Cool Tools: USB Desktop Peripherals and Devices

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This month, we depart from our normal coverage of key IT technologies to focus on how interesting devices are plugging into business and home desktops nowadays. Let’s explore the many kinds of accessories and gadgets that the Universal Serial Bus (USB) makes possible for modern desktop PCs, notebooks and laptops.

Understanding USB
Though there are many built-in interfaces that also work to link computers to all kinds of hardware—such as older interfaces like RS-232, parallel printer connections and various forms of slower serial interfaces for a mouse and keyboard—USB has zoomed to the top of the list of most popular standard interfaces. Today, you’ll find it used for everything from mouse and keyboard links to outboard hard disks, network interfaces, so-called pen drives (which use USB and a flash memory card to store data) and more.

Basically, USB is a plug-and-play interface that enables computers to recognize and establish links to add-on devices, such as audio players, pointing devices (not just mice, but trackballs, joysticks and so forth), keyboards, scanners, printers, telephones and many types of storage devices. Because USB device drivers know how to register and describe the devices they service to the computers to which they attach, you can usually plug in a new device without requiring a special adapter card or driver software to enable the PC and the device to acknowledge each other.

The USB standard resulted from a joint development project that involved vendors like Compaq, HP, IBM, Lucent, Intel, Microsoft, Philips and NEC. This technology is freely available to computer and device vendors, so they can leverage existing code and driver technology without incurring royalty fees. The most current version is USB 2.0, which supports data speeds up to 480 Mbps. Windows has incorporated USB drivers since 1996, and they are built into Windows 98 and all later versions. USB works well for most types of peripheral devices, including audio, video, networking, storage and more.

Laundry List: Leading USB Devices
USB really covers the gamut of possible applications and uses. But there are USBs that are more likely to be of use to home and office workers, especially those who must travel with laptops and other gear to take work on the road. Though there are many other categories of potential USB link-ups and gear, the following types of items can deliver functionality that’s helpful, if not essential. (The most obvious items—namely keyboards and pointing devices—are not included here, since everybody already knows about and uses them.)

USB devices are available that permit PCs to be used as IP telephones. The combination of a USB headset (with earphones and a microphone) and so-called “softphone” software permits travelers to access IP phone service provider servers or Web sites, and to dial or receive calls, handle voicemail, leave messages and do anything that might ordinarily be done with a private telephone system. Numerous free softphone clients are readily available on the Internet, and many IP phone service providers make clients available to their customers at no charge. As long as your notebook or laptop can access the Internet at a reasonable speed (10 Mbps or faster is recommended), softphone software and a good headset make carrying a phone more a convenience than a necessity. As an added bonus, state-of-the-art headsets offer great audio fidelity for listening to music stored on your PC.

For those who do carry cell phones and need the occasional charge, you also can purchase USB-attached cell phone chargers. These devices plug into a PC or notebook and grab DC power to recharge cell phone batteries. This isn’t necessarily a mission-critical use for USB, but can be convenient for those who spend too much time with a cell phone glued to their ears.

Many USB devices offer additional storage for computers of all kinds. Compact flash drives, for example, integrate a flash memory card and USB interface, and emulate drives for Windows and other operating systems. Capacities of up to 1 GB are now surprisingly affordable, with recent prices for 1 GB hovering in the $70 to $80 range. Many vendors now give 16 or 32 MB flash drives away to distribute their software rather than using CDs or diskettes. Some vendors even offer USB drives of this type that use 1-inch form-factor hard disks rather than memory cards of some kind to deliver up to 2 GB of storage in this small, convenient and highly portable format.

For larger storage volumes, many vendors—including well-known storage providers like Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital and Iomega—offer external hard disks that provide up to 400 GB of disk space, typically for less than $300. Most of these devices incorporate standard 3.5-inch form-factor EIDE or ATA drives. Many support both high-speed USB 2.0 and Firewire (IEEE 1394) interfaces, so they run as fast as locally attached drives. Some enclosures include additional USB ports so they also can act as USB hubs (or accommodate other external drives). Many vendors bundle backup software with these drives because they’re frequently used for backing systems up. Smaller form-factor drives of this type also are available—usually known as portable USB drives—specifically to make extra storage and easy backup possible for notebook and laptop users.

Those who seek to maximize their return on hardware expenses can save money by buying bare 3.5-inch EIDE or ATA drives (now available in sizes up to 400 GB, with a 200 GB drive typically available for around $100), purchasing their own external harddrive enclosures (generally available for between $40 and $80) and assembling them on their own. If you can use a screwdriver, know how to snap disk-drive cables together and can follow simple instructions, you can save up to 50 percent off the cost of an equivalent preassembled external USB drive.

USB makes everything from MP3 and other personal music players to high-end external sound cards and interfaces accessible to PCs and laptops. This kind of capability is especially useful for small form-factor PCs, notebooks and laptops, where built-in audio may not be good enough for some needs or situations, but where there’s no room (or interfaces) for adding internal sound cards. It’s even possible to buy special interface devices that attach to a PC through USB and into entertainment systems using optical, RCA or S-Video connections.

Video and Photos
Many digital video cameras and most digital cameras use USB to move photos or movies from the capture device (the camera) to a storage and editing device (the PC). Where digital cameras, music players or other devices that use compact solid-state memory cards are concerned, it’s also possible to purchase USB card readers as well. To get photos from your camera to your PC, remove the memory card from the camera, plug it into the reader and use your local file system to copy the image files from the card to a hard drive (or vice versa) and to delete unwanted photos from the card before returning it back to the camera. Six-in-one readers are commonly available for less than $10, and a 16-in-one reader costs less than $20. (A six-in-one reader can handle six different types of memory cards or sticks, whereas a 16-in-one reader handles 16 types, or nearly every such type currently available.)

Networking and Internet Links
There are lots of ways to network PCs using USB. Both wired and wireless USB-based network interfaces for various versions of Ethernet are available, including 10/100 wired Ethernet, various forms of 802.11 (b and g are the most common, at 11 and 54 Mbps respectively) and even wired or fiber-optic Gigabit Ethernet link-ups. Lots of Internet appliances (which often combine hook-ups for DSL and cable modem Internet links with wired or wireless networ

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