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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 3/1/2003

Here comes the bus

Many computer users are facing a USB pinch because of the growing popularity of printers, scanners, and other devices that use a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection.

In 2002, consumers bought almost 200 million devices that can connect to a computer's USB “ports,” or outlets. Sales in 2003 sales are just as brisk.

The squeeze occurs because most computers have only one or two USB ports. What's a person to do, when both of those are used? Buy a USB “hub,” which is the USB's equivalent of a multi-outlet electrical power strip.

Hubs are inexpensive, usually selling for about $20-$40. But it takes an informed shopper to make the right selection.

USB ports began appearing on personal computers in 1998. They transfer data at 12 megabites per second (Mbps), 10 times faster than a parallel connection and about 100 times faster than a serial connection.

Parallel and serial ports, with their big cables and plugs, were the traditional way of connecting printers and other “peripheral” devices. USB cables and plugs are smaller, which is an easy way to identify them.

USB speeds may seem fast. But the original USB 1.1 technology was intended for run-of-the mill peripheral devices that don't need great speed.

A new generation of super-fast USB connections are appearing on computers. The so-called USB 2.0 technology operates at 480 Mps. That's fast enough for effortless transfers of big graphics files from digital cameras, for instance, better USB networking, and connecting external hard drives and DVD drives.

Some computers have another kind of data-transfer connection, termed FireWire. Among them are Apple systems, most Sony PCs, and some top-of-the-line units built by other companies.

USB 2.0 is faster than FireWire, which operates at 400 Mbps. But experts say FireWire has a quality edge over USB 2.0 for some data transfers, including audio and video from camcorders.

The two technologies will do battle in the years ahead. One may disappear, much like the old “Beta,” format for video tape, and the other emerge as the standard format, just like the VHS video tape format does today.

USB connections do more than transfer data. They also allow devices which need only small amounts of electric current to draw power from the USB port.

When shopping for a USB hub, you'll see two basic kinds – powered and unpowered. Think twice before buying an unpowered hub.

Unpowered hubs are inexpensive, but may stop working if you connect more than 2 devices, because they can't supply enough electricity.

Powered hubs have their own electric supply, via a “power block” that plugs into an electrical outlet in your home or office. They're usually available in 4 or 8 outlet models, and you can use every outlet because of the ample electric supply.

The hub plugs into one of your computer's USB ports. Follow installation instructions. The computer should “recognize” the hub instantly, and all the devices you connect to it.



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