In this era of plug-and-play computing where we expect electronic equipment to work as soon as we connect it via USB, it's easy to forget about the tools we should have at hand when it comes to working with RS232, RS422 and RS485 serial connections and converters. These serial connections are still being used for all sorts of projects, and not being prepared with a properly stocked toolbox can mean the difference between an easy job and a frustrating one.
The basic problem with serial connections is that upfront you never know for sure which of the RS-232 pins and signals are being used in a given connection, or even how they are being used. Things are far more standardized than they used to be, but it's still best to be prepared for anything. So if you're likely to encounter vexing RS-232, RS-422, RS-485 or TTL connections in your job or projects, here are some of the things you need:
First, a breakout box so you can make manual jumper connections between pins. This lets you open pin circuits, determine if a ort is DCE or DTE, check RS232 leads to see if they are high or low, and so on. The box should have easily visible LEDs and perhaps battery power.
Next, get a RS-232 male-to-female adapter. There's nothing more frustrating than to have a connector of the wrong gender, and an adapter will save the day sooner or later. Also get a RS-232 ABC switch so you can switch back and forth between multiple connections.
Since serial connector pins are notoriously fragile, you want to make sure not to bend or break them. A RS-232 pin inserter/extractor tool makes it easy to insert or pull pins from connectors. These tools are cheap and work much better than regular pliers.
Then get a RS-232 cable tester. It's used for situation where a cable may be bad or improperly wired, and you can use it to quickly determine whether pins are crossed or wired straight through. A synchronous modem eliminator does just that, it eliminates a synchronous modem between two systems, and it also includes a timing clock. You'll also want a RS-232 buffer. A lot of serial communications problems are due to improper buffering where data backs up or gets dropped. A buffer is often a simple fix.
Finally, stock up on a set of good adapters and converters. That includes RS-232 to RS-485, RS-232 to RS-422, RS232 and RS485 to TTL (both 3.3 and 5 Volt), USB to serial, and Ethernet and fiber optic. Also consider getting serial data repeaters to easily extend connection distance without redesigning a whole system.
Just because serial data communication has been replaced with newer communication protocols in most of today's consumer devices doesn't mean serial is no longer important. Expertise is designing, setting up and debugging of serial communication systems is highly valued these days, and a good working knowledge of RS232, RS422, RS485 basics and converters is a good skill to have.
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Chris Robertson is an author of Majon International, one of the worlds MOST popular internet marketing companies.
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