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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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!)
- 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.
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.
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.
- The Cable Turtle is very cute and keeps a variety of cables tidy.
- 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.
- Likewise, there is a right way and a wrong way to wrap a video cable. Over/under is the right way.
- Instructables has posted a tutorial for inexpensive, under-desk cable management.