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Here is a question a student asked me in one of my A+ certification classes: How can you tell a USB cable version? I honestly dont know the answer, I cant find one either.

USB cables are rated for versions 1, 1.1, 2, and now 3. I have seen their versions on the packaging, but never marked on the cable itself. Since the respective versions are manufactured differently, there is a difference between them.

So, how can you tell?

On Wikipedia: USB cables v.2 and earlier do use a "twisted pair" method, but doesnt specify if the cables themselves are the same or different. Is the cable rating system for v.2 and earlier just marketing hype?

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1  
Don't forget that mini-usb cables also have different types, some for charging, some for data transfer, and some for headsets. Those kind are determined by having an extra pin (connection) that has a particular resistance to ground. – Keith Aug 25 '11 at 6:25
    
Additionally, the charging current that the cable can handle depends greatly on the thickness of the wires and not on USB version. Most cheap cables won't handle 1A charging as explained here. – rustyx Aug 24 '14 at 14:40
up vote 13 down vote accepted

The USB-IF says all fully compliant USB 1.1 cables sold also meet the specifications for USB 2.0 Hi-Speed (although low quality, non-compliant cables may not work at the higher speed).

USB 3.0 cables include nine pins (instead of just four for USB 2.0) and have a larger "B" (device) end that will not fit into USB 2.0 printers, scanners, etc. These cables seem to often have a blue color and/or an "SS" (SuperSpeed) marking next to the USB logo.

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I don't think there's any difference between USB 1, 1.1 and 2 but version 3 has extra pins near the back as shown here. I'm not sure how obvious it would be just from looking at the cable since they're hidden at the back of the plug.

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This table from wikipedia shows how you can use the color of the plastic inside the connector to tell different versions apart

USB 1.x             White
USB 2.0             Black, sometimes white
USB 3.0             Blue
Sleep-and-charge    Yellow or red
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I wa surprised that this is a standard thing, but the color seems to be definitive in certain situations, like a Black connector is always USB 2 and a blue is always 3. White is however ambiguous... – DrCord May 16 at 23:43

there is actually a difference. you will see a "+" for 2.0 on the end and " " nothing for a 1.0

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This may help!
Good video showing how you can identify REAL USB 3.0 cables... (vs fake ones, usually USB 2.0 ones)

In short: USB 3.0:

  • - blue (some "fake USB 3" may also have a blue bit but be USB 2 after all)
  • - may have "SS" indication on cable (near connector) but most specifically
  • - USB 3.0 has 9 (4+5) connectors, while USB2 has just 4.

See video for detailed explanation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyJkF8DXBlk

Also, if you connect a cable to a new computer/laptop and this complains your device could work faster, you know you have a fake USB 3 cable.

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