The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group

Unofficially, USB Could Mean "User’s Super Buddy"
Ken Fermoyle

Officially, USB stands for "Universal Serial Bus". Unofficially, I think it could translate to "User's Super Buddy" for PC and Mac users. Anybody who tried to install and configure a peripheral device in the old pre-USB days likely will agree. Back then, the chore was a major one, especially with PCs.
 
It required a ton of computer savvy and no little amount of luck.

First, you had to figure out which port to use from a bunch of confusing possibilities.
 
Then in most cases, you had to pull the cover off your computer (always scary, for either Mac or PC) to install an add-in card. For PCs, this often required setting pesky DIP switches. Next came the job of finding and configuring an available IRQ, not always easy. Basic system components used up some IRQs; serial devices already installed used up still more.
 
It was a fun job, yes sir! I can recall blowing the better part of a day trying to install a single new peripheral in computers ranging from the venerable XT through a variety of X86 machines, even into WinTel systems of the '90s. Mac users had it easier but USB has been a boon for them, too. Windows Plug'n'Play eased the problem, when it worked, but it took USB to solve it completely.

With USB, a computer automatically recognizes the device connected and installs the appropriate drivers. It enables computer users to "hot-plug" computer peripherals to their PCs. "Hot-plugging" means you can plug in and unplug peripherals without having to power down and then reboot your computer. No small benefit.

Not that there weren't difficulties at first. I heard many complaints from people who tried to install USB ports and devices in the early days of the technology. The problems usually arose from trying to use USB in hardware or software systems that weren't ready for it; ie. older systems that hadn't been built with USB compatibility in mind. I do not recall getting any similar complaints during the past year. Lack of USB devices was a problem at first but now they're everywhere.

USB offers many more benefits than simple installation. First, USB (Version 1.1) can carry data at up to 12 megabits per second (Mbps), 100 times faster than any serial port. This broad category includes digital cameras, modems, keyboards, mice, printers, digital joysticks, some CD-ROM drives, tape and floppy drives, digital scanners and specialty printers.
 
USB's data rate also accommodates a whole new generation of peripherals: MPEG-2 video-base products, data gloves, digitisers and computer-telephony, expected to be a big growth area for PCs and Macs. In addition, USB provides an interface such business-oriented technologies as Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and digital PBXs.

The latest version of USB, Version 2.0, introduced late in 2000, offers even faster communication, with bandwidth up to 400 Mbps. It easily accommodates high-performance peripherals, such as monitors, video conferencing cameras, next-generation printers, and faster storage devices. Happily, USB 2.0 is backward-compatible with Version 1.1

Next, one or two USB ports can support many peripherals. In theory, up to 127 devices can be "daisy chained" from a single port. There are practical limitations, power supplies among them, and most of us will never use anywhere near that number. The ability to plug a USB Hub into a USB port and then connect four or more peripherals to it is a real convenience. You can place a Hub anywhere on your desktop for easy access; no more crawling under the desk to connect or disconnect a mouse, digital camera or any other USB-compatible device.
 
Frosting on the cake comes in the form of an impressive hardware package from Belkin: the USB BusStation. This versatile docking station not only serves as a Hub that gives you up to seven USB ports. Using optional adapters it can accommodate many non-USB peripherals. It also offers a laundry list of other features:

  • Innovative modular tower with three slide-out modules that fit into the palm of your hand. 
  • Configure your own low-cost universal docking station; choose whatever module combination is right for you, whether you are a PC or Mac user. Compatible with Windows 95 rev. B, Windows 98, Windows 2000, Mac OS 8.1 or higher.
  • 7-port Hub (standard configuration) connects seven devices to a single USB port on your PC. 
  • Freedom to Connect keyboards, mice, joysticks, speakers and more to a single USB port on your computer.
  • 4A (Ampere) power supply provides true 500-mA (milliAmp) power to each port.
  • Modules available for Ethernet, SCSI devices, serial, parallel, PS/2 and additional USB ports.
  • Illuminated green LEDs for easy access to port status.
  • Supports all high-speed and low-speed USB devices.
  • Includes a Belkin Pro Series 3 ft. USB Device cable for a quality connection, lifetime Belkin warranty and USB Wizard to make configuration even easier.
I've been using a BusStation for many months now and find it invaluable. Faithful readers know I don't report on a service or product until it has proved itself over a reasonable length of time and I have become thoroughly familiar with it. Even before installing it in my main computer, I vowed never to buy another non-USB peripheral again.
 
With BusStation, I've found it easy to connect some of my older devices, including one of my several scanners and a digital camera with only a serial interface. This rates as an especially valuable feature for those of us who can't afford to replace all of our currently owned peripherals with new USB products.
 
One caution: The BusStation User Manual clearly states that the 4A power supply is more than enough to supply adequate power to all ports in normal configuration. At 500mA per port, the power draw would be 3.5A. Low-power devices such as mice and keyboards draw only about 100mA.

However, adding a 4-port Hub as one of the modules would overtax the BusStation. In such case, the 4-port Hub must have its own 2.1A power supply, supplied with optional 4-port Hub modules.

I like the fact that the BusStation includes built-in "Overcurrent Protection," which shuts off a port if it draws too much current, protecting both the connected device and BusStation from damage.

At the usual price of US$79.99, I consider this Belkin product a good value. The cost is higher than two standard 4-port USB Hubs, but you get more versatility. The price is competitive with multifunction Hubs, even when you add in the cost of an adapter module or two (adapters range from about US$50 an up.) and, again you have greater choice in integrating USB into your system.
 
Copyright© 2001 by Ken Fermoyle. 
Mr. Fermoyle has written some 2,500 articles for publications ranging from Playboy & Popular Science to MacWeek & PC World. Ken's Korner, a syndicated monthly column, is available free to User Groups and other non-profit or educational organizations. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an International organisation of which Melb PC is a member.


Reprinted from the October 2001 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia

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