USB Gains Momentum

USB Gains Momentum<@VM>Twenty USB devices plug you in to video, printing and more<@VM>A day in the life of my USB devices

With faster speeds on the horizon, the appeal of the Universal Serial Bus is on the rise

Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

Just as no man is an island, as poet John Donne wrote a couple of centuries ago, no computer stands alone. Along with modem or LAN connections, there's a whole raft of devices clamoring for attention and attachment.

Scanners, printers and other peripherals want in, and more and newer devices are coming, almost daily. Can you say Pocket PC?

One challenge, however, is that most PCs built before 1997 have a limited number of options for these connections. A PC may have one or two standard serial ports and one parallel port. But that's usually about it.

Users have been able to add other serial and parallel ports on computers via add-in cards, but that practice leads to something many power users have come to know and hate: interrupt request, or IRQ, conflicts.

PCs allow only 16 IRQ lines to signal the CPU chip that a peripheral event, or operation, has begun or ended. Two devices can't share the same IRQ line, and some IRQs are reserved for various system functions and devices, such as keyboards, floppy drives, parallel printer ports, hard drives and so on. Add too many peripherals, and you end up with conflicts. The PCI bus, first introduced in late 1993, allowed devices to share an interrupt, easing the bottleneck somewhat.

But at the heart of the conflict remain the poor speeds that other ports offer. Traditional serial and parallel ports can be fast, but not as fast as either current or pending Universal Serial Bus connections.

Speedy demo

At a recent USB developers' conference, a Hewlett-Packard ScanJet scanner using a USB 2.0 device core from inSilicon Corp. of San Jose, Calif., transmitted a scanned image to a PC at bursts of 480 Mbps. That's 40 times faster than the current USB 1.1 specification, and far quicker than a serial- or parallel-port connection.

During the last three years, USB has rapidly caught on among PC makers and users. It uses a one-size-fits-all plug and allows hot-swapping of peripherals and the connection'at least, theoretically'of up to 127 devices. And despite a few fits and starts, the high-speed, universal interface for printers, CD-ROM drives, digital still and video cameras, telephones and even personal digital assistant synchronization has grown into a successful, vital force in computing.

Today, just about every new PC or Macintosh has a USB port. The connection is a staple on so-called legacy-lite and legacy-free PCs from Compaq Computer Corp., HP and IBM Corp., and it is one of the common elements new Apple Macintosh desktop and notebook PCs share with their PC counterparts.

Just about every kind of computer peripheral is available with a USB connector. Cygnion Corp. of Irvine, Calif., and Nortel Networks Corp. of Brampton, Ontario, offer desktop telephones and software to interface with PCs via USB connections. And cameras from Casio Inc.use the USB port and software from Zing Networks Inc. of San Francisco to upload images directly to Web sites for business and private use.

Key terms of USB

USB. Universal Serial Bus gives users the ability to add peripherals and adapters to a computer without opening the device. USB cables also deliver power to peripherals when needed.

A plug and B plug. These are two different connectors for USB cables. The A plug attaches to the USB port on a PC or USB hub. The B Plug attaches to a device, such as a telephone or external scanner. Cables should not generally be A-to-A unless they include a USB bridge to handle the power exchange between the two devices. A straight cable between two PCs could cause a short on both systems.

Drivers. Most USB peripherals that require drivers, such as USB-to-Ethernet connectors, printers and scanners, include driver software in their packages. Operating system support is found in Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows 98 and Macintosh OS 8.5 and above.

Length. Connections between USB hubs, or between a USB hub and a peripheral, can be up to 5 meters in length. Hubs can be daisychained to expand distances, but USB is not intended to be a networking technology.

Sharing. With USB, users can connect and reconnect peripherals without rebooting.
Speed. USB data communications speeds can approach 12 Mbps a rate that is 100 times faster than traditional serial port connections.

Swapping. The hot-swapping capability of USB allows users to easily attach and detach peripherals.

Good stuff to come

As the HP scanner demonstration indicates, the best uses for USB may be yet to come; products supporting the Version 2.0 standard are due later this year. According to the USB Implementers Forum, an industry trade group, the new standard will boost the speed of the peripheral-to-PC connection from the 12 Mbps of USB 1.1 to up to 480 Mbps. The higher bandwidth will support the most demanding PC user applications, such as digital image creation and Web publishing, in which multiple high-speed peripherals will run simultaneously.

USB 2.0 is expected to gradually replace USB 1.1, which is already a ubiquitous connector on PCs for such peripherals as keyboards, mice, digital joysticks, floppy drives, digital speakers and low-end printers. The final USB 2.0 specification was released at the annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in New Orleans last April.

According to Pat Gelsinger, desktop products group vice president at Intel Corp., the new standard came to market quickly. The USB 2.0 Promoter Group, consisting of Compaq, HP, Intel, Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J., Microsoft Corp., NEC Technologies Inc. of Itasca, Ill., and Philips Semiconductors N.V. of Amsterdam, developed the technology.

The rapid development of the USB 2.0 specification can also be attributed to the evolutionary nature of the technology, Gelsinger said.

'Since the high-speed mode has the same basic architecture of USB, migrating existing USB peripherals to USB 2.0 is a much easier task than transferring to a brand new technology,' he said. 'Also, because USB 2.0 will be fully forward- and backward-compatible with current USB systems and peripherals, working with existing cables and connectors, consumers have the benefit of using devices they already have.'

The first USB 2.0-enabled systems and peripherals are expected in the marketplace late this year, according to the USB Promoter Group. Broad deployment is expected next year.

Photo finish

USB 2.0 complements high-performance PCs and user applications, enabling them to be more productive. Scanners, for example, can create a high-resolution digital image in seconds with USB 2.0, rather than the minutes required with USB 1.1. The time needed to download a set of digital photos also will be slashed from minutes to seconds.

Users will also be able to back up 1G of data from a PC hard drive in less than a minute with USB 2.0, a task that took about 30 minutes using USB 1.1, the trade group said.

USB 2.0 will lead to the development of higher-performance peripherals that will bring new applications to the PC, Gelsinger said.

As with many things in computing, however, USB developments do not take place in a vacuum: The IEEE 1394 standard is also a popular input/output standard. USB promoters claim the USB 2.0 standard and IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, differ primarily in the device to which an application is attached. USB 2.0 supporters say it is the preferred connection for most PC peripherals, and IEEE 1394's primary target is audiovisual consumer electronic devices such as digital camcorders, VCRs, DVD players and TV sets.

Building heat

There's room for debate on that topic. According to a recent report from Cahners In-Stat Group, an industry researcher in Newton, Mass., FireWire is gaining popularity.

In-Stat reported that shipments for devices with IEEE 1394 ports grew to over 12 million last year, from 3.5 million in 1998. The primary growth driver was IEEE 1394 adoption by PC makers.

PC manufacturers that now support IEEE 1394 include Apple Computer Inc., Compaq, Dell Computer Corp., Fujitsu America Inc. of San Jose, Calif., Gateway Computer Corp., HP, NEC, Panasonic Personal Computer Co. of Secaucus, N.J., Sharp Electronics Corp. of Paramus, N.J., and Sony Corp. of America of Park Ridge, N.J.

Mark Kirstein, In-Stat's vice president of research, said, 'As more peripherals become available, and the installed base of PCs with 1394 grows, applications will continue to expand' beyond FireWire's stronghold in digital media and despite the industry push for USB 2.0

Users with performance needs such as multimedia Web site production will likely want both features on their systems. But many business PCs, such as HP's recently introduced eVectra or Compaq's iPaq desktop, have shunned FireWire in favor of USB.

There's little doubt that USB connections are important for computer users and information technology managers.

The connectivity for a variety of devices is here now; maturing systems for the new specification will be a challenge for the months ahead.

Mark A. Kellner is a free-lance technology writer in Marina Del Rey, Calif. He can be reached via e-mail at

VendorProductFunctionsSystem RequirementsPlatform compatibilityFeaturesPrice
Dazzle Inc.
Fremont, Calif.
DM-4100 Digital Video Creator USB Converts any analog video source to TV-quality MPEG-1 digital files; edits video files with drag- and-drop method 233-MHz Pentium MMX Win98, 32M of RAM Dazzle Digital Video Creator software; bundled products include Dazzle Screen Saver, DVC MPEG Video Library, Ulead Photo Express, Ulead Video Studio, SmartSound for Multimedia$250
Ezonics Corp.
Pleasanton, Calif.
EZCam EZ-302 USB Camera direct attachment via USBProvides 30-frames/sec video or higher100-MHz PentiumWin9x, 16M of RAMVariety of still picture and video e-mail software; compatible with Microsoft NetMeeting$99
EZCam EZ-308 Dual Cam USBDetachable still and video camera; connects via USB200-MHz PentiumWin9x, 64M of RAMSaves video in a self-executable format; also can take up to 20 VGA pictures using the internal flash memory$149
Hewlett Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
DeskJet 842CInk-jet printer with USB and parallel connections for PC and MacPentium or Mac Win9x, NT, Win 2000 (USB support for Win98 and Win 2000 Professional only), MS-DOS apps, Mac OS 8.1Photo-quality printing of images; document text printing$149
DeskJet 932CSamePentium or MacMac OS, Win9x, Win 2000 ProfessionalMac OS and Windows printing$199
DeskJet 952CUSB and parallel-port printerPentium or MacMac OS, Win98, Win 2000Special paper-saving features, including optional two-sided and handout printing$299
ScanJet 3300CseUSB color scannerPentiumWin98Color, black-and-white scanning$129
ScanJet 4200CSEUSB color scannerPentiumWin98Same, but with faster scanning$149
ScanJet 6300CseUSB and SCSI color scannerPentiumWin9x, NT 4.0High-speed color, black-and-white scanning$399
Imation Corp.
Oakdale, Minn.
Imation USB Floppy Drive for MacintoshUSB floppy disk driveMacintosh iBook, iMac, G3, G4Mac OS1.44 MB and 720 KB floppy disk read-write$79
Intel Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Intel PC Camera ProPackUSB video and still camera, with editing software166-MHz Pentium MMXWin9xVideo capture, automatic snapshots with remote monitoring, video calls$99
Iomega Corp.
Roy, Utah
100 MB Zip USB DriveRemovable storage drive100-MHz Pentium or MacWin98, Mac OS 8.1Transfer and storage of files on 100M cartridges$99
250 MB Zip USB DriveRemovable storage drive100-MHz Pentium or MacWin98, Mac OS 8.1Transfer and storage of files on 250M cartridges$179
Kensington Technology
San Mateo, Calif.
Kensington VideoCAM Mac USBUSB video and still cameraiMac, iBook, G3, G4Mac OS 8.1Video capture, automatic snapshots with remote monitoring, video calls$79
Lexar Media Inc.
Fremont, Calif.
Universal Card Reader with USB Flash memory reader486, Pentium or MacWin98, Mac OSRead and transfer data from compact media$69

Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
Microsoft Natural Keyboard ProKeyboard with USB ports and multimedia controlsPentium Win98 Win98, Mac OS Performs keyboard functions, controls multimedia peripherals, connects USB devices$74
Mouse with controls for Web browsingPentium or MacWin98, Mac OSMouse with optical tracking$34
Umax Technologies Inc.
Fremont, Calif.
Astra 2100U 36Bit 600x1200dpi USBColor USB scannerPentium or MacWin98, Mac OSColor and black-and-white scanning$99
Xircom Inc.
Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Xircom Multifunction USB HubHub with four USB ports, two serial ports and one parallel portPentium or MacWin98, Mac OSProvides connectivity for desktop and notebook PCs$134
PortStation Office Communications StarterParallel DB-25, serial PS/2 and Ethernet 10 modulesPentiumWin98Provides connectivity and expansion for notebook and desktop PCs$159

Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

So many connections, so little time.

Few of us do only one thing, day in and day out. I'm a writer by training and profession, but my workday includes much more'e-mail, spreadsheets, Web site design, rudimentary desktop publishing and other tasks.

Then there's my private life: family events, personal business and all that. I scan pictures or upload them from a digital camera. I synchronize a personal digital assistant to keep track of my day and my contacts. It's a full schedule, and it requires an ever-increasing amount of hardware.

There's my CardScan 500 USB scanner, which takes business card information and turns it into entries for my Microsoft Outlook database. Or the Casio QV-2000UX digital camera, at 2.1 megapixels. And my Hewlett-Packard Jornada 540 Pocket PC.

Add the Cygnion CyberGenie phone system and the Microsoft IntelliMouse pointing device. They have Universal Serial Bus hookups, too.

Using all these devices has given me a bit of an education on USB technology. Some thoughts:

The CardScan package from Corex Technologies Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., lets you feed in business cards one at a time and quickly scan the images into its database. Once I've scanned in as many images as I want'I've done as many as 30 in a single batch, but there seems to be no limit'I click the Process button on the screen to have the program read each card to create an electronic Rolodex.

This new version of the CardScan scanner seems a bit more accurate than its predecessors, and it sports a USB connection. This could be a great plus when doing field work or attending a trade show; hook up the scanner to a notebook PC, and you can build a contact list on the fly. I'm far more impressed with the ease of connection and overall performance of the USB version than its parallel-port predecessor.

The Casio QV-2000UX camera from Casio Inc. of Dover, N.J., has a USB connection and software developed by Zing Network Inc. of San Francisco and FotoNation Inc. of Millbrae, Calif. The combination provides you with a one-step process for getting your photos online.

Online prints

The process consists of setting up an account with Zing'free of charge, as is the storage space you get'and then hooking up to the Internet and attaching your camera via the USB cable. Faster than you might expect'in about 10 seconds during my test'the FotoConnected software transfers thumbnail images of the photos to the Web site.

It sure beats a trip to Wal-Mart. And for workers at an agency such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it could be a real time-saver during disasters.

Hewlett-Packard's Jornada 540 offers the benefits of the Pocket PC platform, plus some styling touches. What I especially like about this new release of the Jornada, however, is the extreme attention HP seems to have paid to detail. The desktop cradle now comes standard with the unit, instead of as an option. Rather than relying on a serial port connection, users now connect through a USB port, which appears to have speeded transfers.

Two features stand out on Microsoft's IntelliMouse Explorer: one is the device's reliance on light instead of a track ball to position the cursor or pointer; the other is its USB connection. Both features work well and accurately.

Finally, and perhaps with the greatest implication for telecommuters and small branch offices, CyberGenie from Cygnion Corp. of Irvine, Calif., plays the USB connection to the hilt. Connected to a Windows PC with a USB cable, the device uses software to field calls, take messages and play music for callers on hold.

CyberGenie delivers advanced features such as customized call answering, conference call capabilities, memo recording and call transferring. Using advanced automatic speech recognition and text-to-speech engines powered by CyberGenie@Work software, the system will read e-mail and voice mail messages and fax headers when a user calls into the system.

Acting as a 24-hour personal assistant, CyberGenie will also notify users anywhere in the world when new voice mail, e-mail or faxes are received, allowing users to take action and respond promptly.

USB connections have improved each of these devices. Does a busy, well-connected computer user need any other recommendation?

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