When I decided to hook up a laptop computer to my home network, I figured on spending $80 or $90 for an Ethernet PC card adapter that would fit into a slot on the side of my machine. These gadgets are not only expensive, but notoriously difficult to get working, and I wasn't looking forward to the chore.
But when I got to the store I noticed an external USB network adapter on sale for only $35. True, it wouldn't slide neatly into my laptop, but it was smaller than a deck of cards and wouldn't be hard to tote around. I could also use it with the desktop computers I try out from time to time.
I plugged the adapter into my laptop's USB port, installed the driver software from a floppy disk and was on the network within five minutes. Considering that networking is at best 80 percent science and 20 percent voodoo, I was impressed. After four years, USB may be living up to its promise of making computers easier to use.
If you're not into geekspeak, USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, a relatively new communications standard for the circuitry that connects PCs to printers, scanners, mice, digital cameras, disk drives, monitors, speakers, modems and even networks.
Like many improvements, the USB standard grew out of frustration. From the dawn of microcomputing in the early 1980s, computer makers used different electrical standards to connect different peripherals. IBM-compatibles used serial ports for modems and mice, and parallel ports for printers, scanners and other gadgets. Apple used a different type of serial port for printers and Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI) ports for disk drives and scanners.
AS a result, hardware makers had to employ too many different types of circuitry and build separate hardware for Macs and PCs.
A consortium of manufacturers led by Intel created the USB standard to bring order and give hardware makers a single interface for their gadgets. As a communications system, USB has several advantages over the old technology. It's relatively fast - theoretically, 12 megabits per second. It allows for two-way communication, which is possible with a parallel port but doesn't work well. USB devices are also "hot-swappable," which means you can plug them in or disconnect them while your computer is running.
More important, a single USB port can control up to 127 different gadgets by using one or more "hubs." A hub works on the same principle as an electric power strip - it plugs into the computer's USB port and allows you to hook up several devices at once.
Small, flat USB ports showed up on PCs as early as 1996, but early versions of Windows 95 didn't support them and the hardware was balky enough to discourage hardware makers from developing USB models.
Things began to change in 1998, when Apple installed USB ports in its new Macs. That got the attention of printer makers who could now sell one piece of hardware to run on both Macs and PCs. Microsoft also improved USB support in Windows 98. As a result, according to Intel's figures, more than 1,000 devices have received USB certification so far, and some PC makers have introduced low-cost computers that eliminate the old serial and parallel ports altogether.
USB devices are still far from perfect. For example, when you install some USB peripherals, you're supposed to plug the gadget into your computer first and then wait for Windows to ask you to insert the disk with the driver software. Others require you to install the software, restart your computer, and then plug in the hardware. Do it in the wrong order and the gadget may not work. For that reason, you should always read the instructions that come with a USB printer, modem or scanner before you start.
Hubs are another sticky point. While the USB port supplies enough electricity to power simple devices such as mice or keyboards, there may not be enough juice to support multiple gadgets. As a result, many hubs come with transformers that plug into a wall outlet so they can provide enough power for four or five devices.
I once spent three frustrating hours trying to install a device that reads the Compact Flash memory cards used by digital cameras and music players. I e-mailed the tech support department and got a message telling me that the reader freaks out when plugged into a powered hub. To get it to work, I'd have to plug it directly into the second USB slot on my PC.
Did they mention that in the instructions? Naaah. Luckily, I had a free USB slot, but if you wind up with two gadgets like that, you may not be able to use a hub at all. If they haven't dragged you off to the padded cell first.
These glitches aside, some gadgets work better with a USB connection than others. From my experience, printers and scanners do just fine, as do external Zip drives, SuperDisks, portable music players and digital cameras. But USB mice, for some reason, tend to be jumpy. While simple video cameras designed for grabbing Web shots are okay, USB ports don't have enough bandwidth for full-speed video capture or conferencing. Likewise, I've had trouble with USB-based external CD writers, which require an unbroken stream of high-speed data to make error-free disks.
Overall, however, the USB standard has made it easier to hook things up, and the outlook is even better for the future. The industry recently settled on a standard for USB 2.0, which promises to be 12 times as fast as existing USB connections and will be compatible with existing USB devices. The first PCs and devices that support USB 2.0 should appear next year.
Meanwhile, Apple is touting a new, high-speed connection called Firewire in new Macs along with USB ports. Unlike USB ports, Firewire ports are fast enough to handle the output from the latest digital video cameras, and they're available for PCs through add-on circuit cards. Although it's not likely to supplant USB, Firewire will probably become the standard connection for high-speed multimedia applications.