PC standard meets the
need for speed
by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business
Issue #649 April 2- 8, 2002; High Tech Office column
Heard about the bus wars? No, not transit strikes with
outside councillors' front lawns.
This bus refers to the way you plug stuff into your
computer. Not long
ago, Macs used the SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") bus, letting them connect
up to seven scanners, external hard drives, CD drives and more.
Most PC users either plugged a single device into
their printer port,
pushing this antique technology beyond what it was designed to do, or
up their computer's case to plug in an add-on card, fussing with
jumpers and switches.
Around 1998, things got better. Both Macs and PCs
adopted USB, the Universal
It is a single standard that let users simply plug
gadgets in, and let
the computer take care of the details. A wide range of devices appeared
taking advantage of the ease and universality of USB: digital cameras,
music players, CD burners, scanners, printers, network adapters, and
But as mass transit, USB is just too slow.
Rated at 12 MB/sec, 10 times as fast as the old
printer port, USB seemed
pretty fast at first. But a network adapter can use up all that
Add other devices and everything grinds to a halt. And the demands of
hardware devices made this bandwidth seem pretty pokey. External 4x USB
CD burners take half an hour to burn a disk compared to five minutes or
so for newer 24x built-in burners. It can take several hours to load
on to the built-in hard drive of a USB MP3 music player.
Recent Macs have a better idea.
Along with USB, they all come equipped with a Firewire
as IEEE1394) port, shooting data along the bus at up to 400 MB/sec,
33 times as fast as USB and fast enough for full speed hard drives and
CD burners. Most digital camcorders come with Firewire built-in, making
it easy to send video clips to a computer for editing.
Apple developed this computer equivalent of
rapid transit. PC manufacturers have been slow to adopt it,
hasn't built it into their widely used motherboards. Sony
it in most of its models, under the name "iLink," and it can be found
some high-end PC notebooks. But other PC users have to buy a $50-100
card to make use of Firewire gadgets.
Instead, starting to appear on the PC side of the
fence is USB 2.0.
Promoted by Intel, at 480 MB/sec this fast bus promises the same speed
as Firewire. Unlike Firewire, it's compatible with existing USB 1.1
While they won't run any faster plugged into the new
bus, you can mix
new fast USB gadgets with older slower ones. You can even plug a new
2.0 device into an old USB port, though it will only work in slow
High speed USB 2.0 drives and other gadgets are just
starting to show
In many cases, these are the same devices already
released in Firewire
versions. Expect to see USB 2.0 ports built into new PCs "any day now,"
while add-on cards are available now. Though many devices will come in
both flavours, expect digital cameras to remain Firewire-only.
For maximum flexibility, take a look at Adaptec's
add-in board ($180). On a single PCI card, it sports four USB 2.0 and
Firewire ports, along with drivers, software for video and DVD editing,
and a Firewire cable. It's compatible with most recent desktop PCs and
Mac towers. If you want to bring your computer up to speed to take
of all of the latest high speed devices without being forced to take
in this bus war, it's the best way to go.