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20 computer terms every Mac user should know

Christopher Breen | July 5, 2013
Puzzled by tech terms thrown around by acronym acolytes? Professor Breen sets you straight.

Throughout the life of Mac 101, we've talked a lot about Apple technologies and terms. But with the gentle persuasion of this column's readers, I've come to realize that—all too often—terms and acronyms that many of us take for granted leave users new to technology scratching their heads. Let's rectify that now with a meander through some common tech terms.

Connecting computers to peripherals
For many of us, our Mac isn't a one-stop shop. We routinely attach things like printers, cameras, and external hard drives to it. Below, I discuss the technologies that support such connections.

USB (Universal Serial Bus): This connection standard supports the transfer of data between devices and their peripherals. You'll find USB connectors on computers, keyboards, pointing devices (mice and trackpads), digital cameras, camcorders, printers, portable media players (such as iPhones, iPods, and iPads), hard drives, network adapters, AV receivers, hubs, music keyboards, microphones, headphones, and just about any other device that can be attached to a computer. USB can also deliver power to devices that don't demand a lot of the stuff.

A regular USB connector appears at one end of this cable (the upper end in the photo), and a Micro-USB connector appears at the other end.

There have been three major working USB specifications—USB 1.1, USB 2.0, and USB 3.0. The main difference between them is speed. Newer versions of USB are faster than their predecessors. USB is backward-compatible, so you can use a device designed for USB 2.0 in combination with another device using USB 3.0 ports.

Three styles of USB connectors are available: the standard rectangular one you find on your Mac; the trapezoid-shaped mini-connector that some digital cameras and hard drives rely on, and the tiny Micro-USB connector that you would use with a modern Kindle reader.

FireWire: FireWire (also known as IEEE 1394) is a technology for connecting compatible devices. It was designed for situations where fast transfer rates are crucial, including computers, storage devices, audio interfaces, and video gear such as camcorders and video interfaces.

A FireWire 400-to-FireWire 800 cable.

Although higher-speed FireWire standards exist, you'll most often encounter FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 connectors. FireWire 800, the newer standard, supports much faster speeds than FireWire 400 does. FireWire 800 is backward-compatible with FireWire 400 devices. Each bears a unique connector. The typical FireWire 400 connector is oblong, rounded on one end and flat on the other. The FireWire 800 connector is rectangular. You can also find mini FireWire connectors, which are small and have a trapezoidal shape. Recent Macs that have a FireWire connector use FireWire 800.


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