USB. It's worth what you pay.

Originally published 2001 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 06-Aug-2013.


USB. Ain't it great? Plug-and-go, hot-swap, works on any computer with a USB port, highly expandable, decently fast... what's not to like?

That was a rhetorical question. Put away those lists.

USB, in the real world, is actually one of those things that pretty much works most of the time for a large number of people. On a good day.

This is something that many computer users - on PCs and on Macs - discover by painful trial and error, after purchasing various USB-capable kit from a salesthing whose spiel sounds pretty much like my first paragraph, above.

Sometimes it's drivers that are the problem. There are lots of USB gizmoes that only work on a Windows PC. All they need to make 'em fly on a Mac, Linux box, BeOS machine or what-have-you is a little bit of software which suffers from a mild case of nonexistence.

There are also lots of Windows-only USB gizmoes that only work on one flavour of Windows. Never mind Windows 95 Release Seven Super Pack-In OEM Highly Decorated Epsilon Veeblefetzer Edition, which was the first Windows to support USB semi-properly. Also never mind Windows NT 4, which can sorta-kinda support some USB devices with special third party software.

No, we're talking here about Win98, WinME, Win2000 and WinXP. You can find USB gadgetry that'll only work with one or two of them. But which commonly has a driver that merrily pretends to install on other Windows flavours.

Things are getting better in that department, though. I've got a CompactFlash memory card reader that works as a USB Mass Storage Device. That means you only need to install a driver for it at all if you're using Win98. On WinME, Win2000, WinXP and USB-capable Macs, you just plug the thing in and it works.

Well, it sort of works.

The computer I'm using at the moment is pretty close to fine as far as USB gear goes, but my four-port powered USB hub causes the PC to have a conniption over the CompactFlash card reader, if that's what I plug it into. Apropos of nothing, there's a temporarily-frozen mouse pointer and errors to the effect of "Card reader? What card reader! You've unplugged it! Why did you unplug it?! Bad user! Bad, BAD user!"

The thing's still plugged in, of course. But now it's stopped working until I genuinely unplug it and replug it. Or plug it into one of the motherboard USB ports directly.

I'm pretty sure the phase of the moon has nothing to do with this. I haven't ruled out the influence of other astronomical bodies, though.

There are a great many things that can cause PC USB subsystems to behave in whimsical abstract ways. Often, crummy motherboard hardware, or crummy OS drivers for perfectly-all-right motherboard hardware, have something to do with it. Hours of fun can be had in the support forums, knowledge bases and newsgroups, hunting for the Holy Driver Patch File of Antioch.

Some computers that seem to have USB problems actually just have USB power supply problems. Plug a self-powered hub into one of their ports, and all the rest of your USB kit into the hub, and everything's fine. But that ain't the way it works on this system, buddy, as mentioned above.

If fiddling with hubs doesn't help, the quick, dirty and not-very-expensive way to solve the problem is to disable the motherboard USB root hub in the BIOS setup - or just use it with whatever devices turn out to work with it - and buy a separate USB card for a PCI slot. This violates the no-screwdriver promise of USB, but the cards are cheap enough and give you two or four ports which, generally speaking, Just Work in exactly the way that USB's meant to.

Don't all you brand-name-computer owners start getting smug about this, by the way. Plenty of rounded-corners pastel-box nancy-boy brand-name machines have bizarre USB faults, too, and leave their users waiting until Windows has loaded before they plug in their webcam, or flashing the BIOS over and over to try to find the One Golden Version that'll make the mouse stop freezing at random moments, or offering up a prayer to the Goat With A Thousand Young before they plug in their handheld's USB sync cable.

But all this is SO much better than it used to be.

Because in the olden days, laddie, we didn't have USB.

We had serial connections, for slow devices. They weren't too annoying, on the whole, provided you didn't have to wrestle for eight hours with some insane bar-code reader that turned out to want seven data bits, full parity, one-point-five stop bits and a sprig of parsley.

For expensive fast devices, we had SCSI. That was usually OK, too, as long as you never had to deal with early Macintosh hardware that looked like a SCSI duck, quacked like a SCSI duck, but was actually a hairy-nosed wombat with tentacles. When normal SCSI gear went weird, just fiddling with everything's ID numbers often solved the problem, for no sane reason.

For cheap fast devices, though, we had parallel.

I'm pretty sure that was bad, for some reason.

But the shock therapy's blanked out all memory of it, I'm afraid.

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