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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 its battery?

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

Would the Ferrite Bead - the cylinder on some cables - affect USB compatibility? Is that a necessary component for the functioning of its 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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7  
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
5  
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
2  
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
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Wrong: addonics.com/products/power_adapter/usb_power_cable.asp – 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 a bunch of mini-USB cables, but only few of them can power a USB hard-drive without a 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-to-serial converter inside the overmoulding on one end.

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

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