- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2000

I'd said this here about a year ago; now it's come to pass the Universal Serial Bus, or USB, is a computing advance that is not only timely, but indispensable.

This hit home the other day as I attempted on a rather quick basis to convert an Apple Computer iBook into a more functional "desktop" system; i.e., one to which a printer, larger keyboard, external mouse, scanner, personal digital assistant and other devices could be connected.

In the "old" days of computing, users had a serial port, a parallel printer port, and that was about it. Other connectors came and went, such as game ports to which joysticks and other devices could be connected. Sound cards featured connectors for analog speakers, microphones and other input/ output devices.

Some notebook computers included video in/out connectors that could hook up to a VCR or camcorder. (Today, such video connections, and those for high bandwidth devices such as external hard disk drives, can be handled by the IEEE 1394 standard, also known as "FireWire." Many desktop PCs from Compaq, Sony and Apple feature this connector, as do some notebooks.)

But for many devices, the USB port is the way to go. It's simple, easy and, in fact, almost foolproof. My little Mac adventure was a good example. Since the iBook has but one USB port, connecting those five different items would mean either swapping them out, one after the other, or, perhaps, using up the two additional USB ports found on the USB keyboard. Either way, one device or another would be left out.

The other option was to connect a device known as a USB "hub" to the computer. I had one on hand from Belkin Components, Compton, Calif. (www.belkin.com). This particular model, the ExpressBus, is no longer being sold by the firm things change fast in the computer business but the company sells other models between $79.99 and $99.99 which perform similar functions.

Other makers are offering four port hubs for under $30 at outlets such as CompUSA and Costco. These devices are described as working with both PC and Macintosh platforms.

All it took was installation of the Belkin hub, connection of the power supply and a reboot of the Mac for all seven ports on the ExpressBus device to become active. Without the power supply, the hub would still work USB devices can and often do draw power from the computer's circuitry But only four USB ports would then be available. Adding the AC power also made more electricity available for the various USB devices.

No software installation was needed, since my iBook's operating system, Macintosh OS 9, was able to "recognize" the USB system without problem. Similar recognition comes easily on Windows systems, either Windows 98 or the new Windows ME.

The devices hooked up and worked without a hitch: I was able to synchronize a PDA, use the scanner and print, all quickly and easily. I could even use more than one USB device at a time without conflict. It was only later in the day that I could add the USB-style keyboard, which increased my total number of USB ports to nine. Those two extra ports worked well, also.

In short, I went from having just a portable computer with no mouse, a somewhat limited keyboard (no separate function keys, no separate numeric keypad) to pretty much a desktop replacement layout that offered as much functionality as a desktop system. What's more, I could disconnect all these components and take my computer on the road by merely disconnecting one USB hub, leaving all the devices in place awaiting my return.

Doing the same thing with other connecting methods would take longer and could lead to device conflicts. By contrast, the USB standard seems to support a rather large number of devices connected to one computer. The folks behind USB Intel and a host of other makers are working to increase the speed and capability of the connection; devices with a new, faster, USB 2.0 specification are due next year.

For the computer user, it's worth making sure that USB is a part of your computer. Older systems, which can be upgraded to either Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows ME or, in the case of Macs, OS 8.6 or higher, should be able to add a USB card offering one or two points to which a hub or two can then be connected.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; e-mail MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.markkellner.com.

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