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Which Ports Work on Both Macs and PCs

When you’re deciding what Mac model to buy (and what you can afford), you need to figure out which of the ports that you already own will work with your selected model. The good news is that Apple keeps things simple by limiting the number of ports it uses on a Mac and has a good track record of picking the most useful ones. The following ports are available in new Macs currently on the market and are also common on late-model PCs.

  • Universal Serial Bus (USB): Intel invented USB technology to let a wide variety of low- and medium-speed devices connect to a computer using one type of port. Apple was the first to popularize it for use with keyboards and mice. The current version, USB 2.0, can support high-speed devices like disk drives, as well. All new Macs have two or more USB 2.0 ports.

  • FireWire: Apple created a different serial bus, called FireWire, to support connecting high-speed devices; it’s also known as IEEE-1394. It comes in two speeds: 400 megabits per second (Mbps) and 800 Mbps. All Macs have FireWire 400 ports. High-end Macs also sport a FireWire 800 port, which uses a different connector, although 800 to 400 adapters are available and inexpensive.

  • Ethernet: Ethernet is the most popular technology for getting computers to talk to each other over a wire. Ethernet is available in 10-, 100-, and 1,000-Mbps versions. Macs support all three. Ethernet connectors look like fatter versions of the connectors used on most telephones in North America. Just like the telephone connectors, you find a little, easy-to-break plastic tab you have to squeeze to get the connector out. Be gentle.

    Don’t plug your telephone line into this port. Current Macs don’t have built-in telephone modems. Apple sells an external modem that plugs into a USB 400 port.

  • Digital Visual Interface (DVI): Older (analog) methods of sending signals to displays limit the quality of pictures that can be shown. DVI sends images to the display in digital form, preserving their full fidelity for viewing on flat-panel computer displays and high-definition televisions (HDTVs). The iMac and MacBook use a variant called the mini-DVI connector. Apple sells inexpensive converter cables that let you hook up DVI and mini-DVI ports to most digital and analog video displays, including most large-screen television sets.

  • Audio input and output: All Macs come with two little round jacks that look like the earphone jacks. One of them is just that and is marked with a tiny pair of earphones. The other is a line-in jack that accepts audio from other devices. These diminutive jacks o can also work with newer optical digital audio devices that use a standard called TOSLINK, which is becoming more popular in the world of consumer electronics.

  • Infrared: Infrared (IR) is a form of invisible light that is used in most remote controls that come with televisions, stereos, and other devices. When you press a button on the remote, it projects a beam of invisible light out the front that is coded with a signal that tells the device what button you pushed. Macs come with their own Apple Remote, so they have a magic spot, too.

  • WiFi and Bluetooth: Strictly speaking, WiFi and Bluetooth aren’t ports in that there is no place to connect a wire. That’s because they support wireless communications. WiFi is mostly used for networking computers within a home or office and is essentially Ethernet without wires. Bluetooth has a shorter range and is mainly for connecting small devices. It’s used for wireless keyboards and mice and for wireless headsets that can be used with cell phones. Macs generally support both, though they are optional on the Mac Pro.

  • ExpressCard/34 (MacBook Pro only): ExpressCard/34 is a new standard for expansion modules, which are basically cards that you can slide into personal computers, though they’re mostly used with laptops. Only the MacBook Pro series has an ExpressCard/34 slot. Accessing wide-area networks is probably the most common use for the ExpressCard/34 slot.

  • PCI Express (Mac Pro and Xserve only): Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCI Express or PCIe) is the newest, blazingly fast incarnation of the classic open-the-cover-and-plug-a-card-in-the-motherboard expansion model. Only the Mac Pro and the Xserve currently have these slots. These capabilities excite video producers and serious gamers, but if you don’t know why you need expansion cards, you probably don’t.

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