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ISSUE 497: New economy- May 4 1999


The high-tech office 


Taking advantage of built-in USB connections 
means PC owners have to hunt down support 

If you have a new iMac, G3 desktop or virtually any PC made since late 1996, whether you know it or not, you've got USB -- Universal Serial Bus -- on your computer. 

USB is a flat, thin connecting device that typically comes as a stack of two. Compared to older PC or Mac connecting devices, USB is designed to be simple, flexible and expandable. 

It allows for the connection of up to 127 (!) scanners, printers, drives and digital cameras sharing 12 megabits per second of bandwidth. It is 100 times faster than a serial port and 10 times faster than a parallel printer port. 

If you've got a new iMac, you're automatically using USB. Anything you connect to your iMac, even the mouse and keyboard, plugs in this way. Apple has made it clear that they see USB as the primary way to plug into Macs, now and in the future. New blue and white G3 desktops also use USB, though it's not the only way to connect to these models. 

While there are more than 100 times as many USB-equipped PCs as Macs, the USB ports have never been used on most PCs. 

Unlike Apple, whose popular iMac models simply pulled the plug on older connection technologies, PCs have added USB but retained old-style parallel and serial ports along with internal ISA-bus slots. These technologies date back to the 1983 IBM AT. 

Unlike iMac owners, PC owners could keep using their old-style devices, so that's what they did. 

PC owners use the parallel printer port for things it was never designed for -- scanners, tape drives, Zip drives and more. But the parallel port is slow and can't handle more than a couple of gadgets at a time. 

While PCs have had USB ports for years, operating system support has lagged behind. 

There's an add-on for Windows 95, but it was only with last year's Windows 98 that Microsoft produced an operating system designed for USB. Microsoft's higher-end NT 4 still doesn't support USB. 

Now, with more and more gizmos and gadgets to connect, PC owners are increasingly finding they can no longer rely on the old methods of connecting. 

My new PC, for example, came with the standard collection of slots and ports and within a few months they were all full. The Zip drive, tape drive, scanner, modem and network card all needed to get plugged in somewhere. 

In the PC's antique design, most devices need what's called an IRQ number, which is like a ticket to get the processor's attention. These are also limited. On my system, there are none left for new devices. I didn't want to get rid of any of my gadgets, but I just got a second printer. 

USB to the rescue. 

Spurred on by the needs of the iMac market, there are now more than 300 USB devices: scanners, printers, modems, speakers and more. 

There are also a range of converters that allow users with old-style parallel, serial, even SCSI devices, to connect to their computers via the new-age USB ports. 

While SCSI is much faster than USB, it is limited to a chain of seven devices and can be more difficult to configure than USB. 

By the way, no one has actually connected 127 USB devices to a single computer. 

At Comdex last fall, a record was set with 111 assorted gizmos and gadgets, though I wonder how anyone could find the computer among all the tangle of wires. 

I tried an Entrega USB-parallel converted (distributed in Canada by Keating Technologies -- It costs about $80 and uses a standard USB cable, along with a converter that's about the size of a pack of cards which plugs into the port on the printer. It draws power, from the computer, along the USB line. 

A little bit of software lets the computer see it as an imaginary printer port. The Entrega USB-parallel is an effective, easy-to-install and useful bit of technology that works as advertised. It only works with printers. You can't use it with parallel port drives or scanners, but it's much easier than opening up the computer's case to install an additional printer port (anyway, my computer had no free slots). 

Entrega makes a range of USB connection devices, including serial to USB converters for modems and digital cameras, and hubs. Since 
the typical PC or Mac has only two USB plugs, you need hubs to connect additional gizmos, even if you don't expect to plug in anywhere near 111 devices. They also make adapters to add USB to older computers. 

iMac owners who want to connect to a PC-style parallel printer, in most cases, also need a Mac printer driver. They might want to check with Burnaby's Infowave. They make a PowerPrint USB that retails for about $140. It includes a cable and converter similar to Entrega's, plus Mac drivers for 1,600 models of PC printers. Check Infowave's Web site (www. to see whether your model is supported. * 

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