Notebook Buying Guide: Port Selection and Placement

by Reads (2,869)

A notebook’s size, weight, screen, performance, and battery life are typical selling points, areas you’d pay close attention to when comparing different models. However, it’s the small things that make everyday life livable. Depending on when, where, and how you want to plug something into your notebook, a certain port selection and arrangement may work better than others.

But first things first – you’ll need to know what kinds of ports you need on your next notebook before deciding where they should go. As such, we’ll review the common types of ports found on today’s notebook computers. We’ll then talk about how many of each you’ll need for your usage. Following, we’ll discuss where the ports should physically go on your notebook. Lastly, we’ll visit a few related topics, such as reducing your need for ports, and how much physical abuse a port can take.

Ports 101

Let’s start with a summary of ports you’ll find on a modern notebook computer. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but covers the common types you may need on a daily basis.

USB31USB – Versatile Data Transfer

USB, or Universal Serial Bus is a data transfer technology found on almost all notebook computers today. It’s been around since the mid-90’s, and is used to connect nearly everything – mice, keyboards, printers, cameras, phones, external storage devices, you name it. USB ports can also be used as a low-power source for charging phones and powering small devices, such as external hard drives.

There are several versions of USB. The most common today are:

  • USB 2.0: this is the minimum speed you’ll find in a modern computer. It’s fast enough for basic devices with its 480 Mbps data transfer speed, but generally considered too slow for large data transfers (several GB in size). In other words, don’t plan on using this for backups.
  • USB 3.0: commonly found on notebook computers, though it hasn’t fully replaced USB 2.0 since it started appearing in the mainstream around 2010. Its transfer speeds are 5.0Gbps, or about 10x greater than USB 2.0. It’s adequate for most data transfer needs, including backups.
  • USB 3.1: faster still, it has a data transfer speed of 10Gbps, double that of USB 3.0. It’s not common (yet). It’s useful in situations where extremely high bandwidth is required. USB 3.0 is adequate for most consumer needs.
  • Thunderbolt 3: this ultra-high speed data transfer protocol is actually not USB, but can be coupled with USB 3.0 and 3.1 ports. In other words, a Thunderbolt 3 device can be connected to a Thunderbolt 3 port using a USB connector.

USBAvsUSBCIn addition to that, the USB port connector itself can come in several different styles.

USB-A is the common rectangular shape, while USB-C is the much smaller, slit-shaped connector with a reversible tip as shown in the image. The latter has created quite the buzz in the computer and cell phone industry since its introduction to the mainstream.

Take a look at our primer here to see what USB-C is all about. The tiny USB port on smartphones is usually micro USB, which is being slowly replaced by USB-C.

DisplayPort and HDMI – Digital Video and Audio Out

GigabyteAero14HDMI and DisplayPort carry a digital video and audio signal in a single cable, a more modern approach next to the old analog S-Video, with separate cables for video and audio. They are the two common video out ports used today across consumer electronics. The technologies aren’t compatible with one another; an HDMI connector won’t fit in a DisplayPort connector, and vice versa. Shown here is the HDMI port on a Gigabyte Aero 14 notebook. Below is an image of the more square-edged DisplayPort connector.

DisplayPortHDMI is mostly used for connections to HDTVs, while DisplayPort is the true replacement for the old VGA and DVI ports used on computer monitors. DisplayPort is more powerful, capable of daisy-chaining displays and more.

These ports can come in less than full-size versions, such as micro HDMI, so be wary of this when shopping for a notebook. Unless the notebook has full-size HDMI or DisplayPort, chances are you’ll need to carry around a micro to full-size adapter with you. (Most cables only have the full-size connectors, meaning you’ll be out of luck unless you can convert your micro port to full-size.) The reason the micro versions exist is to help keep notebook thinness to a minimum.

As a minor footnote, USB-C is also capable of doing video-out, but support for it is almost non-existent in today’s devices. Nonetheless, you can buy USB-C to HDMI or DisplayPort adapters if you have a USB-C port.

SamsungGalaxyTabProSHeadphone and Microphone Jacks

Headphone and microphone ports were traditionally separate, but in recent years they’ve been combined into a single port in most cases, as seen here on the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro S tablet. This is because modern headsets are able to put the circuitry for both in a single jack. The combo jacks can function as just as a headphone or just a microphone jack, though.

VAIOSMedia Card Readers

A built-in media card reader is convenient for being able to quickly insert and access data on media cards. Support for different card formats varies, but it’s almost a guarantee that some form of Secure Digital (SD) card will be supported. The SD card reader on the VAIO S business notebook is shown here.

Pay attention to the formats the card reader supports. Ultra-thin notebooks and tables may only support non-full-size cards, such as microSD. If your digital camera takes full-size SD cards, they won’t fit in a microSD slot.

ZBook14G2Ethernet

Wired Ethernet (LAN) is commonly left off consumer notebooks today, as it’s been almost entirely eclipsed by wireless LAN (WLAN). However, the business world continues to rely on wired connections, especially in high security facilities where wireless connections are considered unsafe. If a notebook doesn’t have Ethernet, it’s still possible to get it via a USB adapter. However, you’d ideally have a dedicated Ethernet port on your notebook if you needed it. The Ethernet jack is shown second from the right in the HP ZBook 14 shown here.

How Many Ports, and Which Ones?

You probably have a good idea of what you plug into your notebook on a daily basis, but just to make sure, you can fill out the following to help make your list of ports you need on your next notebook:

What do you connect?

Device

Yes?

No?

How Many?

A USB mouse or keyboard?

 

 

 

An external display or TV? More than one?

 

 

 

A printer?

 

 

 

Headphones and/or speakers?

 

 

 

An SD or media card to a reader?

 

 

 

Other?

 

 

 

As with other areas of life, it’s a good idea to have more than you need as a contingency. One video out (HDMI or DisplayPort) is probably enough for most people, but one USB port may not be. If you connect a mouse and printer, that’s two USB ports. If two USB ports are all your notebook has, you’ll be forced to unplug a device before you can plug something else. As a rule of thumb, look for one extra USB port than you anticipate needing on a day to day basis.

Port Placement

Now that you have an idea of what kind of ports you need, as well as how many, it’s time to consider where they should go. Our best advice here is to imagine yourself using a given notebook in everyday practice. Look where the ports are, and pretend you need to plug in your devices. If the placement seems awkward or impractical, it definitely is, and you should perhaps consider another notebook. That said, here are a couple of areas you might have overlooked.

Logitech G502 Proteus Core Gaming MouseExternal Mouse Users: Right- or Left-Handed?

If you’re left-handed and use an external mouse with your notebook, having ports on the left side of your notebook can be inconvenient. HDMI and DisplayPort cables are typically long and relatively stiff, and jut out quite far from where they’re plugged in. If they’re on the side of the notebook where you have your mouse, they can force you to place your mouse further away from the side of the notebook than seems natural.

Another consideration isn’t related to ports, but to the notebook’s cooling. This is mostly a concern with high-performance and gaming notebooks that have large cooling vents. If you’re right-handed, you wouldn’t want to have the cooling exhaust located on the right side of the notebook, as it could be blowing hot air on your right hand while gaming with an external mouse. To avoid this, look for a notebook that has its heat exhausts out the back of the chassis.

What if I Don’t Use an External Mouse?

The right- and left-handed considerations we just discussed were primarily related to using an external mouse. But even if you don’t use an external mouse all the time, whether certain ports are located on the left, right, or back of the notebook can still make a difference.

Using a notebook in an airline’s economy class or on your lap in the back of a car can be a challenge on its own, but what if you have to physically connect something? There’s a real risk of damaging both the notebook and the connected device if pressure is placed on the device while it’s plugged in. If you push down on a USB device, for example, it puts stress on the port and can damage or break both the port and the device. A broken port usually needs professional fixing, and won’t be covered under a notebook’s standard limited warranty.

Back-mounted ports are typically more vulnerable to damage when devices are plugged in, as the notebook is more likely to move vertically, as opposed to laterally when it’s on an uneven surface, such as your lap. In other words, you’re more likely to push the notebook away or pull it towards you, than to tilt it side to side. If anything is plugged into a back-mounted port while you push the notebook away from you, it could put stress on any port that has a connected device. Worst of all, you can’t see this happening, as the notebook’s open lid is going to be hiding the connected device from you. Our advice is to use side-mounted ports in situations where your notebook is likely to move around while devices are physically connected.

Furthermore, consider that it may be a good idea to have USB ports on both sides of the notebook. If you have an aisle seat on an airplane, you wouldn’t want to plug in devices on ports facing the aisle, as the service cart or people walking by may hit them. You can avoid this situation if you have USB ports on either side.

If you’re a wired headphone user, think about where your wire will be dangling. The headphone jack is almost always located on the sides of the notebook, but may also be located on the front. If it’s located on the sides, it may be towards the front of the side, or further towards the back. For right-handers, it’s usually more convenient to have the headphone jack on the left side of the notebook, as then the wire won’t get in the way if you’re using an external mouse, and vice versa for right handers.

Related Concerns

Before we wrap up, here are two quick topics related to ports on notebook computers.

Can I Reduce My Port Usage?

It is possible to have too many wires. Some would argue that even one port on a MacBook is too many. You’re going to have at least one wire coming out of your notebook for power, but with our current state of technology, almost everything else can be wireless.

  • If you’re using a USB mouse, you can replace it with a Bluetooth mouse; the same goes for keyboards. The downside of truly wireless devices is that they’ll typically need batteries, which is an additional expense. And, you’ll be out of luck if the batteries run out and you don’t have a replacement, or time to charge the device.
  • Printers can be connected to routers to make them wireless. It may also be possible to connect USB storage drives to a router for wireless access.
  • Displays and TVs are usually wired, though it is possible to make them wireless if your notebook supports Intel Wi-Di (Wireless Display).
  • Lastly, you can replace wired storage devices with network-attached or Cloud-based storage.

Port Longevity – Constantly Plugging and Unplugging Devices

If you frequently plug and unplug devices, how long will your ports last? The answer to this is that you shouldn’t worry about it. Standard USB-A ports are rated for a minimum of 1,500 plug and unplug cycles. Doing the math, you could plug and unplug a flash drive every day for over four years before it would even reach that number. That’s just for one port, so if you had two, and alternated which one you plugged and unplugged, it’d be over eight years. In essence, the ports will probably outlast your notebook.

DSC03964Conclusion

There’s a simple saying that tends to work well when shopping: buy the right tools for the job. A notebook computer’s battery life, screen size, and performance are important considerations, but don’t let them overshadow the smaller things like port selection and placement.

After reviewing the different types of ports in this article, we discussed how many ports were actually necessary on your next notebook. We surmised that one video out (like HDMI or DisplayPort) was probably enough, but you can never have too many USB ports. As a general rule, have one more than you anticipate needing.

We reviewed the impact of being left- or right-handed when it came to port placement, as well as intended usage. Frequent flyers will want to make sure most of their ports are along the sides of the notebook for each access. Furthermore, it’s convenient to have ports of the same kind on either side in case one side of your notebook is blocked.

With the influx of wireless technology, it’s certainly possible to reduce the number of ports you need. Consider going with a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard, or connecting your printer to a network router, as opposed to plugging it in via USB. Chances are at least some of the devices you use will have wireless replacements.

As a final note, consider the notebook computer industry didn’t evolve overnight, but over several decades. Most notebooks in our experience tend to have rather logical port placements; it’s the odd man out when we find otherwise. Our best advice is to imagine yourself using the notebook you’re considering in everyday usage. Imagine where you’ll plug in your various devices, and how that compares to what you’re using now. If it doesn’t work in your head, take that as a hint that it probably won’t work in real life, either.

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