9:23 AM

Standard details

In RS-232, data is sent as a time-series of bits. Both synchronous and asynchronous transmissions are supported by the standard. In addition to the data circuits, the standard defines a number of control circuits used to manage the connection between the DTE and DCE. Each data or control circuit only operates in one direction that is, signaling from a DTE to the attached DCE or the reverse. Since transmit data and receive data are separate circuits, the interface can operate in a full duplex manner, supporting concurrent data flow in both directions. The standard does not define character framing within the data stream, or character encoding.

Voltage levels

Diagrammatic oscilloscope trace of voltage levels for ASCII "K" character (0x4b) with 1 start bit, 8 data bits, 1 stop bit
The RS-232 standard defines the voltage levels that correspond to logical one and logical zero levels. Valid signals are plus or minus 3 to 15 volts. The range near zero volts is not a valid RS-232 level; logic one is defined as a negative voltage, the signal condition is called marking, and has the functional significance of OFF. Logic zero is positive; the signal condition is spacing, and has the function ON. The standard specifies a maximum open-circuit voltage of 25 volts; signal levels of ±5 V, ±10 V, ±12 V, and ±15 V are all commonly seen depending on the power supplies available within a device. RS-232 drivers and receivers must be able to withstand indefinite short circuit to ground or to any voltage level up to +/-25 volts. The slew rate, or how fast the signal changes between levels, is also controlled.
Because the voltage levels are higher than logic levels typically used by integrated circuits, special intervening driver circuits are required to translate logic levels. These also protect the device's internal circuitry from short circuits or transients that may appear on the RS-232 interface, and provide sufficient current to comply with the slew rate requirements for data transmission.
Because both ends of the RS-232 circuit depend on the ground pin being zero volts, problems will occur when connecting machinery and computers where the voltage between the ground pin on one end and the ground pin on the other is not zero. This may also cause a hazardous ground loop.