Old Macs can get connected via USB

Card: There's a cheap, simple solution to the hardware woes of pre-iMac Apple users.

March 20, 2000|By David Zeiler | David Zeiler,Sun Staff

Owners of Macs predating the iMac may be feeling left behind by the new hardware standards Apple has adopted in recent years, particularly the replacement of the serial and Apple Desktop Bus ports with Universal Serial Bus ports.

USB is a faster, more reliable and more versatile way of connecting all sorts of peripheral devices to a computer (today's Windows PCs include USB ports, too). Where old serial ports generally handled only printers and modems, USB can also handle scanners, game controllers, keyboards, hard drives, cameras and other gadgets.

Because USB hardware works with Macs and PCs, a Mac software driver is all you need to use a given device. Since many makers of USB devices include a Mac driver, Mac owners today have a vastly larger selection of add-on products than they did when only Mac-specific hardware would do.

Since the ascent of USB devices, it's become increasingly difficult to find devices that use the old Mac serial ports, such as printers and modems.

Face it, serial is a dead Mac technology. Even if you can find them, devices with serial ports can't connect to new Macs. And when it comes time to replace your old Mac you wouldn't want to be stuck with a deskful of incompatible hardware. While adapters exist, devices using them don't always function properly.

The solution to this vexing situation is relatively simple and cheap: add a USB card to your Mac. If you have an available PCI slot (most pre-USB Power Macs do) and about $40, your Mac can join the USB party.

I recently put a two-port USB card in my home Mac and added several USB devices, quickly and easily.

I should note that while installing a USB card is not especially tough, those squeamish about tinkering with their Mac's innards should get a knowledgeable friend or professional to do it.

The first thing I added was a Global Village Teleport 56K FaxModem. I soon encountered my first and only significant glitch; the Mac would not recognize the modem until I downloaded and installed Apple's drivers for add-on USB cards.

Curiously, these drivers are not included on the Mac OS CD-ROMs, not even on the recent OS 9. I advise anyone adding a USB card to their Mac to fetch these drivers first (http://developer.apple.com/hardware/usb/).

Eager to explore the USB universe further, I next plugged in a Kritter -- a tiny digital video camera that's designed to clip on top of an iBook.

Minutes after installing the Mac driver and the included "ReelEyes" video software, I was making minimovies of my 2-month-old daughter. The camera also takes digital stills that you can print out or e-mail to friends. So far, so good.

One of my main reasons for seeking out USB was that I wanted to upgrade my inkjet printer. With the other two devices functioning flawlessly, I ordered a Hewlett-Packard 932C.

One of HP's newest models, the 932C is extremely quiet, the output quality is astonishing -- even on plain paper -- and it costs a mere $200 (minireview: awesome printer!). But now I've run out of USB ports -- or so it would seem.

With inexpensive hubs (about $40), you can expand a USB port to as many as 127 devices. The only thing you need to be mindful of is how each device draws its power. Some USB devices get their power from the bus itself; others, like printers, have a separate power supply that plugs into an outlet.

To be safe, buy powered hubs. That way, even if you have several USB-powered devices, the hubs should ensure each device has adequate power.

When you plug a four-port hub into one of your USB ports, you can accommodate five devices, which should be plenty for most people. If your lust for USB gadgetry should become insatiable, just keep adding hubs. USB hubs also come in seven-port versions (which cost about $70). All hubs can plug into the card or each other as needed.

Then again, if you'd rather not buy a hub, you don't have to. USB is "hot-pluggable": that is, you can plug in and unplug devices as much as you want without switching off the computer.

If you're not quite ready to replace your present Mac, but are in the market for almost any type of peripheral device, indulge your old machine with a USB card. Your Mac will thank you.

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