The Promise of USB Technology
For about a year and a half most of the desktop computers brought to market by the major manufacturers have contained one or two Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports. The USB technology is designed to accomplish several highly desirable goals. First, it is theoretically possible to connect 127 separate devices to two USB ports. Secondly, USB devices are installed automatically by the Windows Plug and Play system. Third, USB devices are "hot-swappable" so that you do not need to reboot your computer when adding or removing a peripheral device such as a printer, scanner or modem. Fourth, USB devices do not require external power supplies because they draw their power from the USB port itself. Unfortunately, USB devices are not yet widely available. I recently tested three of them and here is my report.
Did You Really Say 127 Individual Devices?
If the possibility of connecting 127 individual peripheral devices seems even vaguely attractive, you have a vision of computing possibilities that far exceeds mine. I don't come close to owning 127 pieces of computer equipment, let alone to have any desire to attach all of them at one time to my computer. Indeed, connecting three or four devices creates enough trouble to last me a good while. The reality is that the 127 device limit is neither realistic nor important. On the practical side is the fact that USB devices are attached to hubs which are in turn attached to your computer. For technical reasons, a single hub usually has no more than eight USB ports. Technical limitations dictate that no more than five of these hubs can be daisy-chained together. Even though you could connect five daisy-chained hubs to each of your two USB ports you would end up with only 70 usable USB connections. On the other hand, 70 additional devices seems like a lot of excess capacity to this observer who experiencing crash number three at this moment. Moreover, if having no more than 70 additional devices attached to your computer seems depressingly limited, you only have to wait for the coming of what is called Fire Wire which will allow you to connect another 1394 devices to your computer. Obviously there is no real practical limit to your soon-to-be capacity to attach peripheral appliances to your computer.
High-Speed Plug and Play
Anybody who has attempted to install a device on a WinTel PC knows that
the promise of Plug and Play is often an empty one. The reality is that
most of us Plug and Pray that the connection will work. This inability
to easily attach peripheral devices to WinTel PCs is the subject of much
derision among Macintosh enthusiasts like my son the New York artist. But
their superior gloating and glee is to be short-lived because USB will
bring the vaunted Mac Plug and Play capability to a WinTel desktop near
you. Installation of a new device will be as simple as plugging in the
plug to the hub which will cause the computer to immediately install the
appropriate drivers to allow the device to work. That is the promise of
Of far more significance is the fact that USB devices do not require any external power supply, sort of. The "sort of" comes about because a single USB port on your computer is wholly incapable of supporting more than a few devices. As a result, additional power needs to be supplied through the hub itself. But, you will no longer have a desktop that looks like you trying to monopolize the power convertor market or joined the Wayne's World groupies. A few hubs, a few power sources and a neat and tidy desktop. That is the second promise of USB.
The Reality of USB Connectivity
Much of what I have been talking about is just the promise of USB technology, not the reality. The reality will not become known until Windows 98 is in place and establishes with precise outlines the standards for the use of USB technology. Since Windows 98 is a few months away, only a few USB devices have actually been brought to market. I have tested three of them in the last month using the Beta version of Windows 98 that was discussed in last month's column. What I found is that when the USB technology works, it works very well and when it does not work it becomes an exemplar of the worst in WinTel technology. The first device that I used was a 56K US Robotics speaker modem. Unfortunately, the software that came with the modem did not provide me with a driver for the USB port and I have been forced to utilize the modem by connecting it to a serial port. US Robotics is sending me the driver that allows for the USB connection and I am looking forward to it. The modem itself works like a charm and connects on a regular basis with my ISP at around 49K. It is noticeably faster in transferring information than my existing modem and the use of the USB port which is 20 to 40 times faster than the serial port should allow it to reach maximum capabilities quickly. I am looking forward to that small step toward high-speed Internet access. The second device that I tested was the Page Scan USB personal scanner from Storm Technology. I have long been a huge fan of the Storm Technology scanning products. They are the people who have brought us the wonderful EasyPhoto scanners that I have written about so frequently. The Page Scan USB scanner was originally designed by Logitech which was recently purchased by Storm. I opened the box, plugged in the scanner, stuck the CD in my drive and within five minutes my scanner was up and running without so much as a whimper. This is the promise and the future of USB and it is wonderful. The scanner itself is quite good for a single page scanner about the size of a small baguette. Because it has no external power supply it's small size allows it to be placed almost anywhere on your desktop where it is wholly unobtrusive. I love my little Logitech scanner which appears to be compatible with all of the different scanning applications that I have on my computer. I can use it to put documents in my PaperMaster Live File Cabinet or to prepare TIFF files for trial exhibits using Wang Image Professional. The Page Scan should be available soon at computer superstore in your neighborhood for around $200, street price.
The third USB device that I attempted to use came with one of my Toshiba desktop computers. I am not even sure what the device is supposed to do but whatever it is it doesn't do it. Moreover, it appears to generate conflicts in the computer system that cause the operating system to crash and burn. I have simply removed it from the system and set it aside for some future time. I love Toshiba products, as you know, but this one is a bad joke that may not ever become funny. My doubts were not dispelled by my call to Toshiba support where a person informed me that they did not yet have anybody who knew anything about USB connectivity. I may call back, sometime.
Elsewhere, however, there will soon be a flood of USB devices such as scanners, video cameras and the like. There will be USB pointing devices and speakers and keyboards and probably even some devices we haven't thought of yet and they will all be Plug and Play. By virtue of its high-speed data transfer rate, USB will enable low-cost video conferencing and very high-speed access to the Internet. It is an important technology that is becoming reality only in the last few months. We can all look forward to the significant benefits that USB technology will provide and to dismissing with the flip of a hand the derision of the Macintosh crowd. Hola!!, USB!