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RS-232 vs RS-485: Understanding the Differences in Wiring Range and Applications

Introduction to RS-232 and RS-485

In today’s world, electronic communication is a necessary part of our daily lives. We use devices that are connected to each other and share data.

The communication between these devices requires a certain protocol, which is defined by standards. Two such standards that have been extensively used for electrical transmission are RS-232 and RS-485.

In this article, we will explore the basics of these standards, their wiring differences, and their continued use.

Definition and Overview of RS-232 and RS-485 Standards

RS-232, also known as EIA-232 (Electronic Industries Alliance), is a standard that defines the electrical characteristics of the interface between a computer and a modem or other communication devices. The RS-232 standard specifies a voltage connection between a sending device and a receiving device, with the voltage levels representing logical 1 and logical 0.

It defines the communication signal values, the connector pinouts, and the transmission rate. On the other hand, RS-485, also known as EIA-485, is a standard for balanced serial communication.

The RS-485 standard specifies the electrical characteristics of the data cable and interface circuitry for data transmission between devices over long distances. RS-485 allows communication between multiple devices on a single data line, so it is commonly used in industrial plants and factories for connecting multiple devices.

Age and Continued Use of RS-232 and RS-485

RS-232 was first introduced in 1962 and was commonly used throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Despite its age, it is still used today in areas such as payment processing devices, point of sale (POS) systems, and industrial automation.

This is because RS-232 is a simple and reliable standard that can handle low-speed data transmission. Similarly, RS-485 has been in use since the 1980s and is still commonly used in industrial automation and control systems, especially for long-distance communication.

RS-485 is a cost-effective solution, as it allows multiple devices to be connected on a single data line, reducing the need for additional cabling.

Wiring Differences between RS-232 and RS-485

One significant difference between RS-232 and RS-485 is the number of wires used in each standard. RS-232 requires a minimum of three wires TX (transmit), RX (receive), and ground.

In contrast, RS-485 only requires two wires A and B, which are used to transmit and receive signals, respectively. RS-485 also provides an additional connection for a ground wire, which can act as a shield to protect the data from noise and interference.

The cost-effectiveness of RS-485 over RS-232 is apparent in situations where multiple devices need to be connected over long distances. In such scenarios, RS-485 can connect up to 32 devices with a maximum distance of 4000 feet while using only two wires.

In contrast, RS-232 can only connect two devices, and the maximum distance is limited to 50 feet.


In conclusion, RS-232 and RS-485 are two standards that have been widely used for electrical communication for decades. Despite their age, they are still commonly used in various applications today.

Understanding their differences in wiring can help choose the right standard for your particular situation. RS-485 is a cost-effective solution that can connect multiple devices over long distances with just two wires.

In contrast, RS-232 is a simple and reliable standard that is still used today in low-speed data transmission applications.

Duplex Differences between RS-232 and RS-485

Duplex is a term used to describe the ability of a communication system to send and receive data simultaneously. In this section, we will examine the differences in duplex capabilities between RS-232 and RS-485.

Full Duplex Compliance of RS-232

RS-232 is a full-duplex standard, which means that it can transmit and receive data simultaneously. Full duplex communication is achieved by using separate lines for transmitting and receiving data.

These lines are known as the TX and RX lines, respectively. Full duplex communication is desirable because it allows for faster data transmission and eliminates the need for special measures to avoid data collisions.

However, full duplex communication requires a higher number of wires, which can increase the cost of the communication system.

Half Duplex Nature of RS-485 and Use of Second Set of Wires

RS-485 is a half-duplex standard, which means that it can transmit or receive data at any given time, but not simultaneously. Half duplex communication is achieved by using a single pair of wires for both transmitting and receiving data.

RS-485 communication requires an extra set of wires, known as the Enable or Direction (EN) wires, to switch the communication direction between transmitting and receiving data. The EN wires are used to control the direction of the data flow and prevent collisions between multiple devices connected to the same data line.

RS-485’s ability to share a single data line between multiple devices makes it an ideal choice for industrial control and automation applications that require communication between numerous devices. However, the half-duplex nature of RS-485 may cause delays in data transmission in situations that require real-time data exchange.

Voltage Differences between RS-232 and RS-485

In this section, we will discuss the voltage requirements and recommendations for RS-232 and RS-485 communication systems.

Voltage Requirements and Recommendations for RS-232 and RS-485

RS-232 and RS-485 specifications define the voltage levels that are required for reliable communication between devices. The voltage level requirements and recommendations vary between the two standards.

For RS-232, the voltage levels for logic 1 and logic 0 are defined as +3V to +15V and -3V to -15V, respectively. For RS-485, the voltage levels for logic 1 and logic 0 are defined as a positive voltage between +1.5V to +5V and a negative voltage between -1.5V to -5V, respectively.

In RS-232 communication, the voltage levels are typically transmitted using single-ended signaling, which means that only one wire transmits the voltage signal, and the ground wire completes the circuit. In contrast, RS-485 uses differential signaling, which means that two wires carry the complementary signals and the voltage difference between them is measured to determine the transmitted signal.

Voltage Range for Receiver Recognition in RS-232 and RS-485

In RS-232 communication, the receiver device recognizes the transmitted signal as logic 1 or logic 0 based on the voltage levels. For a signal to be recognized as valid, the voltage levels must be within -3V to -15V for logic 0 and +3V to +15V for logic 1.

In contrast, RS-485 communication recognizes receiver devices based on voltage difference. The voltage difference between the two data wires determines the received signal.

A voltage difference of -200mV to -85mV represents logic 1, while a voltage difference of +200mV to +85mV represents logic 0.


In this article, we have explored the differences in duplex capabilities and voltage requirements between RS-232 and RS-485 communication systems. RS-232 is a full-duplex standard that uses separate TX and RX lines for data transmission, while RS-485 is a half-duplex standard that uses a single data line and EN lines for direction control.

Furthermore, RS-232 and RS-485 have different voltage requirements and recognize transmitted signals differently. Understanding these differences can help determine the appropriate communication system to suit your specific requirements.

Range Differences between RS-232 and RS-485

The range of a communication system refers to the distance over which devices can exchange data reliably. In this section, we will examine the differences in range capabilities between RS-232 and RS-485 communication systems.

Maximum Range for RS-485

RS-485 is designed for long-distance communication, making it an ideal choice for industrial control and automation applications. The maximum range of RS-485 depends on several factors, such as the signal frequency, cable type, and the number of devices connected in the communication network.

Generally, the maximum range for RS-485 is up to 4000 feet (1200 meters) at a baud rate of 100 Kbps, provided that the cable used is suitable for the length and transmission speed of the data. Additionally, the use of repeaters can extend the range of RS-485 communication, allowing the system to cover even greater distances.

Typical and Extended Range for RS-232

RS-232, on the other hand, is designed for shorter distances and lower data speeds. The transmission distance of RS-232 depends on factors such as gauge and length of the cable, electrical noise, and baud rate.

The typical range of RS-232 varies from 50 to 100 feet(15 to 30 meters), which is considerably shorter than the maximum range of RS-485. However, by using repeaters, RS-232 reach can be extended to several thousand feet or meters, but it comes at an extra cost.

Application Differences between RS-232 and RS-485

In this section, we will explore the historical and current applications of RS-232 and RS-485, and how they compare to each other.

Historical and Current Applications of RS-232 and RS-485

RS-232 and RS-485 have been used in a wide range of applications, including industrial automation, point of sale (POS) systems, communication with peripheral devices such as printers, handheld scanners, and digital cameras, among others. RS-485’s ability to connect multiple devices and cover long distances made it an ideal choice for industrial control, where multiple devices need to communicate over long distances, also known as Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.

Many modern systems that require communication between devices over longer distances are designed to use RS-485 instead of RS-232. Still, other systems continue to use RS-232 due to its simplicity and low cost since it is still compatible with many older devices.

The automotive industry also uses RS-232 as well when paired with Ethernet communication.

Phasing Out of RS-232 and RS-485 in Computer Hardware

While RS-232 and RS-485 have been widely used in the past, they are being phased out of modern computer hardware as newer technologies providing quicker and more reliable communication. Still, they continue to be widely used in industrial and factory automation even in modern times.

However, RS-232 and RS-485 are gradually being replaced with newer standards such as USB, Ethernet, and wireless technologies, which are faster and more robust than RS-232 or RS-485. Ethernet used for Local Area Networks (LAN) communication tools is increasingly used in industrial automation, taking away the market share from RS-485.

Additionally, the USB provides convenient connectivity to a vast range of devices that previously used RS-232 connectivity.


Understanding the range capabilities and applications of RS-232 and RS-485 communication systems is essential when choosing a communication system for a specific task. RS-232 is suitable for short-range, low-speed communication while RS-485 is ideal for long distances, high-speed communication between multiple devices.

Both standards have been widely used in the past and continue to have a place in modern industries, such as industrial automation. Even with the use of more modern communication technologies, RS-232 and RS-485 will continue to be reliable choices where they are still used for years to come.

In conclusion, the article has explored the main points regarding the differences between RS-232 and RS-485, including their definitions and continued use, wiring variances, voltage requirements, range capabilities, and applications in various industries. RS-232 is a full-duplex standard with a limited range and uses more wires, while RS-485 is a half-duplex standard suitable for long distances and offers cost-effectiveness due to fewer wires.

Understanding these differences is crucial when choosing a communication system for specific tasks. Although newer technologies are phasing out RS-232 and RS-485 in computer hardware, they still hold significant importance in industrial automation.

Takeaways include the importance of considering range requirements, the benefits of RS-485 in demanding industrial environments, and the long-lasting reliability of these standards in certain applications. As communication technologies continue to evolve, the understanding of these foundational standards remains valuable.

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