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It appears that not all USB cables (one end: USB, the other end - Micro-USB) are created equal: some can only charge devices (e.g., cell phones, e-readers), others can also sync them.

  1. Are there just 2 kinds? What's the background?
  2. How do I tell one kind from the other without plugging the device?
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The difference is in the amount of wires in the cable. Charging-only cables just have two wires in them: power (+5V) and ground. These are often thicker than usual to accomodate the higher charging currents available today (2A+). Needless to say, with just power connected you cannot transfer any data over such a cable.

Sync cables - like any other USB cable - have all four wires implemented: Power, ground and two data lines (D+ and D-, a differential pair). These are usually, but not always, thinner than charging cables and usually designed for currents up to 900mA.

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  • Thanks! Are there any markings on the cables which identify which kind they are? – sds Aug 10 '14 at 14:41
  • There is no universally agreed upon logo that distinguishes them, but charging-only cables usually have an identifying mark on the micro USB-end - e.g. my charging cables have a 'B' on the molding - whereas data cables have the USB logo on both ends. – user36129 Aug 10 '14 at 14:46

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