Replace the ports! Elect USB as the standard interface

Carlos A. Soto

I want a recall. The multiple media ports on handheld devices are cluttering the interface, confusing users and costing too much.

During a recent GCN Lab product review of handheld devices, I had eight personal digital assistants, all with different ways to transfer data in and out.

Some PDAs connected via a wireless signal. Others, such as the Sony Cli', seemed torn between the proprietary Memory Stick port and the separate CompactFlash port. But with the CompactFlash port, I couldn't perform several of the functions that I could with the Memory Stick port, such as playing MP3 or video files. There's no point in having a second port if it lacks the same capabilities as the first.

Other PDAs, such as the Sharp Zaurus and Dell Axim X5, try to give users as many options as possible by incorporating SmartMedia, CompactFlash and often wireless Bluetooth or IEEE 802.11b capabilities. So many different ports on a PDA make it bulkier, heavier and uglier. The Zaurus and Dell units looked like old portable calculators next to nifty PDAs such as the Cli'.

Life would be a lot easier and less expensive if we could all agree on one form of expansion slot for handhelds: Set a standard. My vote is for Universal Serial Bus.

USB minidrives aren't much larger than the other forms of media. They already come with up to 2G of memory capacity, have a much faster transfer rate, and are innately compatible with nearly every modern desktop or notebook PC, almost regardless of operating system.

Almost unanimous

Likewise, most digital cameras use USB ports, as do printers, monitors, scanners, hubs, backup and portable storage devices, biometric devices, keyboards, mice and just about any other device you can think of.

Imagine being able to connect your PDA to a USB hub that is connected to your LCD monitor, printer, mouse and keyboard. With a 480-Mbps transfer rate, you can finish that text document you started, print a copy of it, connect to the hub and e-mail the document to your boss.

I know that scenario is a bit farfetched now, because PDAs aren't fast enough to perform all those operations, and the OSes aren't yet sophisticated enough. But the next step toward those capabilities is to migrate to an established platform for transferring data, namely USB.

My proposal to make USB the PDA standard doesn't mean the end of CF or SmartMedia, either. Several companies have multislot hubs that connect to a PC via USB and can transfer data from CF, Memory Stick, MultiMedia-Card, SmartMedia and any other format over a USB connection.

For as little as $100 you can attach an external 20G hard drive to your PDA of the future.

With abundant storage and faster transfer rates, the only thing missing is the ability to expand the system RAM on these devices. Then we'll see handhelds begin to replace notebooks.

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