In telecommunications, RS-232, Recommended Standard 232[1] is a standard introduced in 1960[2] for serial communication transmission of data. It formally defines the signals connecting between a DTE (data terminal equipment) such as a computer terminal, and a DCE (data circuit-terminating equipment or data communication equipment), such as a modem. The RS-232 standard had been commonly used in computer serial ports. The standard defines the electrical characteristics and timing of signals, the meaning of signals, and the physical size and pinout of connectors. The current version of the standard is TIA-232-F Interface Between Data Terminal Equipment and Data Circuit-Terminating Equipment Employing Serial Binary Data Interchange, issued in 1997.

An RS-232 serial port was once a standard feature of a personal computer, used for connections to modems, printers, mice, data storage, uninterruptible power supplies, and other peripheral devices. RS-232, when compared to later interfaces such as RS-422, RS-485 and Ethernet, has lower transmission speed, short maximum cable length, large voltage swing, large standard connectors, no multipoint capability and limited multidrop capability. In modern personal computers, USB has displaced RS-232 from most of its peripheral interface roles. Many computers no longer come equipped with RS-232 ports (although some motherboards come equipped with a COM port header that allows the user to install a bracket with a DE-9 port) and must use either an external USB-to-RS-232 converter or an internal expansion card with one or more serial ports to connect to RS-232 peripherals. Nevertheless, thanks to their simplicity and past ubiquity, RS-232 interfaces are still used—particularly in industrial machines, networking equipment, and scientific instruments where a short-range, point-to-point, low-speed wired data connection is adequate.

Scope of the standard

The Electronic Industries Association (EIA) standard RS-232-C as of 1969 defines:

  • Electrical signal characteristics such as voltage levels, signaling rate, timing, and slew-rate of signals, voltage withstand level, short-circuit behavior, and maximum load capacitance.
  • Interface mechanical characteristics, pluggable connectors and pin identification.
  • Functions of each circuit in the interface connector.
  • Standard subsets of interface circuits for selected telecom applications.

The standard does not define such elements as the character encoding (i.e. ASCII, EBCDIC, or others), the framing of characters (start or stop bits, etc.), transmission order of bits, or error detection protocols. The character format and transmission bit rate are set by the serial port hardware which may also contain circuits to convert the internal logic levels to RS-232 compatible signal levels. The standard does not define bit rates for transmission, except that it says it is intended for bit rates lower than 20,000 bits per second.

Limitations of the standard

Because RS-232 is used beyond the original purpose of interconnecting a terminal with a modem, successor standards have been developed to address the limitations. Issues with the RS-232 standard include:

  • The large voltage swings and requirement for positive and negative supplies increases power consumption of the interface and complicates power supply design. The voltage swing requirement also limits the upper speed of a compatible interface.
  • Single-ended signaling referred to a common signal ground limits the noise immunity and transmission distance.
  • Multi-drop connection among more than two devices is not defined. While multi-drop “work-arounds” have been devised, they have limitations in speed and compatibility.
  • The standard does not address the possibility of connecting a DTE directly to a DTE, or a DCE to a DCE. Null modem cables can be used to achieve these connections, but these are not defined by the standard, and some such cables use different connections than others.
  • The definitions of the two ends of the link are asymmetric. This makes the assignment of the role of a newly developed device problematic; the designer must decide on either a DTE-like or DCE-like interface and which connector pin assignments to use.
  • The handshaking and control lines of the interface are intended for the setup and takedown of a dial-up communication circuit; in particular, the use of handshake lines for flow control is not reliably implemented in many devices.
  • No method is specified for sending power to a device. While a small amount of current can be extracted from the DTR and RTS lines, this is only suitable for low-power devices such as mice.
  • The 25-pin D-sub connector recommended in the standard is large compared to current practice.

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