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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Computer Basics

New Universal Plug-Ins Will Let You Use Any Port in a Storm

July 06, 1998|KIM KOMANDO

If you've purchased a Windows-based personal computer in the last few months, chances are a USB (universal serial bus) port is inside, but you haven't used it. That's because Windows 95 support for USB has been limited, so computer gadget and gizmo manufacturers haven't been in a hurry to bring USB-based products to market.

But that's about to change. Windows 98 is finally available, and it has extensive USB support. Further, Apple Computer recently announced that its iMac consumer Macintosh, to be released in August, will also rely on USB instead of Apple's own ADB (Apple Desktop Bus). That means consumers can expect an onslaught of USB-based peripherals between now and Christmas.

What's so special about USB? In the past, users connected the printer to a printer port, the modem to one serial port, the mouse to another serial port, the CD-ROM drive to a special SCSI card and so on. Not anymore.

USB can support a variety of peripherals via a "hub" that two to seven additional ports can plug into.

A new computer company, Entrega ([949] 859-8866; http://www.entrega.com), is offering four- and seven-port USB hubs, which I had an opportunity to test.

After plugging the Entrega four-port hub into a Windows 98-based computer's USB port, I added a host of USB peripherals, including a digital camera, mouse and joystick. All the devices worked without a hitch. At $80 retail, it beats unplugging one device to make room for another--or worse, installing cards in your computer and inviting conflicts.

There are also USB options for older computers. A number of companies are manufacturing expansion cards that enable users to add USB to their existing PCs.

For example, ADS Technologies ([800] 888-5244; http://www.adstech.com) makes a four-port hub that also worked without problems. In addition, it offers both PCI-based and PC card-based USB cards, priced at $49 and $89. You can use the PCI card to add two USB ports to your desktop system and the PC card version to add two USB peripherals to your notebook system.

Some USB peripherals include extra USB ports on-board. For example, your USB-based monitor might have two USB ports on it. That means you can plug two other USB devices into your monitor and use them simultaneously. Stringing together devices in this manner is commonly called "daisy-chaining."

Another benefit of USB is the ease with which users can add new peripherals. Basically, the user just plugs them into the computer or a hub and turns them on. USB is designed to accommodate "hot swapping," so users don't have to turn off the PC to add a new device.

In addition to relaying data, the USB port on the PC also supplies power to the USB peripherals. The PC senses how much power each device requires, and then distributes the power accordingly.

USB is also much faster than standard ports. The USB port can move data at 12 megabits per second--more than 200 times faster than a 56K modem.

This makes USB ideal for scanning, digital photography and other applications where large amounts of data need to be moved back and forth between the computer and the peripheral. In fact, USB is so fast that the peripherals themselves quickly become the bottleneck in the process.

Currently there isn't a wide variety of USB-compliant products to choose from, but that will change: More than 450 companies have committed to producing USB-compliant peripherals.

To take advantage of USB, you'll have to purchase USB versions of your peripherals, such as digital cameras, printers, keyboards, scanners, mouses and modems. Some USB peripherals work with Windows 95, but more seem to be looking only for Windows 98.

A host of other USB products are available or under development, including joysticks, game pads and speakers. In short, if the device can be connected to a PC, there will most likely be a USB version available in the next few months.

Telephony could be another important niche for USB. Mitel, Nortel and Lucent Technologies are all developing small-office and home-office telephone systems that can be controlled from a PC via the USB port.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of USB is cost. SCSI (small computer system interface) has been around for some time and offers some of the benefits of USB, such as high speed and daisy-chaining. But SCSI has always been considerably more expensive and harder to configure than other connection methods. USB devices are expected to be priced competitively with their non-USB counterparts.

I've long believed that the new technologies that work behind the scenes are more exciting and more useful than the new whiz-bang visual-multimedia stuff we're bombarded with daily, and USB is a case in point. A new plug on the back of your computer may not seem all that amazing now, but just wait and see.

*

Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at komando@komando.com. Her national talk radio program can be heard from 7 to 9 a.m. Saturdays on KLSX-FM (97.1).

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