Making RS232 work ? Five Essential rules to ensure your RS232 system is Hassle-Free

Making RS232 work: On this page are several rules that make using RS232 a simple task. These simple rules will ensure your RS232 system works easily.

HOW RS232 works: Click here for information on how RS232 works at the physical bit level.

I have been using RS232 for years and it always flies along and is always reliable but there are some simple rules to follow otherwise you can get in big mess.

Jump to Rule 1 : Keep it simple.
Jump to Rule 2 : Use a straight through cable.
Jump to Rule 3 : Make cross over at dev. board.
Jump to Rule 4 : Set RS232 Identical at each end.
Jump to Rule 5 : Re-check connections at both ends.

Extra: Other reasons RS232 may not work.

Jump to Setting up Tera Term. (Serial program running on the PC that uses a serial port)

TIP: Use these rules to ensure your RS232 connection works first time.

Getting a Serial port on your PC

Modern PCs do not come with a serial RS232 port as standard they just have USB ports. Fortunately you can get round this by using a USB to serial adaptor. There are two type digital (no level translate) and standard (full RS232 levels). There's more information on these types here.


If you are looking for information on general RS232 use then these rules can act as guidance to get the very simplest serial link going.

For more detailed operation you will need to understand more about DCE (data communication equipment) and DTE (Data Terminal Equipment), all the handshaking and all the types of cable for your system and you can find more information in the following link how rs232 works.

RS232 can actually work well but a lot of software requires all the handshake signals to be in place and this is why it can be so frustrating - miss one out or connect a single wire wrongly or setup the software incorrectly and it will just sit there doing absolutely nothing.It is best to start from a simple setup and progress to a more complex one gradually checking as you go that each part is working.

Rule 1 Making RS232 Work: Keep it simple.

RS232 is only difficult if you try to use all the facilities that the standard provides. You really don't need to consider all the signals when using RS232 on the bench (for simple communication between your hardware and a PC) i.e. to make RS232 work over a few metres.

If you want to make RS232 work over long distances then you must use all the signals including handshake signals as these ensure correct operation. For 1-3 metres I only ever use the following:

  • TXD Transmit data
  • RXD Receive data
  • GND Ground

These work for speeds of 9600 baud and beyond. You can test how far beyond by experimenting with the settings in the PIC program and PC software.

Rule 2 Making RS232 Work: Use a straight through cable.

This is a cable where pin 1 connects to pin 1 at the other end, pin 2 connects to pin 2 at the other end etc.

There are two cable types:

  • Straight through - also known as modem.
  • Cross over - also known as null modem.

Note: Signals that are crossed over for a null modem cable are (TX,RX) and handshaking signals (RTS,CTS) and (DSR,DTR).

If you don't know what cable type you have then use a multimeter to test on its buzz setting. To make sure you don't drop everything on the floor stick a piece of wire in the female connector and wrap the other end of the wire around the multimeter probe - then you can concentrate on probing the pin in the male connector. To keep things simple use a straight through cable.

Note: Serial cables are never marked as null modem or modem - they all look the same!

The key to getting an RS232 system to work is knowing exactly what cable you have and its pin connections. Using a straight through cable you don't need to worry about Modem / Null modem cables and this eliminates a source of confusion.

Rule 3 Making RS232 Work: Crossover at your dev. board.

You can not make the crossover at the PC end as you just plug the serial cable into the PC - and that's fine. At this point you have direct connections from the Serial connector at the back of the PC all the way to your development board.

So you know exactly where you are - all connections to the development board are straight through from the PC. The final step is to make the cross over on the board.

The schematic below shows a development board with a serial connection to/from the PC that lets RS232 work between a microcontroller and the PC.

PIC rs232 connection example

Note: This diagram shows a physical 9 pin connector on a PC - not present in modern PCs.

The PC 9-pin connector is replaced with a USB serial emulator. You don't need the RS232 chip which is replaced by a USB-to-RS232 chip such as a CH340 type. This chip provides the RS232 signals to your board such as T1IN and T1OUT as above i.e. it emulates an RS232 port on your board.

I have labeled the serial connector with the connections located at the PC - this makes it easier to visualize the whole system.

You can think of the PC and cable as one unit connecting directly to the development board and you do not need to worry about null modem cables, crossover cables, gender changers, cross over boxes etc. You only need to concentrate on the schematic with the PC serial port as an extension of the schematic.

All you do next is to connect the serial connector labeled TX (which is the serial input to the development board from the PC) to the receiver on your development board (labeled R1IN). Similarly connect T1OUT (which is the serial output from the development board) to the PC Serial port labeled RX. This makes the cross-over on your board. Next connect the grounds together (GND and 0 volts).

Rule 4 Making RS232 Work: Same settings at each end.

In each program there will be a setting that defines the usage of the bits transmitted between the PC and the microcontroller. To make RS232 work these settings must be identical. As a starting point use the following settings at each end.

Bits per second (BAUD) 9600
Number of bits 8
Parity None
Stop bits 1
Flow control None

If you want to change anything just change one thing at a time but again keep the same value(s) in both bits of software.

These settings are standard settings.

Rule 5 : Check your connectors before building a pcb.

A big source of confusion in making RS232 work is the connector gender (male or female). Usually a pcb designer is given a diagram that does not specify the gender of the part - and uses the one that was used last time. When it comes to building the board the connections are mirrored (male and female connectors are mirrors of each other) and you have to hand wire the connection.

To ensure that this does not happen always lay out all the parts before finishing the schematic so that you ensure the correct gender of connections from one end of the system to the other.

After your PCB designer has laid out the board print out the PCB design (or for multi-layer boards sit down and use the PCB tool with the designer) view the design only from the top of the chip (it could be on the reverse side) and trace each signal wire to the connector to ensure that the connector is wired correctly. Physically use a "real" connector and examine where the signal comes out of the connector. This way you can ensure that the signals are in the right place.

Getting the gender of the connections is essential so double and even triple check the parts so that you know in your head which way to connect up the system.

Serial Terminal Program

For older versions of Windows such as XP, Windows came pre-loaded with a serial communications program called Hyperterminal. Since modern computers don't have serial ports anymore you'll have to download a Serial Terminal program yourself!

Note: There are ways of importing the old files for Hyperterminal into Vista and and other Windows versions, if you do a search, but comments show that it may not work - It is just easier to download a separate program such as Tera Term etc. that is actively supported.

Example Serial Terminal Emulator

Tera Term is an open source terminal emulation program that works on Windows and is actively supported.

Tera Term settings

To run it type Tera Term at the start prompt and click "Tera Term"

You will be presented with a black screen so all you need to do next is setup the comms parameters as described above.

To do this select Menu: Setup-->Serial Port and choose the following parameters adjusting for the COM port in use:

Tera term port setup

Note: the delay settings that you can use if your receiving system is slow.

Other reasons that the RS232 may not work

If you are writing code on the PC the serial ports are really fussy about what connections are made to the serial port and require looped back signals unless care is taken to program the chips in the PC so that they do not require loop backed signals. It is best just to use known working programs such as Tera Term.

Note: Loop back means faking the signals at one end - DTS is connected to RTS and DTR is connected to DSR (at the same end) - sometimes you need to control CD as well.

Another reason for RS232 not to work is if you use equipment that is powered by the serial port. Laptops are optimized for power saving so they give out the minimum power (lower volts and current).

Another possibility for RS232 not to work is voltage level sensing. Levels detected by the serial chip in the PC may not allow detection of the signal.

Newer serial port chip in the PC detect voltages below 3V (and above -3V) as a 'one' but older chips will not report it since the RS232 standard defines this voltage range as undetermined. For these older chips the voltage for a 'one' (mark) must be lower than -3V and for a 'zero' (space) must be higher than 3V. The ±3V indeterminate area gives the RS232 system immunity to noise and this allows the system to work in an electrically noisy environment but sacrificing the noise immunity means that it is easier to interface using standard CMOS logic levels (0,5V).

The only way to find out if your system works with (0,5V) logic levels is to test it - which is a pain (and what if you change it later). So it is just much easier to use a level translator chip such as a MAX232.

So does RS232 work ? - If you follow these guidelines then RS232 will work.


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