USB curbs reboots with mixed results
USB curbs reboots with mixed results<@VM>Imaging<@VM>Storage<@VM>Input<@VM>Printing
The GCN Lab tests 25 USB devices to find out which ones rate high for plug-in ease and quality
By Michael Cheek and John Breeden II
With a Universal Serial Bus, you will never reboot again when you connect a new peripheral. Well, almost never. OK, so you sometimes have to reboot even if you have a USB port on your PC.
USB promises many advantages: adequate bandwidth, smaller cables and the ability to daisychain up to 127 devices to one port. This makes USB a good re-placement for serial, parallel and even some SCSI devices.
But what's best is USB's potential for fewer reboots, no more figuring out settings and conflicts, and a plug-and-play process that works.
Users hate reboots. The GCN Lab looks at hundreds of products each year, which means lots of reboots. USB is supposed to make connections reboot-free. We hate to break it to you, but in testing 25 products, we had to reboot a few of them multiple times. Others installed without a hitch.
USB works, and in some cases works particularly well. Plug in a peripheral'if the manufacturer has included a cable'and install the drivers. Then plug and unplug devices as you like. For the most part, everything is hot-swappable, from printers to mice, modems to digital cameras, and external storage subsystems to scanners. That's the instant satisfaction of USB.
The 25 products the lab tested are from 17 companies. Over a two-month period, we plugged the products' USB cables into several test systems running Microsoft Windows 98. USB works primarily under Win98 and newer Apple Macintosh systems such as the iMac and G3. Do not attempt this'yet'under Windows NT. The forthcoming Windows 2000 will support USB.
We believe USB fulfills its promise'almost. It's those few reboots that bother us.Easy Ethernet attachment
Allied Telesyn International Corp.'s 10-Mbps Ethernet adapter gives users a quick way to get USB-equipped devices onto their networks.
We plugged the AT-USB10 adapter into a notebook computer to test it out.
Once the correct protocols were in-stalled, which required the Win98 disk'and a system reboot'network browsing worked seamlessly.
There was some confusion about the card's speed.
The driver claimed it was 10/100-Mbps, but the adapter achieved only a 10-Mbps rate. Also, the maker's claim that the card can be switched to other devices while they are running is technically true, but only if they already have the correct drivers and protocols installed. Otherwise it takes at least one reboot.
We would have liked to see a faster connection, but USB's 12-Mbps speed limit precludes Fast Ethernet rates. Even so, it's far easier than installing a PC Card to connect a device to the network.
Once installed, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company's AT-USB10 makes getting onto the network as easy as plugging in a lamp.
Compaq modem hangs anywhere
56K USB Fax Modem
Compaq Computer Corp.
The Compaq 56K USB Fax Modem hides in plain sight, sitting'or even hanging'wherever it can stay out of the way. It can sit beside the PC, hang from the corner of a monitor or even be mounted on a wall.
No matter how cluttered an office space is, this modem can find a place to fit. There isn't even a power cord, as the device gets its juice through the USB cable.
The modem is extremely light and seems sturdy. It might be suitable for some travelers, although there are far smaller modems for that purpose.
The performance of the analog V.90 modem is good at 56 Kbps. A plus: The indicator light illuminates after the modem has established a V.90 connection. You can also fax with it.Keyspan expands USB plug-ins
For any Win98 system with a free PCI slot, it's easy and inexpensive to add two extra USB plugs with the Keyspan USB Card. Even if the PC already has a couple of USB plug-ins, the card will double USB device capacity without the expense or space needs of a hub.
Installation is almost as simple as plugging in a USB device. Of course, the PC must be turned off and the chassis opened. But once the card is in place, Win98 detects it without difficulty'that is, if it's properly seated.
The only software required is on the Win98 CD-ROM, and we found the new card did not interfere with four already-connected USB devices. Within moments, all four peripherals were humming on one computer.
InnoSys Inc. of Richmond, Calif., sells other handy items to make USB more accessible, including an adapter for attaching serial devices and personal digital assistants to a PC with a USB cable.Linksys plugs into Ethernet
One device that always requires a reboot is the Instant Ethernet USB Network Adapter. The Linksys Group connector works quite well and had us on the network after a single reboot'although some domain-tweaking did require another boot.
Instant Ethernet USB
Compact and economical, the adapter has two lights'one showing whether the device is network-attached and the other blinking to show activity.
The Irvine, Calif., company's adapter achieves only standard Ethernet speed because of USB's 12-Mbps limit. Although the device is somewhat no-frills, it would work well for any notebook installation.Hub quadruples connections
Even the most advanced desktop system today is going to have only four USB slots, and the industry average is around two. With an increasing number of devices vying for the ports, they quickly fill up.
Linksys Group's USB Four-Port Hub takes one USB port and multiplies it by four. Each of the ports in the hub has status indicator lights, so you know when a device is properly connected. If you have a lot of USB devices, you can daisychain USB hubs together until you have 127 devices in the chain.
All devices will operate simultaneously without interfering with the others, because the hub supports a 12-Mbps rate with built-in collision control. We kept a webcam, mouse, scanner and printer all active at the same time, and none suffered performance loss. The only problem is that a system must have at least one USB port open for the hub to work.Silent modem connects fast
Zoom Telephonics Inc.'s Fax/Modem 56K USB connects with quiet speed. The little device automatically selected the appropriate protocol and speed when it connected to another device, depending on which was faster. We saw V.90 and 33.6-Kbps connections. An easy-to-read LED bank showed what was going on.
Fax/Modem 56K USB
Zoom Telephonics Inc.
The modem itself is small and does not require a separate power cord because it gets its power through the USB connection. You can daisychain other phone lines out of the back of the device.
Although the Boston company's modem is speedy and small, it has no features that set it apart from the pack of other USB communications devices. There are smaller modems out there, and some that perform slightly better. Even so, the Zoom Fax/Modem is reliable and turns in steady, above-average performance. It's a good choice if you want to send faxes and don't need a lot of bells and whistles.Agfa camera shoots vividly
Agfa-Gavaert Group's ePhoto CL30 Mega Pix camera is good for business or fun. To test it, we snapped in a pack of batteries and headed off to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. We got about 30 pictures in low resolution using the 4M flash memory card, and about 11 pictures in high-resolution mode.
The screen color quality was among the best we have seen from a digital camera.
Medieval knights' banners flew colorfully as they rode by, and the silver armor sparkled. Indoor pictures also came out well, to the point that we could distinguish between maroon and burgundy costumes close together.
ePhoto CL30 Mega Pix
We found only two negative points about the Belgian company's ePhoto CL30. First, the batteries tended to die much faster than the claimed rate. We barely finished 30 pictures before the batteries needed to be replaced. Leaving the LCD display off improved life, however.
Second, the images were not quite as sharp as we have seen from other cameras. But the blazing color quality of the 1,440- by 1,080-pixel images, along with the camera's low price, nearly made up for the power shortcomings.Epson cam is power-hungry
The Epson America Inc. PhotoPC 800 digital still camera accepts standard AA batteries, but you may not want to feed this power-hungry beast. While we waited for the four included nickel-metal hydride rechargeable cells to charge the first time, we started testing with a couple of new alkaline AAs.
Epson America Inc.
Within moments of taking three shots, the camera died. Either the alkaline cells lacked enough juice or the camera sucked them dry almost at once. Even the rechargeable sets constantly needed trading out. Perhaps that's why the Torrance, Calif., company included four batteries; the camera uses only two at a time.
Picture quality was mediocre compared with the vibrancy of the Agfa reviewed above and the sharpness of the Toshiba discussed below.
But the PhotoPC 800 is more compact than the other two cameras. Images can go up to a staggering 1,984- by 1,488-pixel resolution. The array of buttons is confusing, but speedy downloads from the included 8M flash memory compact card make the PhotoPC easy to use.HP scans photos easily
Hewlett-Packard's PhotoSmart S26 Scanner is just about the easiest way we have seen to get photographs and other documents onto the Web. Once the scanner is installed, users do little more than keep inserting the next photo.
The software must be installed on the PC first, however, or the scanner won't work. That's disappointing. Users should be able to plug in a USB unit and then let Windows ask for the drivers.
The color quality of the finished scans was quite good, but dark, complex photographs appeared a little washed-out and lacked detail.
After a photo is inserted, a preview image automatically pops up for editing. Images can be saved in any of the standard photo formats. Scans go pretty fast. In our tests, the PhotoSmart produced a preview in about 10 seconds; a final high-resolution scan took about a minute.
The PhotoSmart S26 also scans photo negatives remarkably well, converting them to full color. There's no need to worry about alignment on the bed. But media larger than 5 inches by 7 inches won't fit into the PhotoSmart S26.Documents scream through scanner
USB makes sense when it comes to the Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 6350. Designed to take 25 pages at a time in its document tray, it rarely backs up. It also is quite fast at scanning color photos.
The scanner comes with optical character recognition software, although purchasing higher-end software might be wise if OCR is a major use.
The ScanJet 6350 has several buttons on the front for quick access to common functions, though most users will opt for software control. Among the functions is a simple-to-use copier function.
Images looked good. The ScanJet 6350 can scan at up to 1,200 dots per inch. On occasion, some scanned colors looked washed out, but not to the point of being unusable.Toshiba camera crams in pixels
You may not know that notebook maker Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. also makes digital cameras, but the Toshiba PDR-M4 snaps photos at 2.14 megapixels. That's more than 2 million pixels from a $600 camera.
Moreover, the images look quite good. The color could use a bit more vibrancy but the photos are sharp and precise.
If you have ever used a digital camera and downloaded shots through the standard serial connection, you will immediately appreciate this camera's use of USB. Almost without delay, 500K and larger images open up. Over a serial connection, you usually wait a few minutes to get one photo.
The PDR-M4 has a 1.8-inch LCD preview monitor on the back. Toshiba makes navigation particularly easy, thanks to clear menus and buttons. The rechargeable lithium ion battery provides long life. A 16M SmartMedia card is included. Photos are in JPEG format at resolutions of up to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels.
The problem with this excellent camera is its name. What does PDR-M4 stand for, anyhow? Photo digital recorder model 4? The folks who brought out the Portege, Tecra and Satellite notebooks should come up with a snappier name.Football cam misses touchdown
Internet videoconferencing, inexpensive and acceptable in quality, arrived with Microsoft NetMeeting and CU-SeeMe software from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua, N.H. But you need a video camera, and some are unsatisfactory because of the bandwidth restrictions of the serial or parallel ports.
ZoomCam USB 1595
Zoom Telephonics Inc.
ZoomCam USB 1595 improves significantly over current video cameras. This model from Zoom Telephonics has the basics, although it could use a little driver-tweaking. Getting it installed required a reboot, and setup was less obvious than it should be. Also, the drivers were hidden on the CD-ROM.
The camera needs more controls for things such as brightness. Users must manually adjust focus by turning the lens. It would be nice if the Zoom camera had zoom capability.
Image quality was satisfactory, although colors looked muted. ZoomCam supports resolutions of up to 704 by 576 pixels at 24-bit color and 30 frames per second. It can take still shots, too. The handy football-shaped design lets the camera be pointed down so it's effectively off, showing nothing.SuperDisk is slow and bulky
The SuperDisk drive from Imation Corp. has backward compatibility with the 3.5-inch floppy, but GCN Lab reviewers still prefer the Zip drive from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah.
SuperDisk USB Drive
The SuperDisk drive requires its own power source and a reboot to get installed. Once we had it installed, an attempt to copy a few files to the disk crashed Win98.
The first LS-120 disk I tried was bad, but causing the whole operating system to crash is very bad. The Oakdale, Minn., company has more work to do on this newly released software. Even with a viable disk, the drive was only half as fast as a Zip drive.
Also, the SuperDisk drive did not seem to be natively USB, as the plug in back looked like a parallel interface converted to USB by the cable.
Overall, the drive had about twice the bulk of the Zip 250 drive reviewed below, and its disks held half as much. Both drives and media cost about the same.Zip offers zippy storage
Everybody wants more space. Files are getting bigger every day. Just try transferring a presentation or sophisticated word processing document from one PC to another on a standard 3.5-inch floppy disk.
Iomega Corp.'s Zip drive solved this problem a few years ago, but nowadays its 100M of removable storage isn't quite as roomy. The company's new Zip 250 drive fixes the problem.
The newest drive is quite thin'only a little bigger than the Zip disk itself. Over a USB connection, transfer rates are faster than with a parallel connection for some of the older external Zip drives.
USB makes the Zip much easier to plug in to multiple computers. In our testing, all the drive's transfer rates were close to 900 kilobytes/sec. Thankfully, the Zip 250 also works with 100M disks.
Nobody wants to send humongous files over the Internet, and with the Zip 250 you don't have to.
The Zip 250 works with both PCs and Macs.Software slows CD creation
A great idea can get lost even in a solid product. Sony Electronics Inc.'s CD-recordable and CD-rewritable drive known as the Spressa USB CRX100E/X looks like solid hardware. But its software and lack of support hurt an otherwise good product.
The confusing interface caused us to trash the first three CDs we tried to record. The next two retained only about half of the content. A wizardlike process for copying a CD-ROM had only vague descriptions of the options, and the help system was no help.
Moreover, a separate utility portion of the software sometimes could not be accessed at the same time as the wizard, even when needed. The buggy software crashed all three Win98 systems to which we attached the Spressa.
The San Jose, Calif., division of Sony should debug its Web site, too. Whenever we checked for updated drivers or other support over the course of a month, the Spressa page had broken links, and a photograph of the drive was missing.
The Spressa can read CDs at 6X, write CD-Rs at 4X and write CD-RWs at 2X. It has a 1M buffer. Copying a CD-ROM by the safest and slowest process took less than an hour. Sony could have an excellent product'it just needs to support it better.GelMouse lacks comfort
Gooey gel inside ergonomic products seems to work for bicycle seats and wrist pads. But it doesn't quite fit on top of the GelMouse from Fellowes Manufacturing Co. of Itasca, Ill.
The thin, gray gel pad on an ordinary mouse doesn't add that much cushion, and the GelMouse lacks enough girth to fill most hands. If Fellowes reduced the mouse body and thickened the gel pad, the device might fit the palm a little better. And why not jazz up the two-button mouse with colors other than gray?
Fellowes does build in the little wheel needed for scrolling through documents under Win98.
The GelMouse arrives with a standard PS/2 plug and a USB converter in the package, making it handy for portable computers. Most notebooks today have a combination keyboard-mouse plug. If you plug in a keyboard, you can't plug in a mouse. So use USB. Or if the keyboard isn't in use, you can leave the USB ports free.Stylish mouse needs wheel
The see-through design of the Fellowes TechMouse looks cool, but the mouse lacks the excellent feel and movement of Microsoft's IntelliMouse, reviewed below, and it unaccountably does not have the little wheel we have come to rely on for scrolling.
The two-button Tech-Mouse is larger than the GelMouse. Users with small palms and fingers might have trouble gripping it. The mouse has a firm feel and good grip and is priced reasonably.
No software is re-quired'you can just plug in the mouse and start working. We like that. Then again, mice aren't exactly complex. The best thing going for the TechMouse is style, so if wheel scrolling isn't important to you, you'll enjoy it.IntelliMouse keeps squeaky clean
It may have taken 30 years for someone to build a better mouse, but Microsoft's IntelliMouse is worth the wait. It may well be the best ever.
The IntelliMouse Explorer lacks moving parts. It navigates via an electric eye coupled with precise movement-tracking technology. You know the dirt that clogs the little ball and has to be removed by taking the mouse apart? That's history.
The IntelliMouse Explorer reminds us a little of the IBM Corp. laser mouse of the 1980s, which never needed cleaning, either. It guaranteed a smooth glide, but you had to rest it on a mirror, whereas the IntelliMouse can be used anyplace.
Throw out your old mouse pads. You can even use the IntelliMouse on your lap. It's going to make all the old mice obsolete.
Microsoft has done what many considered impossible: made a re-volutionary improvement to an everyday computing object. If you don't have an IntelliMouse, get one.Keyboard borrows mouse functions
Microsoft's Natural Keyboard Pro incorporates mouse functions. It's so loaded that you will rarely have to point and click your way to things.
Everything from opening a browser on a specified page to checking your e-mail and performing Web searches can be done by punching a single key. The extra functions are on blue keys that sit above the letter keys. There are even buttons to activate the Windows calculator and put the system into sleep mode.
Our test keyboard had an ergonomic configuration, splitting down the middle in a triangle shape. That might be easier on the hands, but having to relearn where the home keys are bothers fast touch typists. Microsoft will offer a similar keyboard without the ergonomic design, and if you are comfortable with a flat keyboard, you might consider getting that model instead.BJC-6000 leaves photos green
Canon Computer Systems Inc.'s BJC-6000 is a fairly complex little ink-jet printer with enough attachments and options to rival most network printers. But it's no speed demon.
Canon says the printer cranks out color at 5 pages per minute by default. But ask for the 1,400- by 720-dot-per-inch maximum resolution and the printer slows significantly.
We had problems during setup. After all the ink cartridges were in their proper holes, the BJC-6000 refused to print, insisting that the print head was out of alignment.
A utility suggested a solution, and after we ran it, the BJC-6000 gave us an all-clear. But the photos had an ugly green tint.
Ink comes in individual tanks for loading into the main cartridge.
If the yellow ink begins to run dry, you can replace only yellow without buying another multicolor cartridge, as is necessary with other ink-jets.
Optical ink sensors keep an accurate eye on how much ink is in each chamber, so you won't be caught short.
The BJC-6000 from Canon of Costa Mesa, Calif., isn't really a native USB printer but rather a standard parallel port printer with an adapter.Epson prints laser-fast
The Epson Stylus Color 900N could be a real workhorse of a color printer. Its speed shines, and its output excels in both quality and quantity.
Stylus Color 900N
Epson America Inc.
Epson rates it at 12 ppm for text, and the paper flies almost as fast as with a laser printer.
The printer barely slows down when producing color, turning in a respectable 10 ppm. The ink dries quickly and will not smear even right out of the print tray.
Output looks excellent at 1,440-by-720 resolution. When we held printed text from the 900N up to a laser-printed document, we could hardly tell which was which.
Although the printer has a USB cable, its true strength comes in hooking up to a network via the 10/100-Mbps network card. It can be an office's main color printer given its speed and LAN compatibility.
One possible negative we had trouble understanding: The network card requires its own power source.HP ink-jet prints duplex'
We're surprised that no one has put two-sided printing into an ink-jet before. What Hewlett-Packard forgets with its DeskJet 970Cse is that more ink is not better. The DeskJet pretty much saturated standard paper with liquid ink while printing on one side. Both sides made for soaking-wet output.
Perhaps higher-quality or specialty papers would help, but the DeskJet 970Cse did not come with samples. Moreover, HP failed to include a USB cable for connecting the printer to the PC.
Output, when dry, was so-so. Inks bled when two color areas adjoined, which might be the result of too much ink on the page.
Duplex printing aside, the DeskJet 970Cse printed more quietly than any other ink-jet ever tested by the GCN Lab. Its carriage and paper handling whispered, making it a good choice for offices that can afford quality paper. And the DeskJet 970Cse printed fast, at 10 ppm in color and 12 ppm monochrome.Lexmark laser requires reboots
No USB device should require rebooting. The Optra E310 did. All USB devices should automatically install everything needed as soon as they're plugged in. The Optra E310 didn't.
The laser printer from Lexmark International Inc. of Lexington, Ky., fell short of the USB criterion for ease of use. When it was plugged in, the test system knew a laser printer was at the other end of the USB cable but it never prompted for drivers. Upon inserting the CD-ROM, manual installation started fine but a printer port could not be found.
Upon reboot, a USB printer port appeared, but even with the drivers installed properly the Optra would not print. After a second reboot, everything finally worked.
The Optra E310 comes with 2M of RAM and PostScript Level 2 and PCL 5e emulations. It's rated at 8 ppm. When we finally got it to print, the E310 produced low quality for a 600-dpi monochrome laser. Even in its software-enhanced mode that supposedly equals 1,200 dpi, text and edges looked jagged. In solid or shaded areas, a significant dot pattern showed, and subtle grays were lacking.
We liked the display panel, which has clear lights next to labels such as Ready, Load Paper and Paper Jam. That made it easier to understand the printer. The compact form factor would be suitable for a manager's desk. Too bad the output quality isn't what it should be.Xerox cranks fast prints
Xerox Corp.'s 12-ppm monochrome laser printer lived up to its speed rating. We put the DocuPrint P1202 through its paces and found that seconds after we clicked the print button, the printer was spitting pages back.
The quality, generally good, did have one drawback that the lab continues to see in Xerox printers.
They seem to make any shaded areas with-in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet look grainy.
Otherwise, the quality was good for a 600-dpi printer. We couldn't tell much difference between standard 600-dpi and the 1,200-dpi software-enhanced mode.
Drivers for the DocuPrint P1202 worked well and offered a lot of options. Xerox put 4M memory on board with PCL 6, PCL 5e and PostScript Level 2 emulations. That's excellent value for a $643 price.
Installation went relatively smoothly, although a reboot was required. And we had to tell the drivers where the printer was located, although the software did name the USB port after the printer.Xerox merges printer, scanner
The Xerox WorkCentre XK35c would be a great space-saver for small, cramped offices.
A flatbed scanner and color ink-jet printer unite in the WorkCentre XK35c to do printing, scanning and copying with ease.
As we installed a preproduction WorkCentre, we noticed that one of the ink-jet cartridges had Lexmark's name on it, and several driver filenames had the letters LEX, including the lexusb.inf file for attaching to USB. So evidently a Lexmark ink-jet printer resides inside the WorkCentre. A Xerox representative said the Lexmark name was removed from the final production release, which also doesn't accept Lexmark cartridges. That gives the significant profit from consumables to Xerox.
|Which made the grade?|
|Iomega Zip 250 USB drive||A+|
|Microsoft IntelliMouse Explorer||A+|
|HP PhotoSmart S26 scanner||A|
|Keyspan USB Card||A|
|Linksys USB 4-port Hub||A|
|Agfa ePhoto CL30 Mega Pix still camera||A-|
|Epson Stylus Color 900N ink-jet printer||A-|
|Linksys Instant Ethernet USB Network Adapter||A-|
|Toshiba PDR-M4 still camera||A-|
|Allied Telesyn AT-USB10 Network Adapter||B+|
|Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro||B+|
|Xerox DocuPrint P1202 laser printer||B+|
|Xerox WorkCentre XK35c multifunction printer||B|
|Compaq 56K USB Fax Modem||B|
|ZoomCam 1595 video camera||B|
|Epson PhotoPC 800 still camera||B-|
|HP DeskJet 970Cse ink-jet printer||B-|
|HP ScanJet 6350 scanner||B-|
|Zoom Fax/Modem 56K USB||B-|
|Sony Spressa USB CRX100E/X CD-R/RW drive||C+|
|Lexmark Optra E310 laser printer||C|
|Canon BJC-6000 ink-jet printer||C-|
|Imation SuperDisk Drive||C-|
That must be why the company sells the WorkCentre XK35c for less than $350.
Although software installation did require a reboot, the software found the appropriate USB port instead of searching and rebooting as with the Lexmark laser printer reviewed above. That's a step up.
The front panel of the WorkCentre resembles a copier, with a big, green Start button. Other adjustments have generally easy icons and buttons, including reductions of up to 25 percent and enlargements to 400 percent.
Printing quality looked good, although even on specialty papers the supposedly 1,200-dpi results looked a little grainy. Scans came in rather dark and required tweaking. Copied pages appeared a little light.