USB offers safest port in storms of change; Peripherals: Need a printer or scanner for your new computer? These two work well.


As more and more computer peripherals are released that use a Universal Serial Bus, or USB, port, I am more and more impressed with the technology.

I've sworn off using the poky serial and cantankerous parallel ports forever. So should you.

As the year goes on, you'll see more computers that don't even have these "legacy" connections. There are quite a few already, including Dell Computer Corp.'s Web PC and Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPaq and Presario EZ 2200. Folks who buy these computers will need to get printers, scanners and other components that have a USB connection. Their older devices will be useless.

If you're thinking of going legacy-free, as it's called, here is a pair of good choices for handling printing and scanning chores:

Epson Stylus Color 860, $250, Epson America: While it's not quite as thrilling as the competition in the graphics card arena, there's a quiet little war being fought in the printer world.

For some time, Epson had the richest colors and impressive speed, although it achieved this speed in a noisy fashion: Its printers grunted and snorted like a caged bull. Hewlett-Packard's print quality was a little better, but its consumer printers were slower.

Last year, though, HP improved its speed so its printers match and even outdo Epson's.

And the HP printers are whisper-quiet. The color saturation also was improved, so the HP printer output looked much richer.

Now it's Epson's turn. It has begun to release its next generation of inkjet printers. These models are faster than before, with gorgeous quality, and they're much quieter.

The Stylus Color 860 is aimed at businesses, but it's an excellent printer for general home use. It easily has the best photo-quality output I've seen, and gets it in your hands quickly.

The Epson has a resolution of 1,440 by 720 dots per inch, and reportedly prints in black-and-white at 9.5 pages per minute, a figure that roughly matched my tests. The spec sheet says it can achieve seven pages per minute in photo-color mode, but I got about half that. Still, being able to generate a large image in photo-realistic mode at 3.5 pages per minute is impressive.

It will connect to your computer using a USB or parallel port.

Scanjet 5300c, $299, Hewlett-Packard: When you first take the ScanJet 5300c out of its box, you'll probably think, "Cool! This must be a legal-sized scanner!"

But no. Only the case is legal-sized; the scanning window handles only 8-inch-by-11-inch documents. Better have spare desk space available, because this model hogs serious real estate.

This is an update of HP's 5200 scanner series, one of its most popular for consumers who want high-quality scans. If you've been laboring under a parallel port-based scanner that you bought for $150 or less and feel the need to upgrade, this is an excellent choice.

The 5300c borrows an idea from Visioneer's line of One-Touch scanners, putting buttons on the front of the device for specific purposes. There's a button for scanning to an e-mail program, to a fax machine, to make a printed copy and so on.

The scanner can handle resolutions up to 1,200 dots per inch via hardware, then can use software to achieve 9,600 dots per inch. Its color scans are beautiful.

HP's newest scanners have a nifty new feature that tries to tell the difference between text and images on a page. When passing the scan on to an optical character recognition, or OCR program, this allows the page to keep its layout intact when being moved into word processing software.

The scanning process is not quite as fast as that of some scanners I've tested, particularly Visioneer's One-Touch 8600. And its drivers are definitely not as friendly -- they load slowly, and they don't allow for much tweaking of an image before it's passed on to the receiving program.

This scanner can be used with a parallel port, but, as with Epson's printer, you lose speed and reliability.

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