Organize, store and buy computer cables wisely

The personal computer industry supposedly went “wireless” several years ago. But you’d never know it by looking at the back of most desks. It seems like the convenience of every Wi-Fi enabled laptop, smartphone and printer is offset by a corresponding cable or wire elsewhere in the office. That’s not counting old cables that are no longer in use due to age, condition or obsolescence. If you’ve got a drawer full of cables, or if you’ve ever played “unplug it to see what turns off,” this post is for you. I’ll tell you how to organize the cables you use and store those you don’t, plus a few cool tips and tricks.

Step one: know your cables

There are a huge number of cables available. Each performs its own job, though there is some overlap. Here, I’ve presented some of the most common household cables. This is by no means exhaustive, but should cover most of what you have at home. Learning to identify them on sight will help you find what you need more quickly, and will make storage easier, as I’ll explain later. Pictured above are:

  1. USB to mini USB You’ll notice one end is a flat rectangle shape and the other is a small trapezoid shape. These are often used with digital cameras and often short, in the 1–3 foot range.
  2. FireWire 800 These feature a squared-off end with a plastic “bit” in the center. FireWire 800 cables are typically used on high-end external hard drives and some video equipment. They transfer large files between machines and drives quickly.
  3. Standard USB One end features a flat rectangle and the other a square with once side slightly rounded. Many printers uses these cables, as well as some external hard drives.
  4. FireWire 400 Which, is also called “1394 cable” in some circles. Also used for storage peripherals like hard drives and some older video cameras. Transfer speed is slightly slower than that of its sibling FireWire 800.
  5. DVI These cables end with a wide terminator with many pins and two screws to hold it in place. You’ll find that many computer monitors and projectors use these. Length can vary greatly, but most are around 3 feet long.

The following are less common than the others, but still popular enough that many of you may have them.

  1. Apple 30-pin connector These are used with many of Apple’s mobile products including the iPhone (models other than the iPhone 5), iPad (except the iPad mini and 4th generation iPad) and iPod touch (older models). Apple has recently replaced them, as you’ll see, but there are still millions in circulation.
  2. Thunderbolt These are pretty much exclusive to Apple right now, but those who’ve bought an iMac or MacBook Pro recently could have use for a Thunderbolt cable. They connect very high-speed external drives to a computer.
  3. Lightning Apple replaced the 30-pin connector cable with the Lightning cable. It can be identified by the tiny little “nubbin” end. It’s small, thin and, unlike the old connector, doesn’t care if you put it in upside-down or not. The iPhone 5, iPad mini, newest iPad and latest iPod touch use the Lightning connector.
  4. HDMI Used with your HD television, some displays and the Apple TV. Easily recognized by the roughly trapezoidal shape on each end.

Now that we’ve got the cables identified, let’s look at a few ways to keep all of these things organized.

Organization

Call me picky, but a rat’s nest of unwieldy cables just makes my skin crawl. A beautiful workspace can be marred by a collection of cables flopping all over the place. Fortunately, solutions are plentiful and easy to come by.

  1. Cable management I use the Galant Cable Manager from IKEA. It screws to the underside of my desk and I run everything through it. That keeps the cables from hanging down and looking ugly (not to mention attracting the pets). Here’s a great idea from Michael Desmond at About.com. He ran several cables and an adapter into a nice-looking storage box, using standard office clips to keep the cables out of each other’s way. The box looks good and eliminates a mess on the floor. Speaking of binder clips, you can clip the large variety right to your desk to hold cables at the ready. Ingenious (and cheap!)
  2. Identification I love to label my cables. You can use color-coded twist-ties, bits of ribbon or even yard-sale tags. But I like Mark Brothers Cable Labels (pictured above). Aside from being cute, each features a spot that you can write on. That way, you know exactly where each one goes and what it powers. If they’re too cutesy for your taste, consider the Kableflags DIY variety. Much more utilitarian. Finally, consider color-coded tape. One piece on the device end, another down at the socket.

Storage

First, a quick rule: if it’s obsolete, worn or from a product you no longer own or use, throw it out! Unless you’re running a cable museum, or have a soft spot for wayward, abandoned wires, let them go. Remember: stuff that sits around serving no purpose is clutter. That SCSI cable from 1993 definitely counts.

I sort my cables by type into clear plastic bins. I use my label maker to create stickers that say “USB” or “Audio” and affix one to each bin. Before a cable enters the bin, I wrap it up with a rubber band. Now, I know what’s in each bin by reading the label and I can see how many of each type I have by peering through the clear bin. There’s no need to pull each out and open it to see inside the box.

Here’s another cool trick from Sharon Harris on Picasa that makes use of toilet paper tubes. Hair clips work, too. I love it!

When you wrap your cables up for storage, let each end stick out just a bit. That way, if you need it in the future for a job that doesn’t require its full length, you can access either end without pulling the whole thing apart.

Buy Wisely

I’m going suggest something that sounds pro-clutter, but I assure you it’s not. If you travel often, buy doubles of some of your cables. For instance, when I worked in an office I had an iPhone cable and wall charger that lived at my desk. Yes, that meant I had two to take care of but it also meant I could keep my phone charged during the day without having to remember to bring one cable back and forth. I did the same with the charger cable for my laptop.

When buying cables, skip the big box stores. You’ll typically find much better prices on sites like Amazon and Monoprice.com. I recently needed an DVI-to-HDMI adapter cable. A local big box electronics store wanted $50 for one. I found another online for under $3. It works perfectly.

Cool Tips and Tricks

OK, now for the fun stuff.

  1. The Cable Turtle is very cute and keeps a variety of cables tidy.
  2. Learn how to braid an extension cord. Technically it’s not a cable, but this is a fantastic trick. I store all of my extension cords this way.
  3. Likewise, there is a right way and a wrong way to wrap a video cable. Over/under is the right way.
  4. Instructables has posted a tutorial for inexpensive, under-desk cable management.

21 Comments for “Organize, store and buy computer cables wisely”

  1. posted by DC on

    HDMI cables: good article here:
    http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-3.....ing-guide/
    with links to their three part series on ‘Why all HDMI cables are the same”

  2. posted by Jess H. on

    I made cable storage packets for specific uses. They store cleanly, but I can also pull them out and drop them in my bag for travel.

    I keep them in Vaultz mesh bags. (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obi.....atizer-20/

    The smallest is a basic recharge / music kit: iPhone cable, miniUSB cable, wall plug, audio cable, flash drive, earbuds.

    The next smallest has all the above, plus iPad accessories and an iPad charging brick instead of the wall plug.

    The third is a presentation kit. It has everything from the basic kit, plus a laser pointer / USB slide clicker, a foldable mousepad, and a wireless mouse.

    The largest bag has the full monty – everything from all the kits, plus a computer power cord and a standard USB cable.

    I’d accumulated multiples of most of these things over time, so I had to spend very little money (under $25) to make these kits. Now storage and travel are both super easy! My husband uses them too.

  3. posted by Scott F. on

    I think it is also important to remind people that cables that handle digital information (HDMI, UDB, etc) gain no benefit from being gold or platinum. This is a way to upcharge you (3x,4x) for a simple cable.

  4. posted by Miss Lynx on

    How does that Ikea cable manager work? I clicked through to the page and it just looks like a thin shelf with holes in it for the cables to run through. How does that “keep them from hanging down and looking ugly”? It looks like they would go through the hole and then hang down just as before. Maybe it’s because the photo on the Ikea site doesn’t actually show it in use, but I can’t see how it would do anything other than just space them out evenly.

  5. posted by Sara on

    Do cables like these need to be recycled (like eWaste) or can we just throw them out?

  6. posted by Portable Storage VA on

    I think this is invaluable advice! It’s just as important to keep track of these cords when moving, too.

  7. posted by Harald on

    I was just sorting through an old box of cables, and found: a) quite a few unbundled cables, and b) lots of small pieces of hard, dried out rubber band.

    I recommend that you don’t use rubber bands to wrap cables for long-term storage (where long-term is as little as a year) – they dry out and shatter.

  8. posted by Jason on

    No offense, but I’m unclear why FireWire was deemed more common than HDMI. FireWire ports are included pretty much only on Macs (if you have a PC with a FireWire port, you probably installed a PCI card to have it and already know more about cables than this intro lesson would provide anyway). Meanwhile, HDMI is pretty much THE standard connection for newer TVs and devices which hook up to TVs. Heck, I’d bet VGA, audio, ethernet, micro-USB, or power cables would all also be much more common, though not illustrated here.

  9. posted by KJ on

    I make my own cable wires.

    I write the cable purpose on a small slip of an index card. I sometimes identify the hook up for each end to make set up easy in the event of a move. I fold the label around the cable and tape over the index card. This laminates the label, but does not tape the it to the cable. Works like a charm.

  10. Avatar of DavidCaolo

    posted by DavidCaolo on

    Miss Lynx – great question. I have a display, a laptop, a microphone and an external drive on my desk. Each has a long cable attached. The tray lets me “hide” away the bulk of those cables, instead of letting them hang down over the edge of the desk and down to the floor.

    Instead, I put the cable in the tray, bunch it up and run it neatly down the leg of my desk to the floor. It looks much better. Thanks!

  11. Avatar of DavidCaolo

    posted by DavidCaolo on

    Sara, good question. You have a couple of options. First, many big box electronics stores will take your unwanted cables and dispose of them properly for you. For instance, here’s details on Best Buy’s program:

    http://www.bestbuy.com/site/Gl.....9900050025

    They follow the industry’s protocols for recycling electronic devices.

    The EPA also maintains a web page with information on recycling electronics. Contact them to find a drop-off point near you.

    http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/co.....donate.htm

    Thanks!

  12. Avatar of DavidCaolo

    posted by DavidCaolo on

    Jason, good point. I was focusing more on computer cables than general electronics cables. You’re right, of course. Overall, HDMI is far more popular and common than FireWire.

  13. Avatar of DavidCaolo

    posted by DavidCaolo on

    Harald – Good point. Zip ties are a preferable alternative.

    http://www.homedepot.com/webap.....ogId=10053

  14. posted by Xiro on

    Over the years with computers I gained quite a bit of cables and adapters, just about anything can be bought or a dollar or two online and they work fine? Twenty dollars? Nope, more like a dollar each.

    It can be excessive over time and finally selling off some to have what is really needed. Management is simple as I use a laptop, it can get crazy with a desktop no matter what you do.

  15. posted by purpleBee on

    A couple of years ago I bought a wonderful travel cablekit for less than $10. Its a powerplug with a usb connector built into it.

    It came with a usb to usb cable and a collection of connector heads that convert the usb cable for other uses. So it has into connectors for a mini usb, a micro usb, nokia standard, apple standard (old), and 3 more I don’t use for phones & cameras.

    The cable works for power and data transfer.

    It all packs down to about the size of a bar of soap. One of the best gadgets I’ve ever bought.

  16. posted by Han on

    I use those little coloured dot stickers. Mainly on my (many) harddrives.
    Sometimes I number them or letter them or write what they are in teeny letters, although I tend to do this on items I don’t use very often.

    For harddrives I put a sticker on the drive, the USB and the plug. I also number them so I can say, today I need “red 4″. (I also have a postit that sums up the drives main contents and whether its a primary or a secondary backup for a certain set of folders)

    Another trick (even better on a mac) is to create a folder in the root of the harddrive and write the number and colour of the drive in caps. Eg/ ‘RED 4′ and if you have a mac label it the same colour as the dot.

    That way when you have 4 drives plugged in (or worse 2 drives both partitioned!) and you’ve not formatted them to have the colour and number on it you know which drive your accessing!

    (did I mention I have a lot of harddrives…!)

  17. posted by lady brett on

    my cheapie solution for cable storage has been pushpins and ziploc snack bags. it has helped immensely with the fact that every little device seems to have a different cord. so, one cord per bag, labelled with the device it goes to, and pinned to the inside of a closet door.

    it also keeps me from having to remember that x device needs a usb-to-mini-usb cord; i just have to know that it needs the cord in its bag (yes, that means we have some duplicate cords, but for me the simplicity is worth it).

  18. posted by Frank on

    My advice as a systems administrator: never, ever use anything sticky on cables. You should also avoid zip ties for bundling and storage. Use velcro ties to hold them together, and you can use a loose zip tie with a tag to label them.

  19. posted by Elizabeth on

    Just wanted to say a big thank you for this article. I inherited a wide range of different cables from my ex. Once gathered together I had no idea what they all were, let alone what was their purpose. Now at least I can identify them and then possibly bundle them up and sell to someone who might use them!

  20. posted by Matt Petty on

    A silver Sharpie is great for writing on plugs. for example, I can see which USB plug is my mouse, which is the keyboard, and which is the external drive. Silver makes it visible on any color plug.

  21. posted by Nathan Beach on

    Just wanted to back up the velcro tie comment. It’s way easier than anything else, plus you can re-use them when you finally do throw the cable away. You can get them in rolls of six-inch self-adhering velcro strips at Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can even cut them in half for smaller cables. They’re great!

    Another tip — I just purged a mass of cables, took them to work in a box, and left them in the break room with a “free stuff” sign. Everything was gone by noon today. It makes me feel better than just throwing the stuff out…

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