New PC standard meets the need for speed 

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #649 April 2- 8, 2002; High Tech Office column

Heard about the bus wars? No, not transit strikes with demonstrators 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 opened up their computer's case to plug in an add-on card, fussing with microscopic jumpers and switches. 

Around 1998, things got better. Both Macs and PCs adopted USB, the Universal Serial Bus. 

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 more. 

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 bandwidth. Add other devices and everything grinds to a halt. And the demands of newer 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 songs 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 (officially known as IEEE1394) port, shooting data along the bus at up to 400 MB/sec, some 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, perhaps because Intel hasn't built it into their widely used motherboards. Sony includes it in most of its models, under the name "iLink," and it can be found on some high-end PC notebooks. But other PC users have to buy a $50-100 add-on 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 devices. 

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 USB 2.0 device into an old USB port, though it will only work in slow motion. 

High speed USB 2.0 drives and other gadgets are just starting to show up. 

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 Duo Connect add-in board ($180). On a single PCI card, it sports four USB 2.0 and three 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 advantage of all of the latest high speed devices without being forced to take sides in this bus war, it's the best way to go. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan