RS-232 vs RS-485: What’s the Difference?

RS-232 vs RS-485 Differences in communications standards

RS-232 vs RS-485: What’s the Difference?

Key Points

  • RS-232 and RS-485 are two serial communication standards with unique features suited for different applications.
  • RS-232 uses unbalanced signal transmission and is ideal for short-range, point-to-point communication in low noise environments.
  • RS-485 uses balanced signal transmission and is preferred for long distances in electrically noisy environments.
  • RS-485 has higher noise immunity and can transmit data up to 1.2km, while RS-232 is limited to 15m.

Serial communication has been a cornerstone of data exchange for decades, making everything from the humble computer mouse to complex industrial automation systems possible. Among the various standards established to streamline and standardize such communications, two often stand out: RS-232 vs RS-485.

Each boasts unique features that make them suited to different applications. This leads to one being more suitable, depending on the specific circumstances. Yet, for anyone who is not an expert in the field, these alphanumeric designations might sound more like a secret language than anything else.

So, what exactly are RS-232 and RS-485, and how do they differ? The following sections delve deep into these remarkable protocols’ distinctive characteristics and intricacies.

RS-232 vs RS-485: Side-by-Side Comparison

Signal TransmissionUnbalanced signal transmission, simplex or full-duplexBalanced signal transmission, primarily half-duplex
Noise Immunity and Transmission DistanceLower noise immunity, up to 15mHigher noise immunity, up to 1.2km
Voltage Levels+3 to +15V for binary 0, -3 to -15V for binary 1Typically between +1.5V and -1.5V
Speed of TransmissionUp to 20 Kbps at 15mUp to 35 Mbps at 10m, 100 Kbps at 1.2km
Power SupplyRequires a dual power supplyOperates with a single power supply
RecommendationIdeal for short-range, point-to-point in low noisePreferred for long distances in electrically noisy environments

RS-232 vs RS-485: What’s the Difference?

Serial communication standards are crucial for connecting devices and facilitating data transfer. Two such standards, RS-232 and RS-485, have become cornerstones in the industry, each with unique applications and characteristics.

Introduced by the Electronics Industry Association (EIA) in 1960, RS-232, or Recommended Standard 232, revolutionized the world of serial binary data signals.

Originally designed for connecting data terminal equipment (DTE) to data circuit-terminating equipment (DCE), this technology has become widely used beyond its intended purpose for modems and teletype devices.

RS-232 is widely used in computers and peripherals because of its simple implementation and compatibility. Later on, in 1983, the EIA introduced RS-485 as an improvement to the RS-422 standard.

RS-232 vs RS-485
RS-232 and RS-485 are fundamental communication standards for data transfer.

This technical standard quickly carved a niche in multi-point communication systems. Designed with unique specifications, RS-485 provides robust and reliable data transmission over long distances and in electrically noisy environments, unlike RS-232.

Therefore, it has become the preferred choice for industrial control systems where the transmission range and data integrity are crucial. Although both are crucial in serial communications, these standards have different functions depending on their inherent traits and abilities.

As we delve further into the nuances of RS-232 and RS-485, their differences will become increasingly clear. This will assist in providing a roadmap to select the most suitable standard for your specific requirements.

Signal Transmission

When comparing RS-232 vs RS-485 regarding signal transmission, both protocols utilize different methodologies. This factor can significantly impact their suitability for various applications, depending on the specific requirements for data transmission.


The RS-232 communication protocol, which is widely used in serial communication between devices, employs unbalanced or single-ended signal transmission. In this type of transmission, the signal lines function independently from one another, which means that each line carries its own signal.

The voltage difference between the signal and common ground determines the binary state. This, in turn, creates a simple and easily implemented communication scheme that suits many devices.

RS-232 supports both simplex and full-duplex modes. In simplex mode, data can be transmitted in one direction at a time, from a single sender to a single receiver. While in full-duplex mode, communication can occur in both directions simultaneously.

This feature benefits applications requiring continuous and bi-directional data flow, such as modems or direct data communications between computers. However, the unbalanced nature of RS-232 means it is susceptible to issues such as ground loops and induced noise, which can degrade signal quality.

The longer the communication lines, the more pronounced these issues become. This results in decreased data accuracy and reliability over larger distances.


On the other hand, RS-485 employs balanced or differential signal transmission. This scheme transmits each signal over two wires, commonly known as a “twisted pair,” instead of one.

The binary state in RS-485 communication is determined by the voltage difference between these two wires. For instance, a positive voltage on the ‘A’ line relative to the ‘B’ line might represent a binary 1, while a negative voltage would represent a binary 0.

This differential signaling technique makes RS-485 far more robust against common-mode noise. Common-mode noise refers to any interference that occurs equally on both lines.

Since the data is encoded in the difference between the voltages on the two wires, common-mode noise can be effectively canceled. This ensures that the signal remains strong and clear, even over long distances or in electrically noisy environments.

RS-485 primarily operates in half-duplex mode, transmitting data in both directions but not simultaneously. This is due to the shared use of communication lines for transmitting and receiving.

Nevertheless, RS-485 can also support full-duplex mode when an additional pair of wires is used, allowing for simultaneous bi-directional communication.

RS-485’s differential signaling actively contributes to its ability to support multi-point communication by effectively rejecting noise induced on the line when multiple devices connect. On the other hand, RS-232’s single-ended signaling does not effectively manage such scenarios due to its design.

Noise Immunity and Transmission Distance

RS-232 vs RS-485
RS-232 has limitations in transmission distance, but RS-485 can reach distances of up to 1.2 kilometers.

A crucial element to consider when evaluating RS-232 vs RS-485 is their respective noise immunity and transmission distance capabilities. These characteristics play a significant role in their effectiveness, especially in electrically noisy environments or require data transmission over long distances.


Due to its unbalanced or single-ended signal transmission, the RS-232 standard has inherent limitations regarding noise immunity. Noise is an unwanted alteration of electrical signals, which can be introduced from various sources, such as nearby electronic devices, power lines, or radio waves.

Noise can interfere with the transmitted signal, causing distortions or errors in the received data. RS-232 is particularly sensitive to noise interference because it determines the binary state based on the voltage difference between the signal line and common ground.

If noise alters the voltage on the signal line, it can change the interpreted binary state, leading to data corruption. Moreover, RS-232’s noise vulnerability limits its effective transmission distance. As the cable length increases, the potential for noise interference and signal degradation also increases.

The RS-232 standard recommends a maximum cable length of about 15 meters for reliable operation. This limit, however, can vary depending on factors such as the quality of the cables used, the baud rate, and the noise level of the environment.


In contrast, RS-485 uses differential signaling, which confers it with superior noise immunity. RS-485 has excellent noise immunity. It’s important to note that the binary state in RS-485 is determined by the voltage difference between the two signal lines rather than any other factor.

If an external noise source induces a voltage onto both signal lines, the difference between the two lines (which encode the data) remains the same. This common-mode noise rejection is a significant advantage of RS-485 over RS-232.

Enhanced noise immunity, combined with the low impedance nature of the differential lines, enables RS-485 to maintain signal integrity over much longer distances than RS-232.

RS-485 can effectively transmit data over distances of up to 1.2 kilometers. This makes it an ideal choice for applications requiring data transmission over long distances or in environments with high levels of electrical noise, such as industrial control systems.

Voltage Levels

The contrast in voltage levels is another key aspect in the RS-232 vs RS-485 debate. The differing voltage requirements can greatly influence their operational efficiency and suitability for certain applications.


RS-232 vs RS-485
Voltage requirements differ between RS-232 vs RS-485.

The RS-232 standard employs a bipolar signaling scheme, which uses both positive and negative voltages to represent binary states. Specifically, voltages from +3 to +15 volts represent a ‘space’ (binary 0).

Voltages from -3 to -15 volts represent a ‘mark’ (binary 1). Any voltage within the -3 to +3 volts range is considered an undefined region.

This large voltage swing in RS-232 aids in achieving better signal visibility and more robust noise immunity. Specifically, this applies to short-distance, point-to-point communication links.

However, the drawback is increased power consumption compared to smaller voltage swings schemes. These higher voltage levels necessitate more robust and consequently more costly interfacing hardware, such as line drivers and receivers, that can handle these voltages.


In contrast to RS-232, RS-485 uses smaller voltage levels to signify binary states. RS-485 signaling is defined by the difference in voltage between the two lines of a twisted pair rather than the voltage relative to a common ground, as in RS-232.

A ‘mark’ (binary 1) is typically indicated when the ‘A’ line voltage is 1.5 volts greater than the ‘B’ line voltage. A ‘space’ (binary 0) is when the ‘B’ line voltage is 1.5 volts greater than the ‘A’ line voltage.

This smaller voltage swing in RS-485 has a couple of notable advantages. First, it reduces power consumption, making RS-485 more energy efficient than RS-232. Second, it allows for longer cable lengths.

The signaling’s lower voltages and differential nature minimize the signal degradation over large distances. However, RS-485’s lower voltage levels also mean it is less inherently noise-resistant than RS-232. But this is mitigated by differential signaling, which effectively rejects common-mode noise.

Speed of Transmission

Assessing RS-232 vs RS-485 also involves comparing their respective data transmission speeds. The rate at which data can be transferred is a vital factor, particularly in applications that require rapid and efficient communication.


RS-232 is designed for low-speed, short-distance communications, reflected in its data rate capabilities. The standard allows for data transmission speeds up to 20 Kbps (Kilobits per second) when used at the recommended maximum cable length of 15 meters.

However, as the cable length extends beyond this limit, the potential for signal degradation and noise interference increases. As a result, the effective data transmission rate decreases.

This means that while you can technically use RS-232 over greater distances, it would be at the cost of a reduced data rate, limiting the amount of data transmitted per unit of time.


On the other hand, the RS-485 standard is designed to accommodate high-speed data transmission over longer distances, making it much more capable in data rate compared to RS-232. RS-485 can handle data rates up to 35 Mbps (megabits per second) for cable lengths of 10 meters or less.

But, similarly to RS-232, the data rate of RS-485 also decreases as the cable length increases due to signal attenuation. However, even at its maximum recommended distance of 1200 meters, RS-485 still supports an impressive data rate of 100 Kbps.

This capability to maintain a high data rate over large distances is one of the primary reasons for the widespread use of RS-485 in industrial and commercial applications.

Power Supply

The power supply requirements are a noteworthy difference when comparing RS-232 vs RS-485. This characteristic can influence design considerations and the overall energy efficiency of the systems in which these standards are implemented.


One less obvious but important difference between RS-232 and RS-485 is the power supply requirements. RS-232 devices typically require a dual power supply, i.e., positive and negative voltages.

This is because of RS-232’s use of a bipolar signaling scheme, where both positive and negative voltages are needed to represent the different binary states. A dual power supply requirement means designing and implementing an RS-232-based system can be more complex and costly.

For instance, designers might need to incorporate additional components or circuits to generate the necessary negative voltage if it is not readily available. Furthermore, the dual power supply might increase the system’s overall power consumption, particularly in power-sensitive applications.


In contrast, RS-485 devices usually operate with a single power supply. This is due to RS-485’s differential signaling, where the binary states are represented by the voltage difference between two lines rather than the absolute voltage level relative to a common ground.

The single power supply requirement of RS-485 offers some practical advantages over RS-232. For starters, it simplifies the design and implementation process, as there is no need for a separate negative voltage source.

This can lead to cost savings regarding the components and the time needed to design the system. A single power supply can also help reduce the system’s overall power consumption, which is particularly advantageous in energy-sensitive applications.

RS-232 vs RS-485: 5 Must-Know Facts

  1. RS-232 and RS-485 differ in their transmission modes. RS-232 uses unbalanced signal transmission, whereas RS-485 uses balanced signal transmission, providing improved noise immunity and longer transmission distances.
  2. Regarding transmission distances, RS-232 is best suited for short distances up to 15 meters. The superior noise immunity of RS-485 makes it ideal for lengthy transmissions up to 1.2 kilometers.
  3. Larger voltage swings are characteristic of RS-232’s signaling. RS-485 operates at comparatively smaller voltage levels — a feature that contributes to its long-distance transmission capabilities.
  4. While RS-232 supports data rates up to 20 Kbps over shorter distances, RS-485 outshines it by handling much higher rates — up to 35 Mbps over shorter distances and 100 Kbps over longer ones.
  5. RS-232 devices typically demand a dual power supply, while the operation of RS-485 devices with a single power supply simplifies design considerations and enhances energy efficiency.

RS-232 vs RS-485: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Choose?

When comparing RS-232 and RS-485, it becomes clear that neither standard is inherently superior to the other but, rather, each is better suited to different applications due to their distinctive characteristics.

RS-232 suits short-range, point-to-point connections, especially in low-noise environments. Its simplicity in design, use, and robustness make it a reliable choice for various applications, particularly in consumer electronics, computer peripherals, and laboratory data collection, where communication is typically over shorter distances.

However, the limitations of RS-232 become apparent when the application demands greater noise immunity, longer transmission distances, higher speed, or more power-efficient operations. RS-232’s unbalanced signaling, dual power supply requirement, and slower data rates can be a disadvantage in these cases.

On the other hand, RS-485 offers substantial benefits in situations that require robust, long-distance communication in electrically noisy environments. Industries want communication systems that are fast, noise-resistant, long-range, and use one power supply for multiple points.

This makes it the top choice in building automation, industrial automation, and other data-intensive applications. In essence, the choice between RS-232 and RS-485 should be dictated by the specific requirements of your project.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of each standard is key to making the right choice. It’s about selecting the most appropriate tool for the task rather than searching for an objectively ‘better’ standard.

Assess your communication requirements, considering transmission distance, data rate, noise environment, power supply, and number of devices, to determine which standard best meets your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key differences between RS-232 and RS-485 in terms of signal transmission?

The critical difference lies in their signal transmission modes. RS-232 uses unbalanced or single-ended signal transmission, which is simpler but less immune to noise.

On the other hand, RS-485 uses balanced or differential signal transmission, which offers greater noise immunity and enables data transmission over longer distances.

Which standard, RS-232 or RS-485, provides better noise immunity and supports longer transmission distances?

RS-485 is superior in both aspects. RS-485 can effectively cancel out noise signals induced onto the transmission lines thanks to its balanced or differential signal transmission.

This gives RS-485 better noise immunity than RS-232 and allows it to support data transmission over distances of up to 1.2 kilometers.

How do the voltage levels used in RS-232 compare to those in RS-485?

RS-232 uses a bipolar signaling scheme with larger voltage swings, ranging from +3 to +15V and -3 to -15V, while RS-485 operates with smaller voltage levels, typically between +1.5V and -1.5V.

These smaller voltage levels allow RS-485 to transmit data over longer distances and with greater energy efficiency than RS-232.

Between RS-232 and RS-485, which standard supports higher data transmission rates?

RS-485 supports higher data transmission rates than RS-232. Specifically, RS-485 can transmit data at up to 35 Mbps over short distances (10 meters or less) and at 100 Kbps over longer distances (up to 1.2 kilometers), whereas RS-232 supports data rates up to 20 Kbps over its recommended transmission distance of 15 meters

What are the power supply requirements for RS-232 and RS-485 devices?

RS-232 devices typically require a dual power supply, which can make their design more complex and increase power consumption. In contrast, RS-485 devices usually operate with a single power supply, simplifying design considerations and enhancing energy efficiency.

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