Usb 2

As the upgrade hits markets, get ready for faster transfers of data

October 08, 2001|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

USB 2.0 is a new and better way to plug devices into a personal computer - one of those dry technical improvements that's worth understanding because it will make life just a little bit easier.

PCs by themselves aren't especially useful. Almost all their value comes from things we connect to them, such as phone lines or network cables for reaching the Internet; printers; speakers; digital cameras and much more.

The original version of the Universal Serial Bus, known as USB 1.1, started appearing about four years ago. USB ports are universal on new Windows and Macintosh computers.

USB was a huge improvement from what came before, especially the slow and unreliable serial and parallel ports on Windows PCs. All kinds of devices - from printers and keyboards to digital cameras and MP3 players - are easier to install and run faster with USB.

USB 1.1 moves data as fast as 12 megabits per second (Mbps). That's more than enough for many devices, but some - such as scanners, camcorders, external hard drives and external CD drives - benefit greatly from more speed.

So, an industry group called the USB Implementers Forum ( has created USB 2.0 as a second-generation standard. The group, which created USB 1.1, comprises such companies as Miscrosoft Corp., Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Co.

USB 2.0 is 40 times faster than its predecessor and is capable of moving data at a blinding 480 Mbps.

The first new PCs equipped with USB 2.0 will probably arrive late this year, although USB 2.0 won't be common on new machines until the middle of next year. USB 2.0 add-in cards - a circuit board with USB 2.0 ports that users install in their PC - are available from several vendors for about $50.

And the first USB 2.0 devices are just arriving in stores, identified by a red-and-blue logo: "Hi-Speed Certified USB."

Meanwhile, there is an entrenched competitor: IEEE 1394, backed by a group called the 1394 Trade Association (

Apple Computer developed 1394 in the mid-1990s and gave it the trademarked name FireWire. The other major backer is Sony, using the i.Link name.

With 1394, data moves as fast as 400 Mbps, only slightly slower than USB 2.0. Apple and Sony put 1394 ports on all their computers; a few other manufacturers, notably Compaq, put 1394 on a few high-end models. Add-in cards are about $50.

On the device side, 1394 has become standard on digital video (DV) camcorders. All DV camcorders come with 1394 ports, allowing video images to be flawlessly and quickly transferred into a 1394-equipped computer.

But 1394 has been slow to catch on elsewhere. There are a few 1394 scanners, external hard drives and external CD drives on the market, but they aren't selling in big numbers.

That leaves an opening for USB 2.0, heavily backed by chip-maker Intel.

As far as I can tell, 1394 and USB 2.0 are roughly equal at the technical level - the top data speeds are close enough to not be an issue, and the cost of adding either to a new computer is also comparable.

But USB 2.0 has a huge marketing advantage. Intel doesn't just make the microprocessors at the heart of Windows PCs, it also makes a number of subsidiary chips that handle support functions.

By the middle of 2002, Intel will be building USB 2.0 into those subsidiary chips rather than the older USB 1.1; Intel rivals such as Advanced Micro Devices are expected to do the same thing.

At that point, all new Windows PCs will come with USB 2.0 ports, most likely at no extra cost to manufacturers or consumers.

There is a small added cost to putting 1394 ports into a new PC. In the intensely competitive PC industry, manufacturers are reluctant to spend even a few extra dollars for a feature unless buyers are clamoring. So, it's unlikely 1394 will become common on most Windows PCs, at least not in the near future.

USB 2.0 has another big advantage: backward compatibility.

All USB 2.0 devices can be plugged into older USB 1.1 ports. This will limit the devices to USB 1.1 speed of 12 Mbps, but they'll still function. The reverse is also true: An older USB 1.1 device can be plugged into a USB 2.0 port. The devices won't run any faster, but they'll still function.

USB 2.0 devices also use the same cables as USB 1.1, so there's no need to buy new ones. And USB 2.0 devices can be connected through USB 1.1 hubs, although this will slow them down to USB 1.1 speeds. To get full USB 2.0 speed requires a USB 2.0 hub.

I conducted my own USB 2.0 speed test by borrowing the Maxtor Personal Storage 3000LE (, a 40-gigabyte external hard drive available in several major electronics chains for $199. I also borrowed a pre-production version of a Maxtor USB 2.0 add-in card that will ship this month or next for $49.

Installing the add-in card took only a few minutes, although users who are reluctant to crack open the case of their PC can get a local computer shop to do the job for them.

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