Beware tricks of the technology trade

    by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #677  October 15, 2002 High Tech Office  column

    When you're trying to make decisions about technology, clear and understandable information is vital. It's too bad it's often hard to get.

    Take USB 1.1, the universal serial bus. As the name suggests, it's been universal on both PCs and Macs since about 1998. Its speed was a big step up from the serial and parallel ports it replaced and works well for printers, digital cameras, scanners, and many other devices. But the 12-MB-a-second speed is just too slow. CD-burners that otherwise speed along at 32 times or 40 times are limited to a pokey four times when connected via USB. And USB can take hours to fill the hard drive in an MP3 jukebox.

    An alternative standard, Firewire, offers a speedier 400-MB a second bandwidth and has become standard on Macs but slow to catch on with PC manufacturers. Instead, there is a new, faster version of USB: USB 2.0. It promises Firewire-like speeds for new devices, while (unlike Firewire), allowing users to continue to use their older USB devices, though only at the old speed.

    The USB Implementers Forum, however, is urging companies to drop their use of the terms USB 1.1 and USB 2.0. Instead, the forum is promoting the use of two nearly identical logos for "Certified USB" devices. The newer, faster standard will be referred to as "USB High Speed."

    Assuming (probably correctly) that no one would want to buy something labelled "USB Low Speed," devices running at the old speed are now to be designated "USB Full Speed." Not a lie -- after all, even a snail can move full-speed ahead. Just remember that full speed is not high speed.

    It's also important to know what you're getting with Microsoft's new Windows XP Service Pack 1 (also known as SP1). In many respects, the free 133-MB download (also obtainable on CD for a reasonable shipping fee) is an important release. It bundles together the many security fixes and new device drivers for this popular Microsoft product. Security guru Steve Gibson claims it also fixes a critical but little-known vulnerability in the operating system.

    Bug fixes aren't all you get with SP1, however. Microsoft bundles programs with its operating systems: the Internet Explorer browser, Outlook Express e-mail, Windows Media Player, Windows Messenger. This practice has been criticized by the makers of competitive products like the Netscape browser and Real Player and in Microsoft's ongoing antitrust battles.

    The one new icon that appears after installing SP1 is labelled "set program access and defaults." At first glance, SPI appears to let users replace Microsoft's bundled software with those of its competitors, as demanded by the U.S. Department of Justice. However, new versions of software will need to be written to take advantage of this. As of now, virtually none of Microsoft's competitors show up as alternatives even if they're already installed on your computer.

    And if you use this tool to turn off some of Microsoft's add-ins, they aren't removed from your system. They still lurk around, taking up drive space and acting as potential security risks.

    By the way, if your copy of Windows XP was installed using one of several popular pirated serial numbers, SP1 will refuse to install.

    In Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, a song complains that, "Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream." There is nothing wrong with skim milk if that's what you're expecting. Just don't expect to be getting anything more with either USB Full Speed or Windows XP Service Pack 1.

    Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator and computer specialist. He can be reached at

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