How are RS232 and RS485 Different?

When engineers need to connect electronic equipment, they resort to serial interfaces such as the RS-232 and RS-485. Although dozens of other serial data interfaces exist today, most are meant for use in specific applications. A few of them are considered universal, such as I2S, MOST, FLEX, SPI, LIN, CAN and I2C. Other high-speed serial interfaces are also used, including Thunderbolt, HDMI, FireWire, USB, and Ethernet. Despite the proliferation of interfaces, the two legacy interfaces, RS-232 and RS-485, continue to survive, used in several applications.

As a rule, serial interfaces provide a single path for data to be transmitted over a cable or wirelessly. Although some applications do use parallel buses, serial interface alone provides the only practical option for high-speed data movement today over any distance greater than several feet.


RS-232 is one of the oldest serial interfaces, originally established in 1962, as a method of connecting a DTE or data terminal equipment such as a teletypewriter to a DCE or data communications equipment. Personal computers earlier had an RS-232 port, commonly called the serial port, to connect to a printer or other peripheral device. Embedded computer development systems still use the port today, as do many scientific instruments, and several industrial control equipment.

Officially, the standard defining the RS-232 serial interface is the EIA/TIA-232-F, with F signifying the most recent update. According to the standard, a logic 1 is defined as a voltage between -3 and -25 V, and a logic 0 as a voltage between +3 and +25 V. The logic 1 is generally termed as a mark, with logic 0 being termed as a space. Any voltage between +3 and -3 V is termed invalid and is rejected, providing a huge noise margin for the interface. The configurations of the receiver and transmitter are both single-ended and referenced to ground or 0 V.

The cable medium in RS-232 can be simple wires in parallel or a twisted pair. According to the standard, the cable length must not exceed 50 feet. However, by reducing the data rate, it is possible to use longer lengths of cable. For a 50-foot cable, the highest data rates in RS-232 are roughly 20 Kbits/s, and matched generator and load impedances are necessary for eliminating reflections and data corruption. Although earlier 25-pin connectors were used, the de-facto standard for RS-232 is the 9-pin DE-9 connector today.


The EIA/TIA standards also define the RS-485 interface, now commonly known as TIA-485. This is not only a single device-device interface, but is a complete communication bus used for simple networking of multiple devices.

Rather than a single-ended voltage referenced to the ground, the RS-485 uses differential signaling on two lines. A logic 1 is a voltage level greater than 200 mV, while the logic 0 is a level greater than +200 mV. The maximum cable length for RS485 is about 4000 feet or 1200 m, with typical data rates as 100 Kbits/s. However, compared to the speed of the RS-232 interface, a 20-meter cable in RS-485 can allow a maximum data rate of 5Mbits/s. Industrial control equipment using the RS-485 use the 9-pin DE-9 connector.