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I have a dozen or so USB or USB to mini-USB cables lying around. It's annoying keeping track of what goes to what.

Are they interchangeable or are they device specific?

Does it change the answer if I'm expecting the device to transfer data vs. merely charge it's battery?

For example: can I expect the mini USB that charges a cell phone to also charge a PS3 controller?

Update: Thanks for the answers. As a follow up question: Would the Ferrite Bead - the cylinder on some cables - affect USB compatibility? Is that a necessary component for the functioning of it's intended device?

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Ferrite Beads are more for EMC/EMI and act as high frequency filters to reduce noise that could radiate from the cable. It doesn't affect compatibility. – hanleyp Mar 4 '10 at 3:57
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The U means universal indeed, but some manufacturers (such as Apple) choose to provide their own proprietary USB cables -- which are not interchangeable -- while others provide generic USB cables which are interchangeable.

diagram of standard usb connectors

All standard USB connectors by pinout.

photo of standard usb connectors

In picture form: micro USB on the left, then mini USB, then regular full-size B and A USB.

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IMO those aren't "USB" cables at all, they're a cable that happens to have one USB end. – Phoshi Mar 2 '10 at 20:47
Those are usb cables, you may wish to read the specs on the standard. But those are different accepted standards. – spowers Mar 3 '10 at 0:22
Yes, the ones pictured are different forms of actual, standard, USB cables, but also yes, the proprietary ones like for the iPod are only half-USB (ie, they have a USB connector and plug into USB ports, but the other end is proprietary). There’s nothing that says that you cannot do that. For example, there are plenty of cords with a standard RCA connector on one end, and some weird, proprietary connector on the other. The same goes for power cords and pretty much everything else. – Synetech Aug 21 '11 at 16:44

The U in USB means Universal. They're totally interchangeable. I just keep one around and the rest as backups/to lend to others, it works pretty well.

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Are there any power only cables, though? – Nathaniel Mar 2 '10 at 20:03
@Nathaniel; Nope, USB is USB is USB. They can deliver power, data, or both. They're pretty universal :P – Phoshi Mar 2 '10 at 20:08
Wrong: – Molly7244 Mar 2 '10 at 20:22
@Molly; Well, you learn something new every day! – Phoshi Mar 2 '10 at 20:48

They are interchangeable but you will notice that they are not all same regarding build quality. I have bunch of mini-USB cables but only few of them can power USB hard-drive without secondary jack.

For devices not hungry for power, usually it does not matter.

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Note that there is a new USB 3.0 standard emerging.

Here's a news story entitled USB 3.0 - The new speed limit about it I received earlier today (2010-03-02).

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Also, on occasion you will run across a cable that looks like a USB cable, but is really not.

The ML-7 GPS tracker comes to mind. It has a A to mini-B usb cable that actually has a usb-serial converter inside the overmoulding on one end.

On the other hand, cables like that are REALLY rare.

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