Though they are not as common as they once were, ribbon cables are still used in a number of computers and other electronic devices. The flat multi-wired cables come in different widths, depending on the components that they connect to, and look like a length of ribbed plastic ribbon with connection blocks on both ends. The connectors are designed so that the ribbon cable can only be connected in specific ways.
What Are Ribbon Cables?
Ribbon cables are made up of multiple wires that are arranged in a flat parallel configuration. Each wire connects to a port within the connection head on either end of the cable; when pressed into a connection socket on a hard drive, motherboard or other component, pins within the socket enter the ports and make contact with the individual wires. The flat orientation of the cable makes it ideal for tight spaces within computers and other electronics. One edge of the cable is often marked in a different color to aid in orienting the cable.
Connecting Ribbon Cables
The connection heads of ribbon cables are designed so that one side of the head is perfectly flat while the other has ridges. These ridges correspond with the shape of the connection sockets on computer drives, motherboards and other components that use parallel ATA (also known as IDE) connections. Connecting the ribbon cable is simply a matter of lining up the grooves and ridges, then pressing the cable down into the connection socket. If the cable encounters resistance, it should be checked to make sure that the ridges aren't on the wrong side of the socket.
Shifting Away From Ribbons
In 2003, a successor to the parallel ATA data port was released. This new port, known as serial ATA or SATA, allowed for faster data transfer speeds than the parallel connections that used ribbon cables. Though the use of parallel ATA connections (and their associated ribbon cables) persisted, especially in compact electronics, serial ATA connections have become the option of choice for new motherboards and their associated hard drives, optical disc drives and other peripheral components that previously relied solely on ribbon cables.
Serial ATA Cables
Unlike the ribbon cables used by parallel ATA sockets, SATA cables do not come in varied widths and do not have individual wires visible in their design. Like ribbon cables, SATA cables are designed to fit into SATA sockets in only one direction, though this is accomplished through the use of a clip-in quick-release lever on the side of the cable instead of a simple ridge-and-groove configuration. SATA cables are pressed into the socket until they click into place, and then are removed by pressing the small lever on the side and pulling them free.