Which cables to keep, which to discard?

Serial cable vs parallel cableCNET recently published a list of cables to keep and cables to discard. I like to keep things for historical interest as well as for practical reasons. Historical examples allow me to show students different ways of doing the same thing. The picture on the left illustrates “serial vs parallel” and I use a similar image in my textbook. I don’t collect ancient types of wire for investment purposes: values don’t justify it.

You need to decide why you want to keep cables, and keep the cables accordingly. Like most Web journalism, CNET largely ignored that question. Here are some reasons:

  • I have equipment that uses a particular cable
  • I’ll probably buy equipment that uses a particular cable.

Let’s look at those reasons and consider CNET’s recommendations.

How Many to Keep?

CNET didn’t address this question. I used to have a couple dozen spare USB 2 A/B cables. I threw most of them out. Equipment generally arrives with a USB cable if you need one. Keep a few around for emergencies. I gave one to my daughter recently because she found an ancient printer with no USB cable.

If you’re going to keep a few of a particular type of cable, be sure to keep:

  • Longer as well as shorter cables.
  • Extension cables: male on one end and female on the other

Old-school analog cable adapters are relatively small and easy to store, and are usually worth keeping. Many newer adapters incorporate chips or other logic in the connectors, making them less reliable. Keep any that you’ve used successfully in the past. Discard any that you’ve never used. Keep adapters where you can find them, or it’s not worth keeping them.

Cable Types I Agree Are Worth Keeping

Use Google to search a cable’s name, or visit the CNET article, if you don’t know how to recognize these different types of cables.

CNET recommends keeping these, and I agree:

  • USB version 2 A-B cables -These are the classic USB cables with a rectangular spade-shaped connector on one end and a squarish six-sided (“house shaped”) connector on the other.
  • USB 2 mini cables -These still show up as charging ports on some products.
  • USB 2 micro cables -These are still popular on cell phones.
  • USB 3 B mini-cable – These still appear on external hard drives.
  • Thunderbolt and Mini DisplayPort – If you have these, you probably bought them to connect a couple of Apple devices together. You still need them unless you toss those devices.
  • DisplayPort – This surprises me, because I don’t have any of these myself. The full-size DisplayPort cables are supposed to support 8K monitors and remain popular in parts of the AV community.
  • 3.5mm Auxiliary – These are the micro-plugs used in analog headphone ports. They still connect everything to everything via a classic analog connection.
  • SATA – These might not be of much use to most people. I’ve only used mine when fiddling around inside a computer chassis.
  • 3-Prong Trapezoid Power Cord – These have been used for computer and peripheral power since the ’80s if not before. I cull my herd of them every so often but still have a boxful.
  • 2-Prong Power Cord – I treasure these when they have a simple oval connection on the device end. Some models also have a half-round half-square arrangement that doesn’t fit all devices. I have a few connected as extension cords to which I attach mobile chargers or powered adapters as needed.

Other Cable Types: Toss vs. Keep

I think CNET’s recommendations are slanted to make people buy the newest technology. Let’s look at the cables CNET recommends you discard and why you might still need them:

  • Apple 30-pin – I’d Keep – If you’ve been buying Apple-compatible tech since pre-iPhone days, you probably still have equipment using the ancient cables. I have a 30-pin iPod sitting on my desk right this minute.
  • DVI – I’d Discard – I use HDMI cables instead, and have a few DVI-HDMI converters for cases demanding DVI. Also, DVI cables come in a few incompatible flavors, so a casual glance won’t always identify a useful cable. But be careful: DVI is video-only and you might lose your sound when using a DVI-HDMI converter.
  • VGA – I’d Keep – This is still the most common video connection I find. I teach in a lot of “modern” classrooms that still use VGA. Like HDMI, it’s video-only. You can use VGA-HDMI converters, but you might lose your sound.
  • RCA/Composite/Component – I’d Keep – These are the old-school red/white audio or red/white/yellow AV, or red/green/blue video cables. Like VGA, they remain common in older equipment.
  • S-Video – I’d Discard – If you’re likely to work with some much-older video equipment, it might be worth keeping a few. It carries a better video signal than RCA composite, though not as good as RCA component.
  • Cable/Antenna Coax – I’d Keep Newer – I have cable TV and internet. I need to connect between the street, various splitters, and the modems. Newer, higher-quality cable extensions are OK, but older coax complied with lesser standards.

Cables CNET Didn’t Mention

  • Cat 5 and 6 Cables – I’d Keep – Even the Cat 5 cables are still usable for gigabit Ethernet.
  • HDMI – I’d Keep Newer – A recent Techradar article says that the previous and current crop of HDMI cables are going to work with the current and probably with near-term (2-3 years) improvements in 4K video. The general opinion is that HDMI cable standards are robust enough to justify buying cables based on cost (cheaper cables are as likely to work well as expensive ones). If you have a lot of spare HDMI cables, discard the older Version 1.4 cadbles, especially if they are “Standard Speed” instead of “High Speed” and you’re yearning for 4K video.
  • Digital Audio Cables – Not Sure – These come in both the optical and coax versions. Better equipment seems to support both, while some devices only support one or the other. Make the decision based on what your equipment requires. I only buy extra ones of these when absolutely necessary. HDMI has eliminated this question for most AV applications, it only matters for audio-only devices.

Antiques Roadshow 2060: Valuable Antique Cables?

For heaven’s sake, don’t save cables as antiques in their own right! They will make a terrible investment. While it’s theoretically possible that some rich fool will decide to collect cables someday, it seems really unlikely to me. The closest real-world example I know is “barbed wire collecting,” which catered to wealthy ranchers, assuming any such exist any more.

I live in a house chock-full of “historic wire” dating back to the 1800s. It’s generally considered a hazard, not an asset. Estate sales will offer bucketsful of “historic” wiring supplies stripped from older, modernized homes. The buckets go cheap.

The only reason to keep ancient cables is if you’re keeping some ancient computing equipment that requires the cables. An interesting piece of equipment might be worth something someday. The cables might help the old equipment remain usable, and thus more valuable.