Originally published Monday, April 17, 00
Wouldn't it be grand if all your computer appliances
connected as easily as your household appliances? Buy a new gadget and
simply plug it in to a standard wall outlet, as we're so accustomed to
doing. Instead, many users have to carefully examine the open outlets, or
ports, behind the computer and make sure that the gadget, or peripheral
device, has a matching plug.
Ports are categorized by number of pins and additionally break down into male and female varieties. Each port is designed for a specific device. A 9-pin male serial port, for example, is suited for an external modem. A 25-pin female parallel port, on the other hand, is designed to handle printers and tape backup drives. Keyboards, mice, joysticks, monitors, scanners, or multimedia components each have their own unique connectors that must match on both ends.
Imagine if buying a new hair dryer were so complicated. Is it a parallel or SCSI hair dryer? It's a serial hair dryer, in fact, but do I have a free serial port to plug into? Enter the Universal Serial Bus to the rescue. USB is quickly becoming the standard for peripheral devices and making the "one-port one-peripheral" era a thing of the past. Unlike serial and parallel ports, the USB can accommodate up to 127 printers, scanners, modems, mice, cameras, joysticks and other devices on one port!
I discovered the joy of USB recently when got tired of sharing three serial devices between two serial ports. My modem, scanner and Palm Pilot cradle all required a serial connection, but I only had two available serial ports. Each time I needed to synchronize the Palm with my desktop PC, I had to disconnect and literally uninstall my scanner. To use the scanner again, I had to reinstall the driver software and reconnect the scanner to the serial port. A true hassle.
Because I have an older system, I added a USB port to my PC, but most desktop systems sold in the last three years have USB already built in. The peripheral industry, however, hasn't kept pace with PCs in developing USB devices. It's only recently that manufacturers have focused on USB device development. You need only scan the Sunday Record ads to see the number of technology promotions that feature the distinctive USB logo, indicating support for the Universal Serial Bus.
My USB port will accommodate two devices immediately, but if I need additional ports, hubs can be purchased that come in a myriad of configurations. Consider hubs as you would adapters that plug into existing wall sockets to expand two sockets to four, for example. Unlike common wall sockets, however, a USB port can expand to 127 sockets. A multi-port hub, called a bus station, can sit on the desktop for easy access, ending the need to crawl around and fumble in the dark. Hubs can accommodate USB devices as well as serial, parallel and Ethernet connections.
The true beauty of USB is not just the standard interface, but the ease of installation and configuration, which is virtually nil. USB devices can be added to your system "on the fly" without shutting down the computer or rebooting. Simply unplug one device, and connect another and the PC automatically recognizes the change. If it's a brand new device, the bus will request the installation of drivers to support the new external hardware.
No longer does one need to worry about interrupt settings or compatibility problems, for the most part. All the hair pulling and exasperation associated with hardware configurations seem to be a thing of the past with USB. Also, USB transfers data faster than serial or parallel connectors do. I noticed the immediate speed improvement when synchronizing my Palm Pilot and desktop PC via the USB cradle.
Though USB may have had a slow start, you can expect this hardware connectivity to quickly become standard and take off exponentially. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "take the bus, and leave the driving to us".
Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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