Synchronous and Asynchronous Communications

There are two basic types of serial communications, synchronous and asynchronous. With Synchronous communications, the two devices initially synchronize themselves to each other, and then continually send characters to stay in sync. Even when data is not really being sent, a constant flow of bits allows each device to know where the other is at any given time. That is, each character that is sent is either actual data or an idle character. Synchronous communications allows faster data transfer rates than asynchronous methods, because additional bits to mark the beginning and end of each data byte are not required. The serial ports on IBM-style PCs are asynchronous devices and therefore only support asynchronous serial communications.

Asynchronous means "no synchronization", and thus does not require sending and receiving idle characters. However, the beginning and end of each byte of data must be identified by start and stop bits. The start bit indicates when the data byte is about to begin and the stop bit signals when it ends. The requirement to send these additional two bits cause asynchronous communications to be slightly slower than synchronous however it has the advantage that the processor does not have to deal with the additional idle characters.

An asynchronous line that is idle is identified with a value of 1, (also called a mark state). By using this value to indicate that no data is currently being sent, the devices are able to distinguish between an idle state and a disconnected line. When a character is about to be transmitted, a start bit is sent. A start bit has a value of 0, (also called a space state). Thus, when the line switches from a value of 1 to a value of 0, the receiver is alerted that a data character is about to come down the line.