as a headphone jack, the 3.5mm audio jack standard is common on laptops.
Why is it so universal?
Because it connects easily to most of the world’s wired headphones and speakers. Some older laptops have an audio jack for headphones and one for the mic.
The models we’re seeing today incorporate both headphone and mic technology into the same port. But some laptops eliminate this port all-together.
If the laptop you want doesn’t come with a headphone jack, the adapter you need is a wired USB headset. Similarly, if the device comes with Bluetooth, you can attach a wireless Bluetooth audio device or Bluetooth adapter.
Now that you’re more familiar with different computer ports, which ones can you imagine being the most beneficial to you? Buying a laptop that doesn’t offer all the ports you need doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Especially if you know what adapters and connectors you need to get going. The right ports add up to a better, more usable laptop. As you were reading this guide and making a mental checklist of the ports that will be most useful to you. Don’t forget the necessary adapters required to connect to the peripherals you need for work.