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21. Voltage Waveshapes

21.1 Voltage for a Bit

At the RS-232 serial port, voltages are bipolar (positive or negative with respect to ground) and should be about 5 volts in magnitude (some are 3 to 12 volts). For the transmit and receive pins +5 volts is a 0-bit (sometimes called "space") and -5 volts is a 1-bit (sometimes called "mark"). This is known as inverted logic since normally a 0-bit is both false and negative while a one is normally both true and positive. Although the receive and transmit pins are inverted logic, other pins (modem control lines) are normal logic with a positive voltage being true (or "on" or "asserted") and a negative voltage being false (or "off" or "negated"). Zero voltage has no meaning (except it usually means that the unit is powered off).

Skip this paragraph unless you are interested in unimportant technicalities. Precisely speaking, the RS-232 spec has the modem control lines using inverted logic since a positive voltage is logic 0 (and not logic 1). But the rules (which are also an inverted logic of sorts) say that logic 0 means asserted. The result is that two applications of inverted logic result in what appear to be normal logic for the modem control lines.

A range of voltages is allowed. The specs say the magnitude of a transmitted signal should be between 5 and 15 volts but must never exceed 25 V. Any voltage received under 3 V is undefined (but some devices will accept a lower voltage as valid). The voltage on older PC (non-Mac) hardware from say the 1990's is likely to be higher, like 11-12 volts. If you are using a RS-422 port on a Mac computer as an RS-232 (requires a special cable) or EIA-423 (RS-423) then the voltage will actually be 5 V.

Note that normal computer logic normally is just a few volts (5 volts was once the standard) so that if you try to use test equipment designed for testing 3-5 volt computer logic (TTL) on the 12 volts of an older serial port, it may damage the test equipment.

21.2 Voltage Sequence for a Byte

The transmit pin (TxD) is held at -5 V (mark) at idle when nothing is being sent. To start a byte it jumps to +5 V (space) for the start bit and remains at +5 V for the duration (period) of the start bit. Next comes the low-order bit of the data byte. If it's a 0-bit nothing changes and the line remains at +5 V for another bit-period. If it's a 1-bit the voltage jumps from +5 to -5 V. After that comes the next bit (-5 V if a 1 or +5 V if a 0), etc., etc. After the last data bit, a parity bit may be sent and then a -5 V (mark) stop bit. Then the line remains at -5 V (idle) until the next start bit. Note that there is no return to 0 volts and thus there is no simple way (except by a synchronizing signal) to tell where one bit ends and the next one begins for the case where 2 consecutive bits are the same polarity (both zero or both one).

A 2nd stop bit would also be -5 V, just the same as the first stop bit. Since there is no signal to mark the boundaries between these bits, the only effect of the 2nd stop bit is that the line must remain at -5 V idle twice as long. The receiver has no way of detecting the difference between a 2nd stop bit and a longer idle time between bytes. Thus communications works OK if one end uses one stop bit and the other end uses 2 stop bits, but using only one stop bit is obviously faster. In rare cases 1 1/2 stop bits are used. This means that the line is kept at -5 V for 1 1/2 time periods (like a stop bit 50% wider than normal).

21.3 Parity Explained

Characters are normally transmitted with either 7 or 8 bits of data. An additional parity bit may (or may not) be appended to this resulting in a byte length of 7, 8 or 9 bits. Some terminal emulators and older terminals do not allow 9 bits. Some prohibit 9 bits if 2 stop bits are used (since this would make the total number of bits too large: 12 bits total after adding the start bit).

The parity may be set to odd, even or none (mark and space parity may be options on some terminals or other serial devices). With odd parity, the parity bit is selected so that the number of 1-bits in a byte, including the parity bit, is odd. If a such a byte gets corrupted by a bit being flipped, the result is an illegal byte of even parity. This error will be detected and if it's an incoming byte to the terminal an error-character symbol will appear on the screen. Even parity works in a similar manner with all legal bytes (including the parity bit) having an even number of 1-bits. During set-up, the number of bits per character usually means only the number of data bits per byte (7 for true ASCII and 8 for various ISO character sets).

A "mark" is a 1-bit (or logic 1) and a "space" is a 0-bit (or logic 0). For mark parity, the parity bit is always a one-bit. For space parity it's always a zero-bit. Mark or space parity (also known as "sticky parity") only wastes bandwidth and should be avoided if feasible. The stty command can't set sticky parity but it's supported by serial hardware and can be dealt with by programming in C. "No parity" means that no parity bit is added. For terminals that don't permit 9 bit bytes, "no parity" must be selected when using 8 bit character sets since there is no room for a parity bit.

21.4 Forming a Byte (Framing)

In serial transmission of bytes via RS-232 ports, the low-order bit is always sent first (the bit-order). Serial ports on PC's use asynchronous communication where there is a start bit and a stop bit to mark the beginning and end of a byte. This is called framing and the framed byte is sometimes called a frame. As a result a total of 9, 10, or 11 bits are sent per byte with 10 being the most common. 8-N-1 means 8 data bits, No parity, 1 stop bit. This adds up to 10 bits total when one counts the start bit. One stop bit is almost universally used. At 110 bits/sec (and sometimes at 300 bits/sec) 2 stop bits were once used but today the 2nd stop bit is used only in very unusual situations (or by mistake since it still works OK that way but wastes bandwidth).

Don't confuse this type of framing with the framing used for a packet of bytes on a network. The serial port just frames every byte. For a network, many bytes are framed into a packet (sometimes called a frame). For a network frame, instead of a start bit, there is a sequence of bytes called a header. On a network that uses serial ports (with modems), a report of a frame error usually refers to a multi-byte frame and not the serial port frame of a single byte.

21.5 How "Asynchronous" is Synchronized

The RS-232 serial port as implemented on PC is asynchronous which in effect means that there is no "clock" signal sent with "ticks" to mark when each bit is sent.. There are only two states of the transmit (or receive) wire: mark (-5 V) or space (+5 V). There is no state of 0 V. Thus a sequence of 1-bits is transmitted by just a steady -5 V with no markers of any kind between bits. For the receiver to detect individual bits it must always have a clock signal which is in synchronization with the transmitter clock. Such a clock would generate a "tick" in synchronization with each transmitted (or received) bit.

For asynchronous transmission, synchronization is achieved by framing each byte with a start bit and a stop bit (done by hardware). The receiver listens on the negative line for a positive start bit and when it detects one it starts its clock ticking. It uses this clock tick to time the reading of the next 7, 8 or 9 bits. (It actually is a little more complex than this since several samples of a bit are normally taken and this requires additional timing ticks.) Then the stop bit is read, the clock stops and the receiver waits for the next start bit. Thus async is actually synchronized during the reception of a single byte but there is no synchronization between one byte and the next byte.

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