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What Is a Ribbon Cable?

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  • Written By: Matthew F.
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2014
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Like a piece of ribbon, a ribbon cable is a type of cable that is wide and flat. A ribbon cable is made up of a number of wires that run along side each other, in parallel. The majority of ribbon cables are found on the inside of electronics. It is also called a multi-wire planar cable.

In a ribbon cable, each wire — or conductor — in the cable is used to connect two corresponding contacts. It is very important, then, that the correct wire attach to each end. Manufactures have introduced a color coding system to simplify this process, and help prevent connecting the wrong contacts. The majority of the cables have a red band on one end. In another type of ribbon cable, each wire is colored differently so that they can be easily identified; this type of cable is sometimes known as a "hippie cable."

Ribbon cables are distinguished by the number of conductors and the space between them. In most common size of ribbon cable, the conductors are typically 0.05 inches (1.27 mm) apart; this allows for a connector with two rows, and a 0.1 inch (2.54 mm) pin spacing. This formation of ribbon is used most often for enclosed spaces. Ribbon cables can have as few as four connectors or as many as 80.

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The ribbon cables are forced into a row of contacts in electronics through the ends of the cables. The connectors at the end of a ribbon cable are known as the insulation displacement connectors. On most of the cables there is an insulation displacement connector on both ends.

There are five basic connectors which are used in most electronics. The BT224 is the most common, and typically used in computers. PCB transition headers have the same set up as the BT224, but include a second row, while the BT224 has only one. D-subminiture connectors are found on printer ports; while most European computers and printers run off of the DIN41612 connector. DIL headers are commonly used for external connections.

Ribbon cables are found in many different electronics, including computer hard drives, floppy drives, and CD players. Older computers often used this type of cables on the outside of the machine as well. Due to the awkward shape of most ribbon cables, round cables have largely replaced external ribbon cables.

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