ISSUE 497: New economy- May 4 1999
The high-tech office
Taking advantage of built-in USB connections
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
Bus -- on your computer.
means PC owners have to hunt down support
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
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
now and in the future. New blue and white G3 desktops also use USB,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
scanner, modem and network card all needed to get plugged in
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
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
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
At Comdex last fall, a record was set with 111
and gadgets, though I wonder how anyone could find the computer among
the tangle of wires.
I tried an Entrega USB-parallel converted
(distributed in Canada
by Keating Technologies -- www.keating.com). It costs
$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.
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
bit of technology that works as advertised. It only works with
You can't use it with parallel port drives or scanners, but it's much
than opening up the computer's case to install an additional printer
(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
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
for 1,600 models of PC printers. Check Infowave's Web site (www.
infowave.com) to see whether your model is