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How Serial Ports Work

Considered to be one of the most basic external connections to a computer, the serial port has been an
integral part of most computers for more than 20 years. Although many of the newer systems have
done away with the serial port completely in favor of USB connections, most modems still use the
serial port, as do some printers, PDAs and digital cameras. Few computers have more than two serial
ports.

Two serial ports on the back of a PC


Essentially, serial ports provide a standard connector and protocol to let you attach devices, such as
modems, to your computer. In this edition of How Stuff Works, you will learn about the difference
between a parallel port and a serial port, what each pin does and what flow control is.

UART Needed
All computer operating systems in use today support serial ports, because serial
ports have been around for decades. Parallel ports are a more recent invention
and are much faster than serial ports. USB ports are only a few years old, and will
likely replace both serial and parallel ports completely over the next several
years.

The name "serial" comes from the fact that a serial port "serializes" data. That is, it takes a byte of data
and transmits the 8 bits in the byte one at a time. The advantage is that a serial port needs only one wire
to transmit the 8 bits (while a parallel port needs 8). The disadvantage is that it takes 8 times longer to
transmit the data than it would if there were 8 wires. Serial ports lower cable costs and make cables
smaller.
Before each byte of data, a serial port sends a start bit, which is a single bit with a value of 0. After
each byte of data, it sends a stop bit to signal that the byte is complete. It may also send a parity bit.
Serial ports, also called communication (COM) ports, are bi-directional. Bi-directional
communication allows each device to receive data as well as transmit it. Serial devices use different
pins to receive and transmit data -- using the same pins would limit communication to half-duplex,
meaning that information could only travel in one direction at a time. Using different pins allows for
full-duplex communication, in which information can travel in both directions at once.
This 40-pin Dual Inline Package (DIP) chip is a
variation of the National Semiconductor NS16550D
UART chip.
Serial ports rely on a special controller chip, the Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter
(UART), to function properly. The UART chip takes the parallel output of the computer's system bus
and transforms it into serial form for transmission through the serial port. In order to function faster,
most UART chips have a built-in buffer of anywhere from 16 to 64 kilobytes. This buffer allows the
chip to cache data coming in from the system bus while it is processing data going out to the serial port.
While most standard serial ports have a maximum transfer rate of 115 Kbps (kilobits per second), high
speed serial ports, such as Enhanced Serial Port (ESP) and Super Enhanced Serial Port (Super
ESP), can reach data transfer rates of 460 Kbps.

The Serial Connection


The external connector for a serial port can be either 9 pins or 25 pins. Originally, the primary use of a
serial port was to connect a modem to your computer. The pin assignments reflect that. Let's take a
closer look at what happens at each pin when a modem is connected.

Close-up of 9-pin and 25-pin serial connectors


9-pin connector:
1. Carrier Detect - Determines if the modem is connected to a working phone line.
2. Receive Data - Computer receives information sent from the modem.
3. Transmit Data - Computer sends information to the modem.
4. Data Terminal Ready - Computer tells the modem that it is ready to talk.
5. Signal Ground - Pin is grounded.
6. Data Set Ready - Modem tells the computer that it is ready to talk.
7. Request To Send - Computer asks the modem if it can send information.
8. Clear To Send - Modem tells the computer that it can send information.
9. Ring Indicator - Once a call has been placed, computer acknowledges signal (sent from
modem) that a ring is detected.
25-pin connector:
1. Not Used
2. Transmit Data - Computer sends information to the modem.
3. Receive Data - Computer receives information sent from the modem.
4. Request To Send - Computer asks the modem if it can send information.
5. Clear To Send - Modem tells the computer that it can send information.
6. Data Set Ready - Modem tells the computer that it is ready to talk.
7. Signal Ground - Pin is grounded.
8. Received Line Signal Detector - Determines if the modem is connected to a working
phone line.
9. Not Used: Transmit Current Loop Return (+)
10. Not Used
11. Not Used: Transmit Current Loop Data (-)
12. Not Used
13. Not Used
14. Not Used
15. Not Used
16. Not Used
17. Not Used
18. Not Used: Receive Current Loop Data (+)
19. Not Used
20. Data Terminal Ready - Computer tells the modem that it is ready to talk.
21. Not Used
22. Ring Indicator - Once a call has been placed, computer acknowledges signal
(sent from modem) that a ring is detected.
23. Not Used
24. Not Used
25. Not Used: Receive Current Loop Return (-)
Voltage sent over the pins can be in one of two states, On or Off. On (binary value "1") means that the
pin is transmitting a signal between -3 and -25 volts, while Off (binary value "0") means that it is
transmitting a signal between +3 and +25 volts...

How Parallel Ports Work


If you have a printer connected to your computer, there is a good chance that it uses the parallel port.
While USB is becoming increasingly popular, the parallel port is still a commonly used interface for
printers.

A typical parallel port on the back of your computer

Parallel ports can be used to connect a host of popular computer peripherals:


• Printers
• Scanners
• CD burners
• External hard drives
• Iomega Zip removable drives
• Network adapters
• Tape backup drives

Parallel Port Basics


Parallel ports were originally developed by IBM as a way to connect a printer to
your PC. When IBM was in the process of designing the PC, the company wanted
the computer to work with printers offered by Centronics, a top printer
manufacturer at the time. IBM decided not to use the same port interface on the
computer that Centronics used on the printer.
Instead, IBM engineers coupled a 25-pin connector, DB-25, with a 36-pin Centronics connector to
create a special cable to connect the printer to the computer. Other printer manufacturers ended up
adopting the Centronics interface, making this strange hybrid cable an unlikely de facto standard.
When a PC sends data to a printer or other device using a parallel port, it sends 8 bits of data (1 byte) at
a time. These 8 bits are transmitted parallel to each other, as opposed to the same eight bits being
transmitted serially (all in a single row) through a serial port. The standard parallel port is capable of
sending 50 to 100 kilobytes of data per second.
Let's take a closer look at what each pin does when used with a printer:
• Pin 1 carries the strobe signal. It maintains a level of between 2.8 and
5 volts, but drops below 0.5 volts whenever the computer sends a byte of
data. This drop in voltage tells the printer that data is being sent.
• Pins 2 through 9 are used to carry data. To indicate that a bit has a
value of 1, a charge of 5 volts is sent through the correct pin. No charge on
a pin indicates a value of 0. This is a simple but highly effective way to
transmit digital information over an analog cable in real-time.
• Pin 10 sends the acknowledge signal from the printer to the
computer. Like Pin 1, it maintains a charge and drops the voltage below 0.5
volts to let the computer know that the data was received.
• If the printer is busy, it will charge Pin 11. Then, it will drop the voltage
below 0.5 volts to let the computer know it is ready to receive more data.
• The printer lets the computer know if it is out of paper by sending a
charge on Pin 12.
• As long as the computer is receiving a charge on Pin 13, it knows that
the device is online.

• The computer sends an auto feed signal to the printer through Pin 14
using a 5-volt charge.
• If the printer has any problems, it drops the voltage to less than 0.5
volts on Pin 15 to let the computer know that there is an error.
• Whenever a new print job is ready, the computer drops the charge on
Pin 16 to initialize the printer.
• Pin 17 is used by the computer to remotely take the printer offline.
This is accomplished by sending a charge to the printer and maintaining it
as long as you want the printer offline.
• Pins 18-25 are grounds and are used as a reference signal for the low
(below 0.5 volts) charge.
Notice how the first 25 pins on the Centronics end match up with the pins of the first connector. With
each byte the parallel port sends out, a handshaking signal is also sent so that the printer can latch the
byte.